Changing World, Changing Minds: Understanding our emotional response to the climate emergency
By John Sharry
“Right now we are facing a manmade disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
– David Attenborough
Over the last year, the penny has begun to collectively drop about the severity of the climate emergency and biodiversity collapse that surrounds us.
This is thanks to the efforts of the extinction rebellion, the young climate strikers and heroic work ofGreta Thunberg.
So far this year we have been confronted with a worldwide heat wave, unprecedented fires in the Arctic Circle and the Amazon and record melting in Greenland’s ice sheet. And we know the situation will continue to get much worse unless transformational action is taken. As the ice melts, our cities will be flooded, as heatwaves become more common, huge tracts of land will be uninhabitable, as the climate becomes more unstable, our global food production will plummet and all around us many parts of our beautiful natural world with be lost forever. Never has the consensus of science been clearer, nor the gravity of the situation facing us so stark.
The emotional impact of existential threat posed by climate breakdown is taking its toll on people’s mental health. Health professionals such as those in the Climate Psychology Alliance report a widespread increase in “eco-anxiety” and distress directly related to what is happening to the planet. There is a growing depression and sadness about the damage already done and increased anxiety and worry about what is to come in the future. People feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problems we face, guilty about what they are not doing and many find themselves sinking into despair and hopelessness. Those connected to nature report feelings of grief and intense sadness at the ongoing destruction of the natural world as hundreds of species go extinct every year.
Whether we respond effectively to the unprecedented threat we now face will be determined not just by rational argument and science but also by how we handle our collective emotions and how we communicate our distressed feelings to one another.
Our irrational emotional response
Despite the science being clear for decades, we so far have responded abysmally to the climate breakdown that was predicted. In fact, we have rapidly made the situation exponentially worse, rapidly increasing consumption and carbon emissions as well as destroying forests, wetlands and the rest of the natural world on which we depend. How can this be? How can we be acting so irrationally?
One explanation is in how we are driven by our primitive emotions and instincts rather than by rational, thoughtful responses. The fear and terror associated with accepting the reality of climate breakdown is so great that we will do all we can to deny it. We will listen to unscientific climate sceptics because they tell us we have nothing to worry about so we can put off the fear and pain for a bit longer. We can’t bear to face the reality of just how drastically our lives and those of our children will be impacted and how much our lifestyles would have to change to give us even a small chance of mitigating the worst effects of climate breakdown.
Greta Thunberg: One of the most shocking (though not surprising) reactions to Greta Thunberg’s simple message that we should listen to science has been the attempts to ridicule her or patronise her as mentally ill. Photograph: Marc Piscotty/Getty Images
As the threat grows, so does our anger, which is some cases is misdirected at those who tell us the truth about the climate emergency. One of the most shocking (though not surprising) reactions to Greta Thunberg’s simple message that we should listen to science has been the attempts to ridicule her or patronise her as mentally ill. This is the common psychological reaction to someone communicating an uncomfortable truth – we shoot the messenger rather than listen to the message. If the messenger is ridiculed, then we don’t have to believe them and we can put off the pain of facing reality for a bit longer.
In addition, those engaged daily in the reality of climate emergency such as scientists and activists find themselves overwhelmed by the emotional impact of these threats. The gravity of the problems and the scale of the solutions needed can leave them feeling hopeless and full of despair. Many report being overwhelmed and burnt out and this can prevent them from not only continuing to effectively do their job but also disturb their mental health and daily living.
Accepting and channelling our emotions
Our understandable emotional reaction to the existential threat we face does not have to cause us to react negatively nor to disable us from responding effectively. The first step is to muster the courage to accept the reality of our situation. Rather than engaging in denial or wishful thinking, we have to bravely face our fears head on. Then we will be in a position to respond thoughtfully and to set goals to work for what is possible.
Rather than being overwhelmed by the powerful emotions that are evoked by climate breakdown, we can channel them into constructive action. We can notice our anger and rage at what is happening in the world but carefully focus this anger towards creating the changes that are needed. Our anger is a rational and valid reaction to the science and can move us out of despair and inertia so we can work for a better world.
Rather than denying our grief and sadness at the loss of the natural world, we can also be inspired to appreciate the beauty of what is around us. Then we can take responsibility for the damage we have done and redouble efforts to preserve what is left.
Rather than fearing the loss of our consumerist lifestyles, we can realise that there is a simpler and fairer sustainable life to be lived that is more connected to our families and local communities. But we have to be brave to move towards it.
Finally, the most important step is to begin to have these honest conversations with each other. Rather than feeling alone in our eco-anxiety, it is time to reach out to each other for support.
Then there is real hope for change.
– This is the first article in the Changing World, Changing Minds series which explores our emotional response to the climate emergency and biodiversity collapse that surrounds us. Next week, I will consider in more detail the problem of denial and how it can be transformed through acceptance.
How the worst-case climate scenario will play out, decade by decade, in St. Louis, San Francisco, and Houston.
Climate change is already here.
It’s not something that can simplybe ignoredby cable news ordismissedby sitting US senators in a Twitter joke.
Nor is it a fantastical scenario likeThe Day After Tomorrowor2012that starts with a single crack in the Arctic ice shelf or earthquake tearing through Los Angeles, and results, a few weeks or years later, in the end of life on Earth as we know it.
But these early omens of our unstable, hot, wet future can be difficult to wrap our heads around. So Teen Vogue partnered with the team at the nonprofit news service Nexus Media, who developed a timeline predicting how climate change could affect three major US cities over the course of the 21st century. Climate change will look different in different places across the world, but we chose three places with distinct geographic concerns and climate vulnerabilities—to ground all the ominous statistics and headlines in a real sense of place. These are cities you may have visited, or where you may have family, or where you may even live.
According to the research Nexus compiled, St. Louis will see flooding, extreme heat, severe rainfall, and drought in the surrounding farmland. In Houston, on the Gulf of Mexico, hurricanes will grow more destructive and temperatures will soar. San Francisco will witness rising sea levels, fierce wildfires, and extreme drought.
