Climate change has become such a clear, species-threatening emergency that sometimes it feels strange to talk or write about anything else.
Yes, I know, Covid-19. But a pandemic, although immensely destructive, will end eventually. In the longer term, climate change is a much bigger threat to our survival on this planet.
Most of the things I spend my day thinking about are completely unimportant compared to the stunning reality that unless we quickly pull off a radical global shift in the way we live, we will make the world at best difficult and at worst impossible to live in. And based on current trends, it seems we’re not going to make that shift in time.
And yet I write stories in which climate change is either peripheral or non-existent. I review books to which the same applies. I tweet about politics or reading or writing, and I make observations about life that would be quite witty and apropos if it weren’t for the fact that the world is burning.
I feel, sometimes, as if I’m sitting on a jumbo jet that’s plummeting towards the ocean, and my response is to turn to the guy in the seat next to me and say, “I read a good book lately.”
What’s the appropriate response to the slow collective suicide of the human race?
The answer seems to be to talk and write about nothing else, to put everything else to one side and deal with the real and present danger that we are all ignoring. Talk about climate change every day, with everyone I meet, write about it here on the blog and in my books and short stories and non-fiction.
We did something like that with Covid-19. Everything else went on hold for a while, and we dedicated almost our entire attention to a virus. The news talked of nothing else. Social media was given over to virus talk. When I Skyped with my parents at the height of the pandemic in the UK, we kept trying to change the subject, but it kept coming back to coronavirus.
Maybe we should do the same thing with climate change. Or, speaking personally, perhaps I should talk and write about nothing else, devote all of my attention and creativity to talking about climate change and contributing to the drastic shift in societal mindset that we need.
But although that would be appropriate to the urgency of the crisis, it would not be true to who I am or how I feel. I have diverse interests; climate change is just one of the things I care about. I want to continue to write about the books I’ve read, my travels, random things that interest me, and so on.
And I’m not a climate scientist—I have nothing to add beyond things I’ve read, which are probably the same things you’ve read, in one form or another. The problem, at this stage, is not a lack of information. It’s a lack of action.
The Language of Climate Change
There’s also the problem that writing about climate change in a compelling way is very difficult. I listened to a fascinating BBC podcast recently in which British poet Michael Rosen interviewed George Marshall, founder of Climate Outreach, about the language we use to describe climate change.
The very term “climate change” that I’ve been using in this post, for example, fails to communicate the urgency of the situation—it makes people think of a slow, gradual change, not the sudden, unpredictable spiral of chaos on which we have embarked.
The main alternative, “global warming”, on the other hand, puts the emphasis only on increased temperatures, leaving out the whole gamut of freakish and dangerous weather that we’re getting as the climate goes haywire.
Some are using terms like “climate crisis” and “climate emergency”, which seem like an improvement, but Marshall believes that existing words won’t work—we’ll need to invent new words to describe what is a completely new experience for our species.
It sounds like a tall order, but we’ve done it for all of the technological advances of modern life, so I’m sure we can do it for climate change. Suggestions in the comments, please.
Telling Better Stories
We also need to think carefully about the metaphors and images we use. I’ve always thought that the image of a poor polar bear stranded on melting ice was quite effective in communicating the effects of climate change, but Marshall says it’s a disaster.
He interviewed people in India about how they conceptualised climate change, and they kept saying it was about polar bears. This made them think of it as a distant problem that wouldn’t affect them personally—polar bears and ice floes are about as far from India as you can get.
If you want people to care about climate change, Marshall says, you need to talk about how it will affect them—in India’s case, deadly heatwaves, vicious cyclones, huge coastal cities flooded by rising seas, etc.
We also need better stories. Climate change doesn’t fit the usual narrative of an individual hero overcoming obstacles to reach a goal. We need stories of collective action and collective responsibility, and those are harder to tell.
If we can find ways to tell those stories, however, we have a chance of doing something special: not just surviving as a species, but reaching a new level of societal evolution, by taking the cooperation and collective action that defined early human societies and applying it on a global scale.
Again, it’s a tall order, but we don’t have a choice. Evolve or die. That’s where we are. And we all have a part to play through the stories we tell and the action we take. What will you do?