Five things parenthood has taught me about climate change

James Murray
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Five things parenthood has taught me about climate change

How can we stay positive and resist the fear and anger the threat of climate crisis provokes?

You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world

Masters of War, Bob Dylan

We gotta stay positive

Stay Positive, The Hold Steady

 

For much of the past six months I have been meaning to write an update to a blog from last year about my experience of becoming a father at a time of climate crisis. Entitled the Joy and the Fear, the article explored the parallels between parenthood and environmentalism, their shared tension between optimism for a beautiful future and the fear everything could go badly wrong.

I intended to return to these themes to mark Calum John Murray's first birthday in March, but a combination of sleep deprivation and a news cycle that has given 2016 the feel of an end of season finale meant I never found the time. However, it is the fag end of summer and finally there is an all too brief opportunity to stop a think before another political cycle gets fully underway, to reflect on whether the hope climate catastrophe can be averted has survived 18 months of parenthood that coincided with a raft of ever louder environmental alarm bells. To ask whether I've learnt anything in the past year and a half, beyond how to change a nappy one handed in 30 seconds flat while brushing a recalcitrant toddler's teeth with the other hand.

The best place to start is with what must be termed the Leadsom disclaimer. None of the following five lessons are exclusive to parents. In fact they are not really lessons at all, more an intensification of things I already knew. Plenty of people who are more socially-minded and environmentally aware than I am will have realised much of this stuff long ago, regardless of whether or not they have kids.

1. The low carbon transition has to be structural

Individual behaviour has a crucially important role to play as we strive to build a genuinely sustainable economy. Personal choices create clean tech markets and build the constituencies necessary to push political and business leaders towards more ambitious climate action. As the US environmentalist Margaret Mead famously observed, "never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has".

But there are limits to how far well intentioned green behaviour change can take us. Too many environmental best practices fail what I have come to regard as the 8:30 to 9pm test. Can the changes proposed be understood and enacted in the 30 minutes of 'free' time between finishing the washing up and collapsing into bed? If not, they are always going to struggle to break into the mainstream, unless they can find a way to become a default setting for the vast majority of people.

What follows are two examples - one serious, one mundane - from the past 18 months.

When Calum was born I intended to undertake some financial 'nesting'. And yet the process never got much further than moving some of my savings into a Green ISA and putting £50 towards a renewables crowdfunding project on Calum's behalf in the hope it will pay for a round of drinks on his 21st birthday. I meant to set up a proper Green ISA in Calum's name, but that required more forms than my sleep-starved brain could handle, so the savings my wife and I set aside for him still sit in a standard savings account earning next to no interest. I meant to actively divest my pension, because, well, because of all the things I write about every day. But my private pension is already in an ethical fund and my work pension would require an epic office-based lobbying effort to get changed.

And so my green financial spring clean remains half completed. I have been thwarted by a combination of laziness and financial illiteracy. I cannot be alone in this. The nascent green finance sector is struggling to pass the 8:30 to 9pm test, not least because the finance sector as a whole fails the same test. That's why we all hate our banks, but are more likely to get divorced than change our current account.

Faced with this challenge there is only so much compelling marketing messages and environmentalist lobbying can do. What is needed is structural change across the industry. Every High Street bank needs to offer a divested account and a Green ISA, every employer needs to get pension schemes out of unsustainable fossil fuels. Green consumer choices matter, but they matter most where they help deliver structural change. We need what BNEF's Michael Liebreich and Angus McCrone have rightly diagnosed as 'phase change' across the economy, and we need it fast.

Example two: a short time after Calum arrived we signed up to the Hello Fresh meal delivery service. It's great, and environmentally sound. Every few weeks we order three nutritious, healthy, easy to cook meals. Food waste is averted, takeaways avoided, new recipes introduced, and vegetarian options promoted.

The ingredients and recipe cards come in a sturdy cardboard box, complete with cold bag and ice blocks, all of which are reusable. And yet the delivery man who brings it neither turns up in an electric van, nor takes the box from the previous week back. Admittedly, it can be returned for free, but has to be labelled and taken to a drop off point. But who does this? Forget the 8:30 to 9pm test, faced with this hassle only a recycling fundamentalist would do the logical and resource efficient thing.

