Here I am, in Warsaw at the UN’s COP19 and I find it hard not to wonder at times what everybody’s actually doing here.
I know the intent and the ambitious rhetoric of these negotiations; I am proud that they exist and that countries are, at least in principle, working towards meaningful solutions to solve the global problem of climate change. Yet in preparing to head into a meeting with Canada’s Chief Climate Negotiator tomorrow, and having heard and seen the rhetoric and positioning of many other countries, I find it hard not to come back to that basic question: what are we doing here? And when I think about it, I can come to only one answer: we are struggling to define the world that we want to live in.
That is a profound question to be struggling with, and I believe that while it’s clearly more prominent within these negotiations, it’s a question nearly all of us are struggling with worldwide with no clear, singular answer. I think the challenge is that as humans, we can often name and define with relative precision the kind of world we feel we don’t want – a world that is becoming increasingly clear to us as the impacts of climate change intensify – but we struggle to put words and vision to the world we want instead. Perhaps this is because that world is so often the ‘default world’ we once knew, and in many ways simply want back. You know, the world where nature still clearly operated within frameworks of its own making, not our own, and hence where the weight of the world was not on our shoulders. A world where there existed great natural beauty and great natural devastation, and yet where we didn’t have to wonder if these so-called “natural disasters” could perhaps be largely of our own making. A world we were a part of, but that clearly existed beyond us, where we were no more than small players. A world that we may have some small influence on, but that we knew intuitively was much stronger and more powerful than humanity as a whole. It was comforting to live in a world that you knew, no matter how hard you pushed up against it, would always be stronger, and would always have the strength to persist more or less as it always had, for as long as anyone could remember. That is the world that many of us, deep down, want back: the world that by and large took care of itself, and that we are not responsible for. A world where we could be good stewards, perhaps, of our own little corner, but certainly didn’t feel its whole crushing weight on our shoulders.
In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, one more ‘off-the-charts’ superstorm to wreak havoc across this new, foreign world of shared global responsibility, it has become painfully clear once again the kind of world we don’t want. While measurements and comparisons are still being made, it is possible that this could become “the strongest storm to ever make landfall since modern record-keeping began”[i]. Of course, whether or not it wins “first” is pretty irrelevant: the point is this storm was absolutely massive and devastating, not to mention quite unusual for this time of year, and has already claimed at least 10,000 lives with over a million people evacuated from their homes between the Philippines[ii] and Vietnam[iii] alone. While the evacuations surely saved many thousand more lives, many of these people now face complete wreckage in the place of their communities, completely destroying their homes and livelihoods. Such a tragedy is incomprehensible to most of us, and it’s also another weight on the shoulders of humankind as we realize our part in it.
Such a superstorm was highly unusual for this time of year, as the typhoon season officially ended November 1st. We know that while the overall number of hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons hasn’t increased over the past decades, “the proportion of more intense storms has”,[iv] with the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes globally nearly doubled from the early 1970s to 2000s.[v] We also know that, according to basic atmospheric science, warmer atmospheric temperatures caused in large part by all the heat-trapping GHGs we keep dumping should lead to warmer sea surface temperatures, which should support stronger hurricanes and potentially longer hurricane seasons – all of which we have seen quite clearly. Combine this with increased air moisture – another byproduct of burning fossil fuels – and increased overall energy in the system, and you have a recipe for increasing disasters. Some will remember that less than a month ago India undertook one of the largest evacuations ever of over 800,000 people in the wake of Cyclone Phailin.[vi] As scientists struggle to tease apart just “how much” of these storms is influenced by climate change, and how much is “natural”, the underlying theme is clear: increasing climate change and warmer sea surface temperatures is likely to only make the intensity of such storms and duration of their seasons much, much worse.
Typhoon Haiyan – another psychological weight resting in part on our shoulders…
I’d like to pause for a moment to think about how all of this makes us feel. While researchers and scientists often talk about the physical damage of such storms, and perhaps the psychological damage of those directly affected, I find it frustrating that little attention is given to the effect all this has on the “global human psyche”, if you will, as a whole – particularly on those, such as myself, who bear witness to such events and recognize the significant part we all play in it. This is not in any way to paint observers as the “victims” here, as clearly we aren’t, but to draw attention to the fact that moving from a mindset of viewing our weather system as composed of no more than natural phenomena to recognizing the direct, significant influence we humans have on it is a massive shift in outlook, and for many of us has a profound effect on our psyches. The psychological stress caused by anthropogenic climate change is surely one area of “collateral damage” that receives little attention but is of enormous importance, in part because it helps explain why denialism can appear so attractive: at the end of the day, nobody wants the weight of the world on their shoulders. Thinking that a massive, off-the-charts storm in the Philippines could have been influenced in some way by the small amount of greenhouse gases you’ve emitted halfway around the world is, let’s be honest, a horrible feeling to live with.
