Why are we at code red alert for climate change after 25 – yes twenty five! – previous Cop meetings? Tony Dowling, 64, Gateshead, UK
Fiona Harvey replies: Tackling the climate emergency is hugely complex, requiring a complete overhaul of the entire global economic system. Our prosperity, our modern lives, everything we see around us in the built environment, in technology, in the goods and services we consume, is built on fossil fuels. Changing that is an extraoardinary undertaking, the biggest joint undertaking humanity has ever taken on. Add to that the actions of the vested interests of the fossil fuel owners, and it is sometimes less surprising that we haven’t solved it yet.
Hannah Martin adds: We have seen some significant progress despite us being in ‘code red’ and we mustn’t take that for granted. Both in the broad global consensus that we are heading towards climate breakdown and that something needs to be done and in the huge public concern on the issue, we are miles ahead of where we were even a decade ago.
Of course that still means we are nowhere near where we need to be. That’s partly because of the different power bases at play in this debate. On one side we have people who are most impacted by existing climate threats like wildfires, floods, air pollution and extreme heat, huge numbers of concerned workers and citizens all over the world, the scientific community and some dedicated political leaders who are leading the way in pushing for the change we need.
On the other we have people in positions of power who are climate delayers or outright deniers and those corporations who might say they care about climate change but actually are more interested in protecting their bottom line and their shareholders, refusing to change their business models quickly enough. As people who care about this issue that’s why we have to keep working together and keep organising to build enough power that we can keep exposing the climate denial and delay and eventually build an unstoppable wave of momentum across all sectors and communities and elect leaders who have the moral backbone and political leadership to enact the change we need to see.
And Professor Mary Gagen adds: Because politicians respond to voters and voters all possess a social primate brain. Climate action taps into a really problematic bit of the human brain. We are not good at taking the long view; making small sacrifices in the short term to avoid terrible outcomes in the long term. We also do not like being made to feel like accepting something will challenge who we are. If I feel that accepting climate science requires me to change my ideology, my political or religious beliefs or to stop liking money and the things I value, or the things that I feel define me as a person, then my social primate brain, which values social networks above all things, will find ways to quite literally persuade me the science is fake. I will decide it is a conspiracy, I will decide I am being tricked, I will do anything to avoid what I see as being an attack on who I am.
There are many people who have written brilliantly on this ‘politically motivated reasoning’ and the psychosocial barriers to climate action it puts up. I can highly recommend George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About it: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.
The best thing we can all do in the run up to COP26 is to stop and ask ourselves “why do my views on climate change frighten others”? If we can get around politics to find ways to take individual action on climate change regardless of our different political beliefs we stand a chance of reaching the end of the century with our climate on a pathway to returning to a position of stability.
Damian Carrington points out: The climate crisis is a slow motion disaster unlike, for example, the Covid pandemic or the 2008 financial crash. So action can be delayed, with the resulting damages impacting later. Therefore it has been difficult to generate the political urgency needed to make the big changes required. There has also been a decades-long campaign of denial and delay from vested interests, especially the fossil fuel industry. But it’s changing. The impacts of worsening extreme weather are now obvious and the global youth protests are creating political pressure.