Simple resource loops that could be easily baked into business models at low cost are being ignored, even by modern businesses where resource efficiency and sustainability are a natural part of the game plan.

Obviously, I have to do better. This year the green ISA needs to be set up, the forms need to be filled out, the boxes need to be returned. But equally it is clearer than ever that the low carbon transition has to be structural. It has to deliver phase change. It may seem like an abdication of individual responsibility (it is), but modern life is often too busy to countenance anything else.

2. We need to work less

A few years ago, after a concert in Paris the then French President Nicholas Sarkozy ventured backstage to meet Bob Dylan. "Where do you live?" the politician asked. "Right here," replied Dylan, before gently clarifying "I'm just joking. I'm from the Lone Star State."

It's a lovely little pun, instantly reminding us how the multiple uses of the word living can be used to distance us from how we are living right this instant. And nowhere is this distancing more apparent than in the dread phrase ‘work-life balance'.

The best trick capitalism ever pulled was to inculcate the idea work and life are two binary opposites to be balanced. If you actually deconstruct the ubiquitous ‘work-life balance' it quickly becomes rather sinister. Are you not meant to be alive when at work? Who is the arbiter of the appropriate balance? If we get the balance wrong and unleash epidemics of stress and anxiety do we actually end up diminishing both work and life?

One of the biggest contributors to the last year being one of the happiest of my life has been the decision to work a four day week. I know I am supremely lucky to be in this position, to have an employer that accepted a request for part time work, a career that suits such flexibility, and a set of financial circumstances that makes such an arrangement just about workable.

We never discussed it in too much depth, but when it came time for my wife to return to work following maternity leave we decided it would make sense, financially and emotionally, to both go part time and minimise the nursery bills. Sadly it is not sustainable in the long term, but for now it is one of the best decisions we ever made and I'd recommend it to any father who can find a way to do it. The extra time with my son is priceless, but on top of that I barely detect any drop off in my workplace productivity. In fact, after nearly 10 years in the same job I feel refreshed, less stressed, and more enthusiastic about the day job than ever before.

As City University's Andrew Williams argued recently this approach is also good for the environment. The four day week means you consume less stuff, you tend to travel less, and your environmental footprint is reduced.

How can this voluntary austerity be seen as progress and encouraged in an ultra-competitive working environment? It's not going to be easy. For over 20 years ‘hard working families' and the need to compete in the ‘global race' have defined political discourse. Work is central to our sense of identity while the emerging gig economy is creating a precariousness that demands ever higher levels of commitment from employees. The answer to the UK's terrible levels of productivity always seems to be work harder and longer, rather than smarter. It is hard to envisage how an overhaul of working culture can be achieved.

And yet an overhaul may well be needed. The level of automation that is about to come to transport networks and production lines everywhere is going to eradicate countless millions of jobs. Previous technology revolutions have always seen lost jobs replaced by new industries, but we should not take such job creation for granted. And, as importantly, how do we ensure any new jobs are sufficiently rewarding, healthy, and fulfilling?

If the months since the Brexit vote have taught us anything it is that while there was never a plan for leaving the EU, many (but not all) Vote Leave alumni sure as hell had a vision: the UK as a North Sea Singapore, a single-party state democracy, defined by beggar-thy-neighbour tax policies, gossamer light touch regulation, climate sceptic-justified fossil fuel infrastructure, a fracking gold rush, over-fished seas, a 1950s rote-learnt education system, an end to ‘spirit-crushing' environmental directives, a mercantile foreign policy replete with quasi-imperial delusions, and a ‘points-based immigration system', which if Australia is anything to go by translates into high levels of immigration to keep the labour market competitive (ie low paid) coupled with a brutalist approach to those desperately seeking a better life.

