Nature Under Threat
In late May I made my first visit to the Shetland Islands and on a rare fine day walked the cliffs at Herma Ness among the bonxies, puffins and guillemots. The sight, sound and smell of the tens of thousands of gannets here is surely one of the natural wonders of the world. And yet today I read of the ‘catastrophic decline’ in the numbers of many of these birds as rising sea temperatures, and the decline of sand eel populations drive them from their habitats in the northern Scottish islands.
It is important to remind ourselves of the value of wonder and the painfulness of loss when so much of contemporary politics is marked by contempt or irreverence for what is sacred. Writing from Europe it is difficult to know what to make of the seven year old blond boy who is the leading character in a daily White House soap opera which sometimes seems like a farce but more often feels like a tragedy. Is he the most dangerous and malignant political leader the world has seen since the 1920s? Is he a puppet who will be quickly disposed of by his handlers once he has outlived his usefulness? Or are his handlers deceiving themselves and like Franz von Papen in 1932 will they become victims of the very forces they thought they could control?
We would be foolish to rule out any of these perspectives. Trump didn’t need to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. Indeed Rex Tillerson the former boss of Exxon and Trump’s foreign secretary, was for staying in believing that it was a symbolic commitment that could be quietly ignored. But for Trump is was a point of principle, another offensive in the ‘culture wars’ and a big ‘fuck you’ to Obama. More recently his irresponsible bluster about bringing ‘fire and fury’ to Korea must have brought terror to many Japanese and South Korean citizens. His defence of the armed fascist militias marching in Charlottesville provided one more illustration of how he acts as a lightening rod for white American grievance.
Jason Burke writing in the Observer links the sense of grievance of both rightwing militants and jihadists. Each group feels the loss of either the confederacy or the caliphate as mythical symbols of betrayal. Burke writes that, “ the grievance that comes with perceived loss and defeat is the lifeblood of extremism. This Psychology and politics of grievance will be explored in a CPA conference entitled Staying with the Trouble: Sustaining Engagement in a Climate of Resentment 10 Feb 2017.
Every minute we’re thinking and talking about Trump we’re not thinking and talking about the global climate crisis. Every moment we get distracted by the latest outburst (which often feeds our own need to feel contempt towards the other) we fail to spot the real destroyers quietly going about their work. One such is Scott Pruitt who is quietly and stealthily going about dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency and decades of environmental legislation in the USA. A recent article highlights the secrecy surrounding Pruitt’s destructive work which includes the shutting down of data collection regarding the emissions of oil and gas companies. Whilst being a Trump appointee Pruitt is completely identified with the Republican establishment, as is Jeff Sessions who is doing a similar job to US civil rights legislation.
Trump leads a movement that is intoxicated by its contempt for liberal values, a set of values which now includes environmentalism. As recent research indicates, Trump’s electoral victory has not led to an increase in climate change denialism in the US public but what has shifted is the extent to which Republican voters now identify concern about climate change with liberalism. In the US climate change is now being entangled in the ‘culture wars’, and nothing could suit the fossil fuel interests better. Remember, Exxon and co know exactly the score on climate change and yet they wilfully obstruct the fight against it in pursuit of their own interests.
Sounding the Alarm
There will come a time when these dinosaurs either die out or mutate into some other monster, just as BP tried and failed to mutate into ‘Beyond Petroleum’ in 2000. The danger is that their death throes persist long enough to bring the rest of the Earth down with them. Indeed alarm is spreading through the business world, even Schroders, the UK’s largest global investment firm, are now warning that global temperatures are on track for an increase of 4 degrees by the end of the century.
Which brings us to another storm, this one provoked by David Wallace-Wells in his article The Uninhabitable Planet where in a vivid and visceral way he sketches out what he feels is likely to happen this century if we fail to take action to change our current greenhouse gas emissions trajectory. Wallace-Wells has been accused of sensationalism, doom mongering and scare tactics by several critics including some climate scientists such as Michael Mann. It seems that whilst he is guilty of some factual inaccuracies most of what Wallace-Wells describes is not too far off the mark.
The key issue for us is the assumption made by many of his critics that spreading fear is counter productive because if people are swamped by anxiety they stop thinking and become paralysed. Well a quick internet search shows that this will come as a surprise to many working in the health services where extensive experience now exists in ‘breaking bad news’, particularly to cancer patients. As CPA member Renee Lertzman indicates in a recent article for the Sierra Club, climate change communication has been stalled between the poles of hope/despair and good news/bad news for too long. Eschewing these unhelpful binaries Renee argues that there is no magic formula for motivating people. One thing’s clear, if we avoid ‘telling it straight’ because we fear it will demotivate people then we’re on a hiding to nothing. And this brings us back to Wallace-Wells, for what he calls ‘scientific reticence’ has led scientists to communicate in terms of ‘the timid language of scientific probabilities’ – something confirmed by recent research interviews with climate scientists in the UK and Australia.
Holding the Tension – a Task for Climate Psychology
Wallace-Wells calls for a bolder language of the imagination to communicate about climate change. People can hold the tension between hope and despair and between right and wrong so long as we in our movement nurture that capacity ourselves. Returning to the Shetland Islands, one of the unexpected delights was to discover that they have their own thriving subspecies of starling which not only nests within the cavities of the ubiquitous old stone walls but also on the cliffs among the seabirds. I was reminded of this when reading Fred Pearce’s review of Chris Thomas’s new book Inheritors of the Earth which celebrates the dynamism and diversity of nature, even amidst (and partly prompted by) the destructive impact of climate change.
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Constant Anxiety Won't Save the World an article by Julie Beck featuring Renee Lertzman and Rosemary Randall
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Climate Visuals masterclass by Climate Outreach in partnership with Thomson Reuters Foundation - London, 4 September 2017
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