For a moment it really seemed like we cared. Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement united us in disbelief. People in newly registered jeeps shook their heads solemnly as they sat marooned in suburban traffic. They knew it was serious because journalists and governments who had spent decades ignoring the issue all told them it was. People stopped just short of changing their Facebook profiles to photos of sad polar bears.
It passed though. The news cycle moved on. Trump did other crazy stuff and we complained about that instead. We all reverted back to thinking the Paris Agreement is the name of a new Ben Affleck movie. The end of the world has been relegated back to its traditional ‘special interest’ category.
Trump’s catapulting of the Paris Agreement into global headlines grabbed my attention because, back in 2015, I attended the UN Climate Summit at which it was negotiated. The few days spent on the fringes of the summit were illuminating. The experience emphasised the extent to which the debate has failed to engage the middle ground. The civil society hub (not exactly a Mecca for Joe Public at the best of times) was dominated by two groups: scientists who walked around muttering about atmospheric carbon levels, and activists reluctant to admit that wearing sandals on a Parisian November day had been a mistake.
I attended an NGO press conference where the top table spontaneously burst into chant. Outside, a group of demonstrators performed a synchronised dance to highlight the need to strengthen human rights language in the heads of state agreement as per the recommendations of the inter-constituency proposal. God bless them, they even tried to make that rhyme.
Inside, the actual negotiation was a festival of technocrats. The President of the Polynesian island of Tuvalu got on stage and tearfully warned that failure to reach an agreement would mean that his country would disappear forever, to which delegates responded with the dead eyes of a sales team at a 9am meeting at the Red Cow Hotel.
Like the President of Tuvalu, scientists are united in their belief that we are sprinting headfirst to a fiery apocalypse. Yes, there is a handful of scientists who disagree, but there is a handful of economists who think Stalin’s five year plan was a model of fiscal efficiency. There are always outliers. The trick is not to pay any attention to them, and certainly not to give them equal media space in a bizarre attempt at balance.
Just over two years ago, the world’s leading experts on planetary health produced this assessment: “Climate change is projected to increase…heat stress, storms and extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, air pollution, drought, water scarcity, sea-level rise and storm surge…The risks [include] substantial species extinction, global and regional food insecurity, consequential constraints on human activities and limited potential for adaptation.”
Dr. James Hansen, who has spent the last 20 years trying to generate public interest in our own impending doom, has described the current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – unprecedented in 800,000 years – as being no longer compatible with the planet “on which civilisation developed and to which life on Earth is adapted”.
The apocalyptic warnings stand in contrast to public interest in the issue. For most people, climate change warnings occupy a mental space usually reserved for advertisements about shopping around for utility providers: we know we should listen, we just don’t.
Public lethargy is reflected in the Dáil. TDs don’t act because their constituency clinics aren’t being beaten down by people demanding a clean energy revolution. Societal doom does not come up on the doorsteps. Politicians have built the society we have demanded: one of derelict cities, thriving housing estates, and long lines of traffic as people move from one to the other.
Some of the problem is semantics. “Climate change” is isn’t a term that inspires concern. “Change” isn’t always a bad thing. South Africa underwent “Apartheid Change” and everyone was happy about that. It’s far too understated a word to describe “substantial species extinction”. Maybe if UN Climate Summits were renamed ‘UN What The F*ck Have We Done Summits’ they might get more buy-in.
The science is also a turn-off. Yes, the finer details of climate change are complex, challenging and a little bit boring but so were the Star Wars prequels and people still flocked to them.
It’s not the seriousness that puts people off, either. People are worried about a whole host of serious things but climate change isn’t seen as an immediate threat. This, of course, is nonsense. If ISIS ever figured out how to kill as many people each year as climate change does they’d celebrate by kicking back with one of their famous joyless 6th century themed parties. There are currently 25 million people facing severe food shortages in east Africa because of drought. Temperatures there have risen by up to three degrees. It goes years without raining. Millions of people starving to death isn’t an accident: it is the logical inevitability of the society we have created.
Generally, people don’t engage because of a vague hope that, somehow, it will all be grand. We’ll figure it out. Someone will invent an app. And yet, experts continue to remind us of how high the stakes are in this insane game of poker. Last week, one such group warned that we have just three years to stop runaway climate change taking hold. A few days later, a study warned that climate change could lead to a global economic recession the scale of which would make 2008-2012 seem like a hedonistic period of wild consumerism.
While these warnings were being made, the Irish government was busy continuing its row with the EU over its emission reduction targets. They wants them reduced, a position entirely in keeping with their persistent attempts to wriggle their way out of their international obligations.
The Irish government has largely summed-up society’s attitude to climate change: impassioned words at key moments, followed by complete amnesia about what they were upset about. That attitude, we are now told, has led to us having only three years left to fix this. We’re going to have to start backing-up indignation with action because sooner or later we’re not going to be able to just conveniently forget.
Originally published in The Times on July 4th, 2017.