Faced with this clarity of vision, the left, and let's be honest the centre-left and centre-right too, are nowhere, bleating vaguely and unconvincingly about anti-austerity or tweaking current policies in an increasingly frantic attempt to keep the centrist show on the road. A more compelling vision is urgently needed and a renewed focus on delivering essential clean, low carbon infrastructure combined with a genuine attempt to explore whether the work-life balance can be drastically tilted in favour of a life well lived is as good a place as any for radical centrists (there are a few of us left) to start.

It is time to stop talking about environmentally and family friendly Scandinavian-style work and social policies and actually start delivering them. To offer a vision based on quality of life and genuine sustainability that can counter the vision for a ruggedly individualist economy that risks resulting in a pollutocrat's paradise. A vision built on clean energy, liveable cities, reduced working hours, shared parenting, improved economic metrics, clean tech innovation, enhanced natural environments, clean air, fair taxation, electric car clubs, free nursery care, proper social care, a better understanding of what constitutes economic success, and perhaps even universal income.

Can such a vision be delivered? Well, there is plenty of pent up demand for it and, as the Guardian's John Harris argues in an essential read this week on the travails of the left (and the centre right) globally, it is not like the current vision offered by centrist politicians is working.

My own brief experiment in working and consuming less, in ensuring that for at least one day a week intrinsic values take primacy over extrinsic values, has been truly life-affirming. The activities with zero economic imprint - a walk in the woods, playing in the park - suddenly take on increased importance. US environmental blogger Dave Roberts has a nice line for this shift in the work-life balance, he calls it The Medium Chill. After six months of giving it a go, I'm all for it. The question is not where do we live, but where do we want to live?

3. It is getting harder not to feel scared

Calum's grandparents were born at the dawn of the Anthropocene. The team making the case for the new human-influenced geological age recently declared it should be backdated to the 1950s and the dispersal of radioactive elements from nuclear bomb tests across the planet. But it is Calum and his coevals (great band name, no?) who will knowingly navigate the first phase of this epoch.

As former president of the Royal Society Martin Rees argued, it could prove to be an exciting and brave new age defined by a "sustainable future" and "eras of post-human evolution even more marvellous than what's led to us". But he also acknowledged that "the darkest prognosis for the next millennium is that bio, cyber or environmental catastrophes could foreclose humanity's immense potential, leaving a depleted biosphere". At the moment that prognosis feels like it is getting darker by the day.

You have to pay close attention, partly because climate warnings are now coming thick and fast and partly because news editors still fail to give the potential breakdown of the climate that made human civilisation possible the front page treatment. But the toppling of climate records over the past few years and the growing credibility of warnings on everything from sea levels to storm surges to ocean temperatures to heat waves to typhoon intensity to droughts to disease vectors to air pollution to plastic pollution to ocean acidification to coral reef die off to biodiversity loss is becoming increasingly hard to stomach.

I blame Ed Hawkins. Thanks to a couple of cleverly conceived graphics the climate scientist has perfectly crystallised quite how scary current climate trend are. You don't have to extrapolate very far forward to see how the world in which my son grows up is likely to change beyond all recognition over the course of this century. Terrifying is not too strong a word.

 


Even in environmentalist circles there is a reluctance to engage with the full implications of this data. We find ourselves in the bizarre position of hoping Donald Trump is right about one thing and climate warnings are a giant hoax, that our understanding of how the climate works is the biggest failure of scientific inquiry in human history. More realistically, the best we can hope for is that climate models prove overly pessimistic and optimistic predictions for a clean tech revolution prove spot on. We fixate on this happy confluence of events, because the arguably more plausible worst case scenarios unleashed by permafrost methane leaks, forest die off, and other feedback loops are simply too awful to contemplate.

Moreover, if the dawning realisation that the best estimates of the best scientific academies on the planet herald well in excess of 2C of warming this century isn't scary enough, the Himalayan scale of the actions needed to avert this risk add another horrifying perspective.

Bill McKibben's recent essay calling for a war effort to tackle climate change may have sparked criticism for its martial imagery, but it provided a useful reminder of the scale of the industrial transformation required to deliver a decarbonised global economy. He cited an analysis of what would be needed to build a clean energy system for the US by 2050 that concluded we would require 30 giant solar panel factories a year, plus another 15 for wind turbines. Currently, we are not even close to delivering such large scale manufacturing capacity and there is no credible plan for doing so.