This timeline is based on interviews with a dozen climate experts and a review of several dozen scientific studies. The projections assume an average sea level rise ofgsix feet by 2100—a little more in some places, and less in others—and thebusiness-as-usual emissions scenario, which assumes that we will continue to pollute and use fossil fuels at our current rate.
Rather than a scientific assessment, it is a rigorously researched prediction of what our future could bring unless we come together as a country and as a global community—fast—to address climate change as the crisis it is.
As Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, put it: “The future is not set in stone. Some amount of change is inevitable. It’s as if we’ve been smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for decades, but we don’t have lung cancer yet.”
“The amount of change that we’re going to see—whether it’s serious, whether it’s dangerous, whether it’s devastating, whether it’s civilization-threatening—the amount of change we’re going to see is up to us,” she continued. “It depends on our choices today and in the next few years.
Houston’s starting to get hot. It’s now aboutone degree fahrenheitwarmer in Houston than it was in the second half of the 20th century. Houstonians can expect especially balmy falls this decade, as autumns arewarming fasterthan other seasons in Texas.
Houston knows how much it stands to lose from climate change. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey devastated the city, which wassuperchargedby warm waters in the Gulf. But Houston is also helping to drive the rise in temperature.9Several major oil companiesand a vast network of oil refineries and petrochemical plants call the city home.
This decade, St. Louis is expected to be more thantwo degrees fahrenheit warmerthan it was, on average, during the latter half of the 20th century. While locals have endured more sweltering summer days, they have felt the change the most during the cold months. Missouri winters arewarming fasterthan summers, springs, and falls.
Warmer air holds more water, which can lead tomore severe rainfall. In recent years, rainstorms have pummeled the Midwest and led to widespread flooding across the region. In 2019 in St. Louis, rivers reachednear-historic levels, and floodwatersinundated the areaaround the city’s iconic Gateway Arch.
For San Franciscans, the beginning of the decade will feel only a little different from past years. In 2020, it’s expected to be less than0one degree fahrenheitwarmer in San Francisco than it was, on average, between 1950 and 2000. The change is small, but locals can sometimes feel it in the spring, which iswarming fasterthan the other seasons, or onespecially hot days.
But there are new worries for the city. Rising temperatures have fueledongoing droughtin recent years, which has, in turn, led to more wildfires. Fires now burn more regularly across the Sierra Nevada as well as coastal mountain ranges. The flames mayruin plansfor weekend getaways to Yosemite or deliver noxious smoke to the Bay Area. And locals may start to reach for air masks as dangerously smoky days become more common.
“We get a lot of the smoke that comes from the wildfires that happen in inland California, and that makes it really hard to breathe the air,” said Kristy Dahl, a climate scientist at theUnion of Concerned Scientists, who is based in San Francisco. “Last year when there was a massive wildfire hundreds of miles away, San Francisco for a day [ranked among] the worst air quality in the entire world.”
By 2030, temperatures are expected to have warmed almosttwo degrees fahrenheitin Houston. Seas are expected to have risen a little more than a foot, enough to occasionally flood some low-lying areas outside the city. Warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico willraise the speed limitfor winds during hurricanes and ramp up rainfall during storms.
“Hurricanes are not getting more frequent, but they are getting stronger and bigger and slower,” said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist atTexas Tech University. “They’re intensifying faster and they have a lot more rain associated with them today than they would have had a hundred years ago.”
By 2030, temperatures are expected to have warmed around three degrees fahrenheit in St. Louis. The kind of rainstorm that currently strikes the Midwest around once every five years will hit aroundonce every three yearsthis decade.
“We’ve seen these record-breaking, devastating floods in the Midwest,” said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University. “It’s not like they’ve never had floods before, but the floods are just getting a lot worse and a lot more frequent.”
This could mean trouble for local infrastructure. Rivers swell after heavy rains, and the rush of water canweaken bridgesby carrying away sediment from around their foundations. This could be a big problem in Missouri, which is home to hundreds ofaging bridges, many of which have beendeemed deficient. Climate change could mean even more heavyrepair costsfor taxpayers.
This decade, the rise in temperature is expected to pass two degrees fahrenheit in San Francisco. That may not feel like a lot in the city. But warmer weather is taking a serious toll.
California’s drought willget progressively worsethis decade, the product of warmer temperatures drying out soil and meager rainfall failing to replace the water lost. Rising temperatures will also yieldless snowfall. The snow that does come down will melt in the spring and early summer, depriving the state of a critical source of water in the late summer, when, historically, melting snow has fed streams and rivers.
The snow drought will strain farmers in the Central Valley, while putting pressure on cities to use less water. Thewater restrictionsthe state put in place in 2018 will have grown much more severe in the past 12 years. Officials could urge Californians across the state to take shorter showers and stop watering their lawns to cope with the worsening drought.
This decade, sea level rise around Houston is projected to reach two feet, enough to inundate much of nearby Freeport and Jamaica Beach. That extra water will mean that hurricanes, when they strike, will delivermore powerful floodsto coastal areas.
“A small and steady rise of the water level elevates a platform for flooding that we’ve had throughout history,” said Maya Buchanan, a sea level rise scientist atClimate Central. “That means larger storm surges.”
That’s bad news for people who live near the shore. Aroundhalf of deathscaused by hurricanes are the result of coastal flooding, and waterstend to inundatepoor neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color, which are more likely to lie in flood-prone areas.
In 2040, St. Louis is expected to be four degrees fahrenheit warmer than it was at the end of the last century. While that may sound like a small number, it means big problems for the city. A small uptick in the average temperature could lead to milder winters, stifling summers, and changing rainfall.
St. Louis will tend to see wetter springs and drier summers. That means the region will withstand heavier downpours, but it will also endure long stretches without a drop of rain. Despite the growing peril of major flooding, extended dry spells and rising temperatures will dry out the land. Drought willset inin Missouri, endangering farms.
And just remember—it will never be this cool again.
By 2040, sea levels are predicted to rise around one foot, enough to encroach the beaches on the west side of the city and Candlestick Point on the east, popular recreation areas. Parts of San Francisco Airport and Oakland Airport will flood regularly, making air travel in and out of the city more difficult.