So we often avoid this reality, day after day, immersing ourselves and these international climate negotiations in this dreadful sense of inertia with not near enough ever being done – because to act would mean to shoulder that weight. And not surprisingly, our politicians who spend their days being advised on the relative “mood” of the general public, respond with weak and even completely counterproductive measures as they see quite clearly that despite our insistence that yes, “something must be done” about climate change, our conviction is weak and our own inertia runs deep, as deep down, few among us (if any?) really want to shoulder any of this. We might “say the right thing” but again, deep down, how many of us are actually ready to embrace the level of change required? And so the world keeps dragging its feet on action, no matter how high the piles of evidence may mount, for we’ve simply failed to adequately consider what effect all this dry scientific evidence might have on the human psyche that lives not in theory but in the real, emotionally-involved world, and how people are bound to respond when they feel their worldview and psychological space is under threat. If there is one thing activists in this area (including myself) might still have to learn it’s that terrifying people or overwhelming them with the enormity of the problem, again and again, is not necessarily the best way to incent meaningful short- or long-term change: instead, we must find some way to describe not only the world we’re against, but the positive vision we are for.
I believe that if we want people to embrace the evolving concept of “global citizenship”, bound to be so critical to the success of humanity in the times that lie ahead, we must cultivate this vision now more than ever before. We must challenge ourselves – and I do believe it is a far harder, yet ultimately much more rewarding challenge – to be not merely reactionary in the face of these compounding threats, but visionary in how we wish to move forward. Describing a problem and making the connections to our personal behavior is important – but where do we go from there? To leave people stranded in a sea of evidence suggesting that their behavior, however small on its own, is contributing to the continued wreckage of the planet with no clear roadmap forwards is an awful feeling to be left with, and in extreme cases can lead people to the incredibly sad conclusion that the most “moral” thing to do would simply be to “rid the planet” of this plague called humanity once and for all. I certainly don’t believe that, and I think it’s a great shame that historically science has been so poorly coupled with sound, holistic methods of communication that help people to come to terms with the data and sort through it in a supportive environment. In the context of climate change, it has become clearer than ever that simply “dumping facts” on people is an incredibly poor strategy for effecting change, particularly when what that often essentially amounts to is asking people to shoulder the immense weight of the world with little help in demonstrating how they might pick up and run with life’s lighter, more inspiring and joyful parts. Transformative change can come through terror, but this is normally the ‘post-traumatic stress’ kind of change – if we want truly healthy, long-lasting transformative change we must work much harder to cultivate a positive vision.
I say all this because I truly believe that embracing the scientific, economic, moral, spiritual, social and cultural realities of climate change does not have to leave you in a state of terror. Realizing that human influence has grown so large that many of the Earth’s biggest cycles are no longer nearly as independent of us as they once were does not have to leave you in a state of terror. This may, at the outset, be the starting point, but it cannot be the end point if we have any hope of making active “global citizenship” a truly permanent fixture of the new human psyche for the generations to come. If we want to ingrain a sense of stewardship to the planet as a whole into our human societies, then we have to paint such engagement as an attractive, not terrifying, way forward. This will undoubtedly be a highly diverse and pluralistic vision, with all the differences in opinion that implies, but it will be unified around the common sense that caring for the whole – often by caring just for one small part of it – is in fact incredibly satisfying and life-affirming work, and will in the end create a far happier, richer world to live in.
Recognizing our undeniable connection the natural world is a major step towards wholeness and sanity once again, and can often feel like an incredible relief after so long spent in artificial disconnect. Climate change reminds us that we are deeply connected, and that the influence between the human and natural world is incredibly fluid and powerful, with no clear line between the two. While it is a terrifying, daunting issue in many ways, it also reaffirms our place within the natural order of things, and is thus a very healthy wake-up call to rebuild our connection. In the end, I believe if this issue is approached in a way not based solely in terror (whether a terror of climate change or simply of change itself) but of faith in the ability of humankind to rebuild its old connection to all that that ground us here on this Earth, then the path forward can be one of incredible renewal and strengthening of our core identity and values. Terror only serves to shatter our confidence and sense of who we think we are; a positive vision, a deepening of connection, and serve to rebuild it and give us a sense of grounding and purpose in the world again.
In the wake of these disasters and the international efforts to help, I ask: let’s rebuild not only the physical structures that shelter us on this planet, but our sense of all that is possible again too in a world connected to, not distant from, ourselves and nature. The results could be truly transformative.
Author: Kai Reimer-Watts
[i] “Super Typhoon Hayain: Why Monster Storm is So Unusual.” National Geographic. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/11/131108-supertyphoon-haiyan-yolanda-atmosphere-climate-change/
[iv] “Super Typhoon Hayain: Why Monster Storm is So Unusual.” National Geographic. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/11/131108-supertyphoon-haiyan-yolanda-atmosphere-climate-change/