And even if we succeed in building a near zero emission economy it does not necessarily mean crisis will be averted. Virtually every climate model for keeping temperatures below 2C requires the deployment of technologies for reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, none of which have yet been invented. A degree of warming is already locked in that means Calum's experience of the flow of the seasons will be distinctly and demonstrably different to that of his grandparents.

He doesn't know it yet and I hope he never finds out, but I am scared for my son. How can I not be?

4. It is getting harder not to be angry

All of this makes it difficult not to feel angry. Again, how can it not?

It is hard not to be angry at the political leaders who profess to understand the significance of climate change and then simultaneously advocate policies that will indisputably make the threat graver still. Who, not unlike Martin Luther King's lamented 'white moderates', favour incrementalism and gradual reform of the existing order over the break with business-as-usual that is urgently required. Who declare climate change an existential threat and then brand as unrealistic or naïve anyone with entirely legitimate concerns about building new fossil fuel infrastructure.

It is hard not to be angry at the editors and journalists who treat the avalanche of climate evidence and its enormous implications as a niche story for a niche audience. Who are in thrall to false balance between vested interest lobbyists and climate scientists. Who appear to have no qualms when academics complain their work has been twisted, cherry-picked, or misrepresented to fit a logic-defying editorial line.

It is hard not to be angry with the business leaders who airily dismiss climate threats and insist the status quo is the only reasonable guide for future investments. Who stick two fingers up to our elected representatives with their arrogant, carbon bubble-defying assertion the Paris Agreement's goals will not be met. Who cheat, smear, and spin to protect their incumbent, externality-generating, oligopoly positions.

It is hard not to be angry with myself. My myriad compromises and hypocrisies. My failure to find a better way to communicate the risks and opportunities of the low carbon transition. My inability to protect my son from these escalating risks.

And, of course, it is hard not to be angry with those who argue none of this anger is justified, that manmade climate change is not happening or not serious or not worthy of a response. Who would laugh at my fears and casually dismiss the risks we face. Who declare themselves optimistic about the environment, while spreading pessimism about the clean technologies that might just change the world for the better. Who insist their rejection of clean energy is driven by concern about the cost it might impose on the impoverished, but all too often boast CVs that demonstrate barely a scintilla of concern for tackling poverty.

To quote the US satirist John Stewart, "I see you - and I see your bullshit".

I see how you spend days trawling reports seeking the one or two data points to support your contention climate change is nothing to worry about. I see your willingness to dismiss climate models and economic projections as inherently flawed attempts to understand an unknowable future, before then hailing any projections that offer the slightest succour to your arguments. I see how your rejection of expertise and your use of myth and misinformation defined the Brexit campaign. I see how your absurd suggestion green 'scare stories' are always overblown, deliberately glosses over the way the worst environmental impacts from CFCs or acid rain or lead or pesticides were only averted because we applied the precautionary principle that you so loathe and took concerted action to manage the risks we faced. I see your desire to turn the greatest existential threat of our age into little more than a school debating club game.

I know the contempt you hold for the 'green blob' is profound. But know this: if you are wrong in your analysis the contempt you nurture for environmentalists will be just a drop in an acidified ocean compared to the bottomless reserves of contempt history will reserve for your flawed and self-serving arguments.

And yet while raging at the world may be cathartic it is important to always remember Philp Roth's advice on anger: "Anger is to make you effective. That's its survival function. That's why it's given to you. If it makes you ineffective, drop it like a hot potato."

In parenthood, and much else, anger is rarely effective.

5. The causes for optimism are more convincing than ever

Resisting these twin impulses of fear and anger is essential and, thankfully, easier than you think. Credible grounds for optimism are everywhere, if you just know where to look for them.

Firstly, it is important to remember Calum was born into a golden age. The modern news cycle makes it hard for us to believe, but on virtually every metric going society is richer, healthier, and safer than it has ever been.