Drought will have grownincreasingly severe. Forests will dry out, and become vulnerable tobark beetles, which burrow into trees to lay their eggs. Healthy trees can ward off the bugs by covering them in resin—but already struggling trees have no way to protect themselves.
Large parts of forests will die, and the dead trees will become tinder for wildfire. In 2040, fires are expected to burn around twice as much of the Sierra Nevada as they do today. Areas south of San Francisco will also grow more vulnerable to erupting in flames.
By midcentury, temperatures are expected to have warmed more than three degreesfahrenheitin Houston. Waters in the Gulf of Mexico will have also warmed, fueling more dangerous storms.
In the decades to come, the Gulf will see more category-four and -five hurricanes, likeHurricane HarveyandHurricane Katrina, according to Suzana Camargo, a climate scientist atColumbia University. Warm water is like ammunition for cyclones, arming them with more powerful winds and heavier rains. People might want to think twice before they purchase a home in Houston.
“I think people have to think very carefully how they are going to plan when they want to buy a house,” Camargo said, explaining that in the future, cyclones will deliver more flooding to seaside cities and towns.
St. Louis is expected to have heated up by more than five degrees fahrenheit on average by the middle of the century. Hot weather will dry out soil. Past 2050, the Central Plains, including much of Missouri, can look forward todecades-long drought.
This drought will be especially disastrous for Missouri farmers. Growers will have to take more water out of underground aquifers to feed their crops, drawing down a limited supply of groundwater, often at great cost. This, in turn, could drive up the price of food.
By 2050, temperatures in San Francisco are expected to have risen more than three degrees fahrenheit. In the second half of this century, changing weather patterns will yield lasting dry spells, leaving much of California to endure long stretches without rain. Around the time someone graduating high school today turns 50, theycan expectCalifornia to enter a decades-long drought—with disastrous consequences.
Farmers in California will have to draw more and more water from underground. Eventually, they may not be able to grow fruits and vegetables in parts of the state. This will drive up the cost of many foods, such as strawberries, almonds, and lemons.
Snow will also start to disappear from the Sierra Nevada. By 2050, projections say, there will bea third less snowthan we see today. San Francisco depends on that snow for its water, and a dry Sierra Nevada could mean a looming water crisis for the city.
The drought will also leave California’s forests all the more vulnerable to wildfire—fires that could cover San Francisco in smoke, making itdangerousto go outside.
By 2060, temperatures are expected to have warmed by more than four degreesfahrenheit. The city could seeup to 25 days a yearwith temperatures over 100 degrees fahrenheit.
Local sea level rise, meanwhile, is expected reach three feet during this decade. This will raise the level of Buffalo Bayou, the waterway that stretches through the middle of Houston. The Scholes International Airport in nearby Galveston will sink into the sea, and at high tide, water will flood much of the San Jacinto Battleground, site of the 1836 clash where Sam Houston, the city’snamesake, overcame the Mexican Army.
St. Louis is expected hit a six-degrees-fahrenheit increase in its average temperature this decade. While this might be bad news for humans, it’s good for many insects, who love warm weather. Rising temperatures will bringdisease-carrying mosquitoesto St. Louis’s doorstep. Missourians will have to be more vigilant about their health as the bugs could spread tropical viruses like Zika, dengue, and yellow fever around the warming Midwest.
Climate change will also bring moredeer ticksto St. Louis. Because warmer air can hold more water, as temperatures rise, so does humidity—and deer ticks thrive in humid weather. While ticks are little seen in Missouri today, later this century they will fan out across the state, potentially spreadingLyme disease. Those afflicted will endure fever, headache, and fatigue. They may see their joints swell or feel their face droop.
By 2060, temperatures in San Francisco are expected to have risen by more than four degrees fahrenheit.
Wildfires will burn roughly three times as much of broad swaths of the Sierra Nevada as they do today, laying waste to large stretches of California’s pristine forests.
This decade, sea level rise is projected hit two feet. Water will begin to spill over the edges of the Mission Creek Channel, while threatening routine floods around San Francisco’s iconic Fisherman’s Wharf. Waters will have flooded much of nearby San Rafael, north of San Francisco. To the south, Foster City will be underwater, displacing thousands of residents—many of whom currently work in the tech industry.
By 2070, Houston is projected to be more than five degreesfahrenheithotter than at the end of the 20th century. This warming is part of a larger trend that is heating up the planet and melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica, raising the sea level near the city.
“As flooding events get more severe, that can impact property values, and that could impact where people decide to live,” Buchanan said, explaining that rising seas will drive down the value of homes in low-lying areas.
By this time, waters will have already subsumed much of the coastline from Freeport, south of Houston, all the way to New Orleans. Rising seas will make much of the Gulf coast unrecognizable as the ocean swallows up most of southern Louisiana. Later this decade, sea levels are expected to have risen by four feet.
In 2070, St. Louis is projected to be more than seven degrees fahrenheit hotter than it was at the end of the last century. Before the decade is through, the city is expected to see eight degrees fahrenheit of warming. Rising temperatures will have utterly transformed the weather in Missouri, making it virtually unrecognizable to current residents. The city will see around20 fewer daysof frost each year than it does today, as well as around20 extra dayswith temperatures over 95 degrees fahrenheit. The heat will be feltmost acutelyin neighborhoods short on trees and parks.
Outside the city, severe heat will cripple the growth of corn and soybeans at nearby farms. So will drought, which experts say will be worse than at any time in living memory. The state will endure more consecutive days without rain. When it does rain, however, it will pour. Warmer temperatures will produce more extreme rainfall.
By 2070, San Francisco’s average temperature is expected to have warmed by more than five degrees fahrenheit. Drought will bemore severethan at any time in living memory. Rising temperatures and diminished rainfall willtake a tollon trees around the San Francisco Bay. More and more evergreen forests will die off and grasslands will spring up in their place, fundamentally changing the landscape around the city.
