As a new father, what can any of us do faced with the credible warnings 'humanity is in for some awful shit'?
Calum John Murray was born just after 5am on 19 March 2015, arriving with considerably more drama than either his mother or I had envisaged. Suffice to say, one of the sounds you least want to overhear in the seconds after your son is born are the words "do we need to take him to crash?" The sound you most want to hear, the happiest sound of our lives, came a few minutes later: a baby crying.
I've argued in the past the default position for writing about the environment – indeed the default condition for anyone who regards themselves as an environmentalist – is a state of perpetual cognitive dissonance. A dialectical tension between the optimism inherent in the natural world and our successful efforts to protect it, and the pessimism fuelled by the awareness environmental degradation is outpacing our efforts to create a sustainable economy. I never realised until those first five minutes how these contrasting extremes are redolent of parenthood. The all-consuming joy that comes with holding your child in your arms is coupled with the fear people rarely speak of, and must strive to stop becoming all-consuming: the fear that this little life is so fragile. For many environmentalists these tensions are interconnected, the hopes and fears for their own offspring inevitably shaped by hopes and fears for the entire next generation.
This all sounds a bit downbeat, but it shouldn't. Calum is without doubt the most perfect little person who ever existed, and anyone who wishes to argue the point is obviously wrong. It is part of human nature that the hopes tend to win out over the doubts. Call it optimism bias, call it the human spirit, the joy beats the fear much more often than not.
However, the challenge facing all of us – the realisation of the currently rather battered-looking promise the next generation will have it better than the last – is dependent on us resolving this conflict between environmental, economic, and societal optimism and pessimism in favour of the creation of a better, cleaner, and sustainable world. Can we honestly say at this point we are delivering against this challenge? That we are doing everything we can to protect and empower our children and their generation?
I promised myself I wouldn't write this piece. The inevitable "look, I've become a dad" article is situated near the very zenith of journalistic self-absorption, up there with the inevitable "here's what I learned about dating", and "let me tell you about my diet/exercise regime".
Buzzfeed's Tom Chivers has written some wonderful articles on becoming a new father and several years ago George Monbiot wrote a characteristically heartfelt open letter to his new daughter. But the list of "new dad" articles that don't immediately succumb to audience-alienating navel gazing is not long (perhaps because one of the concerns of new parents I have noticed in the past few weeks is actually gazing at their child's navel).
On top of that, I've always been allergic to "the children are our future" school of environmental communication, on the grounds it detracts from the hugely compelling short and medium-term reasons for embracing clean technologies and behaviours. Reasons such as energy cost savings or health improvements, which don't require people to make the leap of envisaging the ultimately unknowable experience of people in 2080.
However, they say write about what you know, and right now, amid the nappies and the broken nights, this is what I know.
Calum is born to one of the most important generations in human history. This is not hyperbole. It is his and his peers' destiny to join the first homo sapiens, the first hunter-gatherer tribes, the first agricultural communities, and the first industrialists as one of the few defining cohorts in the entire sweep of human history. His generation will either successfully deliver a global wave of green industrial transformation or be forced to battle the horrifying implications of what it means to live in a world facing climate breakdown.
As Al Gore's investment partner David Blood observed this week, "the transition to a low-carbon economy will be the most significant change in economic history". He is not wrong. Nothing like this has been attempted in the past and almost everything depends on the outcome of the transition.
Currently, we remain wilfully blind to the looming deadlines we face. We are closer in history to the point at which the UK's power industry should be almost fully decarbonised than we are to Tony Blair's first election victory. By the time Calum leaves school, electric cars should be the norm, homes should be largely powered and heated using clean energy, and global deforestation should have halted. Similarly, we are closer to the point at which greenhouse gas emissions should be cut by 80 per cent and global emissions should be halved, than we are to the first election victories of Thatcher and Reagan. By the time Calum is my age, he should be living in a near fully decarbonised society.
Consider this: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones have been touring for longer than we have to deliver a near zero-emission global economy. On that basis, Justin Bieber and Olly Murs could one day be touring in a decarbonised world, which would be kind of bittersweet.
However, if on one side of this equation we have a handful of decades to deliver one of the most exciting and rewarding transformations in the history of civilisation, on the other side we have the daunting realisation that failure to do so means my son and his coevals will discover first-hand if scientific warnings of what it will be like to live in a 4°C world are accurate.
If Calum is lucky enough to match the lifespan of his great-grandparents, he will see the 22nd century. Having been held in the arms of a great-grandmother who knew and loved people who experienced the 19th century, he could well know and love people who will see the 23rd century. All being well, he will see first-hand whether humanity prospers or struggles in the Anthropocene.