In his inspiring interview with David Attenborough earlier this year Barack Obama expanded on this point, offering the thought experiment that if you could pick the date in history at which you were born, but nothing else, not the location of your birth or your gender or sexuality or social class, you would choose now. He is right. Calum is blessed to have been born at this time.

Secondly, if climate change is the one giant storm cloud on the horizon the past 18 months has provided plenty of reasons to believe the worst could be avoided. If Calum's grandparents were born at the dawn of the Anthropocene, he might just have been born at the dawn of the green industrial age. Last year the first evidence emerged global emissions growth had stalled even as the world's economy continued to tick upwards. China's coal use appears to have peaked. Markets for renewable energy and electric cars are evolving faster than anyone predicted, fuelled by cost reduction curves that are plummeting downwards quicker than anyone thought possible.

We are now seeing evidence all around the world showing how clean energy can undercut fossil fuels on price, even before you consider the hidden costs of climate change and air pollution. Market forces might yet weave their magic and consign the fossil fuel era to history with precisely the same rapidity as Massachusetts whalers and Welsh coal miners once saw their industries implode.

Further encouragement still is provided by politicians' growing willingness to accelerate this revolution. The longest time I have spent apart from Calum since he was born was the week at the Paris Summit, watching as the world's leaders declared unequivocally that their goal was a net zero emission economy within my son's lifetime.

This optimism needs to be tempered by the sheer scale of the decarbonisation challenge. I get a frequent shot of realism on my Twitter feed from Robert Wilson at the University of Strathclyde who provides a raft of energy and climate-related graphs and infographics based on oft-ignored datasets. They occasionally offer an encouraging picture of how rapidly energy efficiency is improving or how quickly renewables markets are expanding. But more often they provide a depressing reminder of how dominant fossil fuels remain in the energy mix and how sophisticated clean technologies will have to become to tackle renewables' intermittency.

As such, for me the source of real optimism comes not from the still too slow expansion of existing clean tech markets, exciting as that is, but from the work that is being done in labs around the world.

Earlier this summer, I interviewed Michael Ruggier, a former executive on the Shell GameChanger programme, who has set up a new clean tech investment venture. He spoke excitedly of the real game-changing technologies that are now in development, from drilling systems that promise to allow geothermal power to emulate the cost reduction curve of solar and wind power to precision technologies for use in industrial greenhouses that could revolutionise food production in a decarbonised world. If just a handful of these next generation clean technologies make it into the mainstream we might just stand a chance.

We are also starting to see how phase change is both possible and desirable. Elon Musk's Tesla Master Plan, Part Deux might be hugely ambitious, but you can see how the integration of solar power, energy storage, automated electric vehicles, smart grids, and public transport will become technically feasible in the near future, bringing with it safer, quieter, ultra-low carbon cities where air pollution is eradicated.

I've quoted this article many times in the past, but it is always important to remember Dave Roberts' twin observations that social change is "non-linear; after periods of relative stasis, societies can lurch to a new equilibrium almost overnight" and that "even if we go past 2C, we'll still want to stop before 3C; 4C will be worse than 3C, 5C worse than 4C, and so on".

There are technological, social and economic reasons to remain optimistic about the progress we have made in the fight against climate change over the past 18 months - reasons that extend beyond the obvious need to avoid a self-defeating council of despair. The goal of a fully zero emission economy this century has been set and the recognition of the upsides that would come with such an economy is now pretty universal. That constitutes massive progress compared to where the green economy was even two or three years ago.

There is a reason why the two quotes representing joy and fear at the start of this essay are cribbed from the greatest artist of the past century and a glorified bar band. Faced with the true scale of the climate crisis it is the fear that has all the eloquence.

But if parenthood has taught me one thing it's that we gotta stay positive. Looking at my son, this understanding feels pretty universal. There is still much of which Calum knows nothing. But he knows it is in the park, surrounded by trees, where he is happiest. And he knows that when walking proves tricky and he topples over, he should simply dust off his hands and jump back up again. You've gotta stay positive.

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