By 2080, temperatures are projected to have warmed around six degreesfahrenheiton average, a dizzying change in the weather that means Houston won’t feel like Houston anymore.
The city will grow warmer and wetter. Around 2080, Houstonwill feel something likeCiudad Mante in Mexico does today, with its warmer, drier winter.
As the climate changes, Houston’s native wildlife could start to head north. At the same time, plants and animals that currently make their home south of Houston may start to work their way toward the city.
St. Louis is expected to be nearly nine degrees fahrenheit warmer by 2080. The temperature will have changed so drastically that St. Louis no longer feels like the same city.
Around 2080, St. Louiswill start to feel likeProsper, Texas, does today. This new St. Louis will be hotter and drier. Summer weather will go from balmy to sweltering, and the city will see much less rain during the warm months.
It’s not just that St. Louis will feel more like Prosper. It might start to look like it too. Animals that currently live around Prosper could head northward as the climate changes, searching for a new home that feels like their old one. At the same time, the shrubs and grasslands that stretch across north Texas could start to edge their way toward Missouri.
By 2080, the average temperature is expected to have risen by more than six degrees fahrenheit in San Francisco. The city willstart to feela lot like present-day Los Angeles. The weather will be warmer and drier, much like the current climate in Palos Verdes Estates, a coastal city in the Los Angeles area.
With less rainfall, many of the trees that make their home in San Francisco will die. At the same time, the smaller, scrubbier plants that make their home in LA could migrate toward the city. It’s not just that San Francisco will start to feel like LA, scientists say. It might start to look like it too.
By now, temperatures are projected to have warmed close to seven degreesfahrenheit, while sea levels will have risen five feet, subsuming the coastline. Much of nearby Galveston is underwater.
It’s not just hot days that threaten Houston. Rising temperatures will allow the air to hold more water, increasing humidity—which could be a big problem for public health.
“As humidity rises, it becomes harder and harder for the sweat to evaporate off our skin—and it’s that evaporation of sweat that cools our bodies,” said Kristy Dahl, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “So it might only be a temperature reading of 90 degrees, but if you have 60% humidity, it’s going to feel hotter than 90 degrees.”
Dahl said that Houston will heat up so much that it will be hard to quantify how hot it will feel.
“By the end of the century, Houston would see about three weeks of what we call off-the-charts heat conditions, which are when the combination of temperature and humidity falls above the national weather services heat index scale,” she said. “What that means is that we can’t even calculate a heat index to reliably warn people about how dangerous it is.”
St. Louis is expected to have warmed by almost 10 degrees fahrenheit, a transformational change in the climate of the city. Rising temperatures could provoke aspike in violent crime—when people are hot, research shows, they tend to feel more aggressive.
By the end of the century, St. Louis will endure around 80 days per year where the heat index is above 100 degrees—compared to just 11 days at the end of the 20th century, according to Kristy Dahl, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“It’s really striking because historically those off-the-charts conditions have only occurred in the Sonoran desert region of the US, the California-Arizona border,” Dahl said.
In addition to extreme heat, the city will also enduresevere drought, punctuated by the occasional supercharged rainstorm. The kind of downpour that currently strikes the Midwest around once every five years will hit around onceevery year or two. The most severe storms—the kind that currently show up once every 20 years—now arriveonce every six or seven years.
Heavy rainfall will lead to flooding, and floodwaters will mix with raw sewage,helping to spreadbacteria. Rains will also swamp homes and businesses, offering a place for mold to grow.
By now, San Francisco is projected to have heated up more than seven degrees fahrenheit on average. The extra heat will mean many people will be spendingmore time outdoors, potentially leading to a spike inviolent crime.
The state will be mired in lasting drought. Wildfires could consume around four times as much of the Sierra Nevada as they do today, as well as forests closer to San Francisco, endangering locals.
The Bay Area is expected to have seen more than three feet of sea level rise. The San Francisco and Oakland Airports will be completely underwater. Across the bay, coastal flooding will inundate parts of Alameda. Low-lying areas on the south end of the San Francisco Bay will also be flooded, including some of San Jose.
By the end of this century, temperatures are expected to have warmed close to eight degreesfahrenheitin Houston. In the summer, Houstonwill feel something likeJeddah, Saudi Arabia, does today. High temperatures will average over 100 degrees fahrenheit during the warmest months.
By making life harder for workers, severe hotter weather will shrink the economy of the greater Houston area by6%. Extreme heat will also kill hundreds more people each year. Poorer neighborhoods tend tobe warmer, in part because they tend to havefewer trees. People who live in those neighborhoods are also less likely to have air conditioners, which will put them at greater risk.
On top of the heat, Houston is expected to have seen close to six feet of sea level rise by 2100. Waters encroach on the east side of town near the water, where oil refineries and chemical plants could continue to service our catastrophic addiction to oil and gas. Routine flooding of these facilities may causedangerous explosionsand potentially release toxic chemicals into the air.
Much of the city, however, will stay safe from the encroaching sea. That means Houston could absorbhundreds of thousandsof new residents by 2100—people who were driven from Miami and New Orleans by ever-worsening coastal floods.
By the end of this century, St. Louis is expected to have warmed by roughly 11 degrees fahrenheit. Winter will scarcely look like winter. Summers will have gone from hot to unbearable.
During the hottest months, it will beso scorchingthat it will be dangerous to go outside for much of the day. People will depend more on air conditioners to stay cool, leading tobigger electric bills. Elderly people, particularly those who can’t afford to run an air conditioner, will face the risk ofheat stroke and death.
The intense heat will take an immense toll on the local economy. Farms in Missouri and southern Illinois could see yields cut in half, ruining livelihoods.
In St. Louis itself, experts project that heat will stifle productivity by making it too hot to work. This could help cut the city’s economic output by around 8%.
By 2100, San Francisco is expected to have heated up by more than eight degrees fahrenheit on average. It will be hot and dry. Snow will be hard to find in the Sierra Nevada. By 2100, the mountain range will seetwo thirds less snowthan we see today, depriving San Francisco of a much-needed water source.