If I share one thing in common with climate sceptics, it is a deeply held hope the current climate models are badly wrong, that the climate is not as sensitive as we think to sharp increases in greenhouse gas emissions and we will ultimately see only modest warming this century. The problem is, the evidence self-styled 'lukewarmers' cite to support their position is frequently less than compelling and too often ignores basic principles of responsible risk management – namely, that if the stakes are this high, you err on the side of caution. As the peerless US climate blogger Dave Roberts argued in a controversial but essential article, the best available evidence suggests "barring miracles, humanity is in for some awful shit".
Efforts to tackle this looming crisis, to deliver the transition to a new zero-emission world that is so critical to our medium-term security, are hamstrung by a collective omerta that ensures the national conversation rarely, if ever, touches on the true scale of the risk and opportunity our society faces. Writing as someone who has spent much of the past 10 years trying to break this omerta, the selective blindness of so many political and business leaders to the challenges my son's generation faces is a pretty damning indictment of my professional failure.
Why are we failing to engage fully with the most exciting and terrifying issue of our epoch? Our tendency to assume the world as it is now is the world as it will continue to be – status quo bias, as Roberts calls it – must provide a big part of the answer.
I attended a meeting recently where plans from a leading brand to deliver cutting-edge clean technologies to an entire city borough were being discussed. One of the people around the table wondered whether it would be possible, given it would mean installing new technology in every single building, totalling tens of thousands of individual homes. "That," I said, perhaps a little too sharply, "is precisely what it means". We need to change almost everything and at a pace that has never been achieved before. The fact so many people, including many who regard themselves as environmentalists or green professionals, fail to comprehend the true scale of what is happening is one of the biggest challenges the green movement faces.
This selective blindness, this failure to follow climate change warnings and clean tech development curves to their logical conclusion, is everywhere. On our second evening at home after leaving hospital my wife and I spent a couple of hours watching our son stare into space, as the first leaders' TV debate of the election campaign played in the background. Towards the end of that seemingly interminable broadcast my attention was piqued by a question from one of the younger members of the audience on intergenerational justice. I can't remember the precise wording, but they enquired as to how our prospective leaders would restore the promise they would enjoy happier and more prosperous lives than their parents. For me, the responses were perhaps the most depressing component of a singularly miserable campaign and all the evidence you need of the strange death of political oratory in this country.
Each of the candidates mumbled something about house building or tuition fees or the deficit, while only the Greens' Natalie Bennett saw fit to give climate change and the green economy a passing mention. Where was the recognition of what is happening to our climate and economy and what needs to happen next? Where was the optimism politicians are supposed to trade in, the sense that a better and sustainable society is possible?
What we needed to hear, what my son, gently drifting off to sleep, needed to hear was this: "It may not be fashionable to say so, but in many respects your generation is blessed. You have access to the world's libraries in the palm of your hands, you will live longer and safer lives than any of your forebears, you will have freedom to pursue your dreams and loves that was too often denied your ancestors, the 'white heat' of technology will transform your lives in ways we cannot yet imagine. But it is also true your parents and their parents have failed you. We have lived beyond our means, both in narrow financial and wider environmental terms. The opportunities that are yours are tempered, and could be smashed, by the enormous environmental crisis we have bequeathed you. It is now up to us, as your parents and guardians, to work with you to overcome those challenges, to embrace the new technologies and businesses that will build a new economy – a zero-emission economy driven by clean energy and green transport and a digital revolution which together can ensure your generation's prospects are far, far more promising than they look right now."
Can we deliver that society? And more importantly, can we deliver it fast enough?
Perhaps not. As Roberts argues, to stand a reasonable chance of limiting temperature increases to 2°C we need a transformation so rapid and all-encompassing it borders on the miraculous. But, as he also argues, economic and technological development is not linear. Miracles, or at least near-miracles, happen. Moreover, if we can't keep temperature increases below 2°C, 3°C is much better than 4°C. The fight goes on.
Yet, if we are to succeed in this fight, one thing is clear: we need to recognise the truly historic nature of what we are trying to achieve and the scale of the transformation that is even now being quietly, and often successfully, pursued. It was more than five years ago investment in new clean energy capacity started to outstrip investment in new fossil fuel power. It was last year, if the IEA preliminary data is to be believed, that global emissions growth detached from economic growth. There are signs that the revolution that will define the economy my son grows up in is well under way. But the under-reporting that dogs this transformation and the counter-productive clinging to outdated and unsustainable models that slows it down need to be smashed. As humans we create the future we imagine, but we have to have the nerve to imagine it first. Only by doing so can we stand any chance of avoiding the "awful shit" many scientists fear this century holds in store.
Can we do it? When my wife and I went into hospital it was still winter; by the time we left with our newborn son, there was blossom on the trees and young squirrels and birds had appeared in the garden. In the weeks after Calum was born a billionaire entrepreneur in California unveiled a battery that could make zero-carbon off-grid homes a reality and world leaders declared once again they will deliver unprecedented international co-operation to tackle climate change. Meanwhile, my son has already taken to looking out the window at the bright green trees in the park opposite and carefully considering the light as the sun rises and sets. The joy beats the fear much more often than not.
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