Seas will have risen four feet, projections say. Large parts of Alameda will be underwater. Hunters Point will have flooded, as well as much of Mission Bay. And flooding won’t be limited to San Francisco.
Sea level rise could flood the homes of13 million Americansby the end of the century, leading to a massive exodus from many coastal areas. By one estimate, rising seas in places like Oakland, Alameda, and San Mateo could spur close to 300,000 residents to move to inland cities in Arizona, Texas, and New Jersey. It is the poorest neighborhoods that will be the most vulnerable to floods.
Editor’s note: This story is based on RCP 8.5, the so-called “business-as-usual” emissions scenario that assumes that Earth will continue to heavily rely on fossil fuels as the global economy grows. Per Nexus Media, “As we are currently doing virtually nothing to stop climate change, RCP 8.5 is a pretty good predictor of what’s going to happen over the next couple of decades. Part of that is because it will take a while for the climate to reach a new equilibrium, so even if we stopped polluting now, the planet would continue to warm for decades.” It looks at a sea level rise of six feet, on average, globally, based on the findings of this widely-cited 2014 study.
Corruption at a Government level is preventing the switch to clean energy and the demise of the coal industry.
Annastacia Palaszczuk’s approval of the Adani mine is one of many examples of institutional corruption (Scrreenshot via YouTube)
Corruption at a Government level is preventing the switch to clean energy and the demise of the coalindustry,writesDavid Ritter.
IF WE HEAR THE PHRASE “criminal corruption in the coal industry”, we might assume that the problem is one of bags of cash being exchanged with officials for favourable treatment. And while there arevariousnotoriousexamplesofcash briberyoccurringin relationto the coal industry,an even greater problem is the endemic institutional corruption.
…when there is a systemic and strategic influence which is legal, or even currently ethical, that undermines the institution’s effectiveness by diverting it from its purpose or weakening its ability to achieve its purpose, including, to the extent relevant to its purpose, weakening either the public’s trust in that institution or the institution’s inherent trustworthiness.
Applying Lessig’s thinking in Australia, the institution is our representative democracy and the systemic influence comes from the coal corporations who undermine the Government’s effectiveness by diverting law and policy away from what is beneficial for everyone, to what suits the narrow vested interest of the coal bosses.
According to the best available science, we have tostop burning coalas fast as possible if we are to avoid catastrophic runaway global heating. Fortunately, this is possible because renewable energy is now both cheaper and more reliable than dirty old fossil fuels.
Coal-fired power is now old technology.
Wanting to keep using coal instead of switching to smart, clean energy is every bit as nuts as insisting that you want to keep a pot under your bed rather than installing a flushing toilet.
The only reason why Australia is not making the rapid transition from dirty, dangerous coal to smart, clean energy is the institutional corruption of our democracy by the fossil fuel industry.
As former Prime MinisterKevin Ruddnotedlast week, it is clear that big polluters have run“sophisticated political operations”to thwart action on climate change.In the face of the climate emergency, every politician must now ask themselves the same question: will they stand up to the coal, oil and gas companies on behalf of the community, or will they give in to institutional corruption?
There is no third choice.
Two recent examples show this institutional corruption at work. There is no suggestion of any illegality at work in Queensland PremierAnnastacia Palaszczuk’srushing ofAdani approvalsa few days after the Federal Election. But within Lessig’s framework, what occurred was a clear weakening of government in the public interest in order to suit the preferences of the coal sector.
The malign influence of the coal sector was also on show recently in New South Wales, when theIndependent Planning Commission(IPC) handed down itsdecisionthat the proposedKepco Bylong minecould not go ahead, citing unacceptable impacts on groundwater, strategic agricultural land and local heritage values, as well as the mine’s impact on climate change and intergenerational equity.
Instead of accepting the umpire’s impartial ruling, the coal corporations went onthe attack, with theNSW Minerals Councillaunching a coordinated assault on the regulator for doing its statutory job. Under this pressure, the NSW Government is now considering bringing new laws to prevent courts and planners from blocking coal mines on climate grounds. In the face of the climate emergency, this is like saying you are considering banning fire engines because you don’t want to inconvenience the arsonists. Such proposed new laws would, in effect, be a form of legislated denial.
It is ironic that the reason why decisions on coal approvals went to an independent planning commission authority in the first place is because of thefindingsof former judge and ex-ICAC CommissionerDavid Ipp QCwhich highlighted major policy and regulatory problems in the regulation of the state’s coal industry.
As it stands, the public interest is not adequately considered under Australian mining law. Our regulatory frameworksare stacked against people and in favour of the coal and gas companies. Governments everywhere should be looking to greatly strengthen environmental and community protections rather than pulling apart the limited measures that currently exist.
It is time to call a halt on the institutional corruption of the coal industry. The future of our kids and our country depend on it. Enough is enough.
2) reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025; and
3) create a democratic citizens’ assembly of randomly selected and demographically representative citizens to hear expert testimonies and direct an emergency-level effort to reduce carbon emission and protect biodiversity.
XR’s strategy to get their demands met entails disrupting “business as usual.” In the U.K., this has involved occupying major sites in London for up to two weeks. InNovember 2018, over 6,000 activists shut down five major bridges in London, and inApril 2019,activists occupied five major London sites, resulting inover 1,100 arrests. On October 7, 2019, a large rebellion in London as well as smaller protests disrupted more than60 citiesacross the globe.Over 1,000 activistswere arrested in London during the first four days of the October rebellion.
Is XR just another passing environmental movement that will ultimately fail in bringing about a meaningful response? Maybe not. In addition to being part of an unprecedented, large (growing) and sustained effort demanding climate action (including theSunrise MovementandFridays for Future,the latter led by Greta Thunberg), there are good reasons why XR in particular has a better chance of success when compared to other environmental movements. While the future is uncertain, there are reasons to believe XR might succeed.
XR Is Based on Science
The XR movement is based on climate science, which shows we are in more trouble than we previously thought. Even since the release of the 2018 “IPCC 1.5 degree Special Report,” more scientific reports have indicated thatArctic iceis melting faster than expected,oceans are warmingmore quickly than we thought and we could bereaching critical tipping pointssooner than anticipated. XR takes this science seriously and recognizes the human impacts associated with the science. Co-founders Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook continually point out that if we do not act, there will be massive migration, famine and loss of human life. Interpreting and responding to this science, XR acknowledges that we face a real threat and a moral imperative to act now.
XR draws from social science to inform their strategies. The co-founders immersed themselves in social movement research to determine what kind of movement would be most likely to succeed. According to the historical data analyzed by Harvard ProfessorErica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, nonviolent movements have been four times larger and twice as successful as violent movements. XR leaders also studied how to organize a successful social movement drawing from the work ofGene Sharp,Mark and Paul Engler(momentum-driven organizing), andCarlos Saavedraof theAyni Institute. In other words, the co-founders did extensive research before designing and initiating the movement.
In addition, XR has a well-organized training system for activists. There are a number of different trainings, but most important for all participants is their nonviolent direct-action training, as well as their nonviolent culture de-escalation training about how to talk to possibly hostile critics. These trainings are also based on science and psychology. XR tries to make sure their activists understand their principles and strategies before jumping into the action.
XR Focuses on a Universal Cause to Increase Participation
XR co-founderRoger Hallam arguesthat it was an utter catastrophe that climate change was cast as a liberal or left-wing issue, because it is a universal issue of survival. XR attempts to reclaim the universality of the climate and biodiversity crises. They emphasize that both crises representexistential threats. Before launching their first actions, XR founders traveled across the U.K. giving a talk titled, “Heading for Extinction,” which lays out the scientific realities of these crises and the possibilities for using civil disobedience to avoid a catastrophic future. Their talk is designed to be universal so that youth, parents, grandparents, businessmen, hippies, liberals and conservatives are all motivated to act.
XR’s goals are deliberately broad to include a range of political and economic identities in the movement.Hallam explainsthat most Western environmental movements have involved people with very similar identities — typically white, middle-class liberals. To avoid being an identity-limited movement, XR aims to be “beyond politics” and is not aligned with any political party. In addition, XR does not support any policies, only the three (deliberately general) demands. While acknowledging the current system is broken and needs to be transformed, XR avoids an official position on what the next system should look like, and instead supports democratic processes for these decisions. This attempt to be universal is strategic in order to maximize public involvement in XR, as increasing participation is key to getting their demands met.
While somecriticizeXR’s strategy toavoid politics and policies, arguing that it overlooks important questions regardingwho gets to decide, XR maintains their broad demands and the use of a citizens’ assembly to make the decision-making process deeply democratic. XR doesn’t officially support specific positions, but they remain inclusive of those who support policies that align with their goals. Time will tell if their “beyond politics” strategy will remain important for increasing participation or if eventually those who are attached to specific policies ideas, like aGreen New Deal, will prefer to work on policy directly rather than the creation of a citizens’ assembly.
Moreover, XR eschews judgement that results in exclusivity through their principle to “avoid blaming and shaming.” XR acknowledges that we all live in a society that points us towards decisions that make us part of the problem. But XR also acknowledges that these crises arecaused by the systemand those running the system, not by the individuals in it. XR’s focus is not on individuals deciding to be vegan or to not drive a car. This won’t solve the climate crisis when71 percent of emissionscan be traced to 100 companies. The real solutions involve system change and everyone can be involved in demanding this change regardless of their personal choices. While critics call XR activistshypocritesfor eating certain foods, driving or flying, their goal it to change the system, not the individual choices shaped by the system. XR’s focus on not blaming or shaming reduces inner conflict and serves to increase more diverse participation.
XR Maximizes Action
In addition to large-scale efforts as seen in London, local XR groups are frequently organizing their own actions. While most XRlocal groupsare in the U.K., there are now at least485 groups now in 72 countries. These can include local protests, bike rides, die-ins, beach art or a march of the “Red Brigade.”Decision-makingin XR is largelydecentralized,allowing local groups to organize independently and without approval from “headquarters” in London; however, some decisions (like the October 2019 rebellion) continue to be coordinated centrally. Initiating an action in XR does not depend on consensus or a majority vote. As stated on the XRFAQs page: “Our experience is that this clogs things up and can hold back effective action.” While some people criticize this decision-making process, it does allow for more actions to occur quickly. As time is running out to address these existential crises, time for deliberation is also running out.
Anyone can act in the name of XR as long as they follow their statedprinciples and values. In this way, their structure is self-organizing and allows for a range of actions to move forward their agenda. Of particular importance is that actions are all nonviolent, inclusive and based on the shared vision of protecting future generations. While the decision-making process is action-oriented, XR does have systems of feedback for reflection, learning and planning. When actions don’t go as planned or have unintended negative consequences, XR strategists and activists have acknowledged these consequences andapologizedfor their actions.
XR Fosters a Regenerative Culture
One of XR’s principles is to foster a “regenerative culture,” which applies to individuals and communities. Individual activists are encouraged to prioritize health and well-being, taking time to take care of themselves after actions and even during actions. XR encampments during rebellions have health andwell-being hubswhere activists can do yoga, meditate, get a massage or participate in other therapeutic experiences. If activists need to take a break from XR, as participation can dominate one’s life, there is a supportive culture of not shaming those who need to take a step back.
Part of regenerative culture is also allowing for emotional expressions including grief and fear. An increasing number of articles have documented the rise of “climate grief,” or the realization that things will never be the same, we are already losing so much and that much more will be lost in the future. XR acknowledges these losses and hassupport groups for sharing grief. Associated with grief is also a fear of the future. Many XR activists have felt grief, fear and helplessness in the face of our existential crises. XR helps activists to process these feelings and channel them into action.
XR also makes deliberate space for joy in its organizing and actions. Activists describe the rebellion encampments as “festival-like” with music, singing, dancing, art and food. Online videos show how XR activists shutting down a bridge or street can mean turning it into a dance party,yoga session, or celebration of life and unity. While activism is often draining, this celebratory atmosphere makes it more enjoyable and restorative, sustaining participation in XR.
In addition,fostering regenerative culturemeans developing communities that are resilient and able to adapt. XR groups aim to build connection and support at the community level in ways that increase their capacity to adapt to future environmental change. Emissions reduction and adaptation are not mutually exclusive. For XR, strong community bonds and support are required for both. XR supports self-provisioning and other skills that will be necessary for adaptation. While many XR activists once felt alone, afraid, and powerless about the climate and biodiversity crises, now many report a stronger sense of community and feel more empowered to change the system and more confident about adapting to the changes ahead.
Fostering a regenerative culture also redefines success and helps to counter defeatist views that can undermine a social movement. Creating a regenerative culture is a goal that will continue whether or not XR’s three demands are met. When asked if they believe their movement will succeed, many XR activists explain they have no expected outcome of success. Whether they win or lose in terms of their demands, they act because it is the right thing to do today. Through a collective moral imperative, XR activists are buildingcommunity and resiliencethat will help to sustain participation into the future. By all accounts, XR is not going away anytime soon.
XR Is Difficult to Co-opt
There is a long history of environmental movements being co-opted by other interests. This includes corporations claiming they are participating in positive change when their actions suggest otherwise (e.g., “green-washing”). In addition, politicians may support ideas, like aclimate emergencydeclaration, but then water down or fail to implement policies for action. Because XR is demanding system change in general and a democratic decision-making process through a citizens’ assembly, their mission is more difficult for corporate or political interests to co-opt. This doesn’t mean there won’t be attempts to co-opt XR goals, but because of what their goals are, there seems to be less room for co-optation to occur. This may become more important as XR comes closer to getting their demands met and powerful interest groups take notice.
XR Is Building a Movement of Movements
Any successful social movement needs to be large and have a unifying mission. XR strategists realize the importance of building alliances with all of those who are oppressed or exploited in the current system. They are creating a “movement of movements” where those active in other related causes join forces with XR to bring about social change. This includes animal rights and human rights groups and activists focused on race, gender, labor, justice, immigration, and those fighting oppression and exploitation in general. XR is also working with groups in the Global South, through theirinternational solidarity network, to include perspectives that broaden the scope of the movement. XR leaderFarhana Yaminwrites that “ending domination over Nature goes hand in hand with tackling all forms of domination and hierarchy” including “minority world over majority world.” With each rebellion, XR participation continues to increase globally.
In addition to these efforts, XR remains open to collaboration and coordination with other movements demanding climate action. The September 20 and 27 global climate strikes this year involved between6.6and7.6 million participantsin 185 different countries. This included Fridays for Future activists as well the Sunrise Movement, XR and other groups like 350.org. This level of cooperation, if continued and expanded, will further increase the chances that XR and others will succeed in pressuring world leaders to address the climate and biodiversity crises. Time is running out, but participation in activism continues to grow. The future is indeed uncertain, but these groups now have unprecedented momentum for change.
Based on the analysis ofErica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, XR founders believe that when 3.5 percent of the population participates in civil disobedience, the government will cave to their demands. Chenoweth and Stephan looked at social movements between 1900 and 2006 and found that no movements had failed after reaching the involvement of over 3.5 percent of the population in a peak event. While some XR strategists believe in the “3.5 percent rule,”others suggestthe data is based on movements that were generally focused on people who want to “enter into a system” (e.g., civil rights, women’s rights) rather than “change the whole system,” which effective climate action will require. Therefore, even more participation may be needed.
While their numbers grow after each rebellion, XR is still far from 3.5 percent of the U.K. population, which is about 2.3 million people. In the U.S., 3.5 percent of the population is about 11 million people. While exact numbers of XR supporters are unknown, there were reportedly around30,000 XR activistsin London on October 11, 2019. There are also nearly350,000 followers on Facebook. In addition, XR now has an abundance of specific groups based on location (local groups), but alsogroups with shared identities and interests.
As of October 15, the London rebellion has resulted in over1,400 arrests. The London police havebanned all XR protests, yet activists continue to gather in new locations, and arechallenging the legality of the ban. As with all movements, XR is not perfect and will continue to face setbacks and criticism. Despite its imperfections, XR continues to bring widespread attention to our environmental crises, increasing dialogue and the demand for action – bringing about a “climate culture change.” As the movement continues and increasingly coordinates with other groups, governments may begin to respond.
At this moment, the attributes of XR are increasing the chances that the movement will be effective and successful. However, ideas of success in XR gobeyond their three demands. If success includes increasing awareness and creating a regenerative culture with a stronger sense of community, solidarity and resilience, in many ways, XR has already succeeded.
If Labor accepts the reality of the challenge posed by global warming, then the task between now and the next election is to go out to the regional areas, listen and then formulate real responses to concerns expressed.
“How many times are we going to let it kill us?
Indeed, how many leaders do we want to lose to it?”
In hisspeech to the Sydney Institute last week, federal opposition agriculture and resources spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon asked these questions as part of his “lesson five” on Labor’s federal election defeat: that it is time for the party “to reach a sensible settlement on climate change”.
What would be “sensible”, he argued, would be for Labor to wind back its target of a 45 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2030 to something more like the Coalition’s declared target of a 26 to 28 per cent. Even a cut of that lesser magnitude would be a concrete achievement to build on, he said, as opposed to another aspiration postponed.
Responding to Mr Fitzgibbon’s speech, Ms Plibersek described the country as caught “in a perfect storm of inaction and unpredictability” but refused to “pluck a figure out of the air” when it came to cutting emissions. Others have suggested thatLabor’s focus should shift from 2030 to the longer-term goal of net zero emissions by 2050. These are questions of policy design and, as Crowe points out, the election in which any design will be tested is years away.
In another post-mortem of the election, which focused on the role of regional Queensland and Western Australia in tipping the balance in the Coalition’s favour, political commentatorGeorge Megalogenis suggested that“voters are still prepared to give things up, provided they can see a direct benefit”.
If Labor accepts the reality of the challenge posed by global warming then the task between now and the next election is to go out to these regions and listen and formulate responses to the concerns expressed, while building the broadest possible coalition with industry and activists to back the policy that best reflects its beliefs and values. Done properly, this would be the opposite of maintaining purity. It would answer Mr Fitzgibbon’s complaint, while allowing Labor to argue that it is the only major party with a serious plan to combat climate change.
Is Extinction Rebellion correct? Will climate change wipe us out?
An alarming claim has been made about the future of our Earth in recent months: that, at best, we’re facing the collapse of civilisation or, at worst, a mass extinction.
The claims have been highlighted by environmental protest movement Extinction Rebellion and from climate crisis activist Greta Thunberg.
Ms Thunberg has warned of the“end of our civilisation as we know it”. A rebellion spokeswoman told The Age: “We are risking the collapse of human civilisation and the deaths of billions of people.”
What do they mean? And are they right?
What’s behind the alarm?
The protesters warn of two separate but related threats: the holocene extinction, and global heating.
Holocene is the name of the geological epoch we live in. It’s simply a category in science. The holocene stretches back 11,650 years to the end of the last ice age, and coincides with the rise of human civilisation.
The holocene extinction, also known as the sixth mass extinction, refers to fears that human activity is pushing a huge number of plants and animals to the brink of extinction.
There have been five confirmed mass extinction events in the Earth’s history, such as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. These were cataclysmic events triggered by phenomena such as volcanoes or meteorites.Scientists are still debatingwhether the current situation should be classified as a “mass extinction” of the kind previously seen or whether we are simply sending lots of species extinct very quickly. This would be the first mass extinction caused by human activity such as polluting and land clearing.
The holocene extinction is related to, but distinct from, the threat posed by global heating.
Scientists agree that if the world’s emissions keep growing at their current rate, we are on track for warming of between 3 and 5 degrees by the end of the century.
Global governments pledged to keep warming to 2 degrees but pledges alone have not stopped greenhouse gas emissions increasing at unprecedented levels, driven largely by the industrialisation of China and India.
One in every 10 remaining species is already “committed to extinction”, meaning without action to restore their habitats they will die out, many within decades. Most of the damage has been done by land clearing, logging, hunting, fishing and other human activities. Human actions have driven at least 680 vertebrate species extinct since 1500.
This is what Ms Thunberg refers to when she warns of the sixth mass extinction.
So far only one animal – as it happens, an Australian creature called the Bramble Cay melomys – has been declared extinct as a direct result of global heating.
One in every 10 remaining species will die out, many within decades.
This small rodent lived only on a low-lying island off the coast of Queensland; scientists believe rising sea levels and storm surges caused by climate change either deprived it of its food or literally swept it away to its doom.
Unlike humans, animals and plants cannot adapt to a quickly changing environment; scientists expect global heating to put more and more pressure on threatened species, adding to existing pressures from human activity and pushing them further toward extinction.
What about us? Will humans become extinct?
When Ms Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion talk about the collapse of civilisation, they are talking about the risks posed by global heating.
Will global heating mean the end of the human race?
“No. People will find refuge,” says Professor Steven Sherwood, deputy director of the University of NSW’s Climate Change Research Centre.
“But, will it bring about the downfall of civilisation? That’s tricky.”
There is good evidence that the predicted 3 to 5 degrees of global heating will result in the deaths of many millions of people living in poverty.
They will run out of water, starve or die in more frequent cyclones, floods, wildfires and storm surges.
But humans won’t die out. With enough money, we are extremely adaptable. Air-conditioning and desalination plants will allow those in more affluent societies to live in extremely hot, dry places. The rich can build sea walls, move to colder places, and pay more for food – which will become much more expensive.
But, even for them, life will be different.
“If you find you have 60 days a year where it’s above 40 degrees, it will change many aspects of our lives,” says Professor Brendan Mackey, director of Griffith University’s Climate Change Response Program.
The poor will not have the luxury of adapting.
Crop yields are projected to fall by 60 per cent in the Middle East and North Africa, exposing hundreds of millions to starvation,according to the World Bank(this may be counterbalanced with increases in farming productivity). What crops do grow would become less nutritious. The number of fish available in key fisheries could fall by up to 50 per cent.
Large parts of Bangladesh, home to 164 million people, will be inundated by sea levels that will rise by almost one metre. It is possible, although not certain, the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets will melt (the Arctic will definitely melt), raising sea levels further.
Global heating will increase the number of droughts the world will see, and even the chance that conflicts will break out over remaining water supplies.
Available drinking water in already parched North Africa and the Middle East could fall by more than 45 per cent, the World Bank predicts.
Global heating is already causing more deadly heat waves, hotter days and nights, more floods, more storm surges, more cyclones and more wildfires. There will be more pandemics too, in so far as hotter weather increases the spread of fleas, ticks and mosquitoes all of which are disease carriers.
The frequency of these events will continue to increase as the world warms.
What if the world gets even hotter than 5 degrees?
We don’t know. Our existing models are less accurate for that time span.
Scientists who warn of catastrophic impacts say the things we should really fear are “feedback loops”, vicious cycles of accelerated climate change.
“The effects of climate change are not linear. They compound. They cascade,” says Professor Mackey.
We know such loops exist, but scientists do not yet know how hot the Earth needs to get before they activate.
The effects of climate change are not linear. They compound. They cascade.
One example is the thawing of the permafrost in the Arctic, which holds millions of tonnes of frozen greenhouse gases. The more permafrost you melt, the more greenhouse gases you might release, increasing global heating and melting more permafrost. This process has already begun to happen; scientists aren’t sure how hot we would need to get to thaw large amounts of it and kick off a feedback loop.
“If we release that methane, the quantities suggest that could lead to runaway climate change,” says Dr Steven Crimp from the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute.
There are other known feedback loops, and there could be unknown ones too.
Some scientists fear these feedback loops might lead us to “hothouse Earth”, an apocalyptic scenario when our planet becomes too warm to support any life, although there is not a lot of evidence to support that fear.
So when Extinction Rebellion and Ms Thunberg warn of catastrophe, they are not wrong. Global heating might not threaten the human race with extinction, but it may well be the end of the world as we know it.