It’s the last day of the year. I wake up to frost on the fields and mist in the valley, my head still thick with a Christmas cold. First thing, I listen to yesterday’s Today programme edited by Greta Thunberg. It’s twenty past eight when they announce the news at six o’clock: ‘The time is out of joint’.
Top news is that ‘the coming year is the last chance for us to take action against Climate Change’ (according to Natural England and the Environment Agency). It is already too late for those affected by the wild fires in Australia. In Victoria, some are trapped, unable now to evacuate. The images that rise in my mind are something out of a disaster movie – unreal, at a distance. Another consequence of our collective blindness flickering inside my brain, not knowing where to settle.
Greta herself is introduced by several clips from her past speeches and, at the sound of her voice, I find myself weeping – the passion and urgency in it, its purity of focus and simple sanity. A great wave of emotion sweeps through me – sadness, confusion, love and gratitude all tumbled together: everything we don’t usually hear in the news – how people truly feel – what passes through our hearts and minds right from when we wake up in the morning and switch on our radios. Especially when we hear, as I do now, so many contradictions and disjointed switches of attention.
‘Individuals can make a difference but are not responsible for Climate Change…they can’t solve it on their own but individual action and what people choose to do in their lives is really important’. (Steve Westlake, Researcher in Environmental Leadership at Cardiff University). According to Steve, ‘every big helps’ – flying, car use, how we grow, buy and eat our food, how we heat our homes. Governments and legislation have the power to reduce carbon emissions and the individual (theoretically) has the power to influence politicians.
Then, Kevin Anderson, who I heard speak so persuasively at Newcastle University in October, insists that across the globe we are still failing, ignoring the Paris agreements so that our emissions are continuing to rise to around 1%, and heading in the direction of a 3 or 4% rise by the end of the century, rather than the 1.5/2% cap we’re supposed to be aiming for. He’s traced a lot of ‘imaginative accounting’: no one including aviation and shipping and the import of consumer items (all hidden in that little word ‘net’). We have known the facts for 30 years and yet are still prevaricating, leaving a shameful legacy for the next generation and certainly not considering the impact on poorer parts of the world – those who consume and emit the least. Cassandra-like, his predictions barely have room to land: this section ironically cut short because they are running out of time…
The same happens with the next item – on ladybirds and bees, particularly the recent rise in the harlequin ladybird population, who are steadily eating our native 7-, 8- and 10-spot ladybirds. The bees don’t really get a mention before it’s ‘time for the weather…’
‘It’s 7 am on Monday 30th December and the BBC News is read by Diana Speed.’ It’s Tuesday 31st December and the clock on my bedside table says 9.43; the frost still white out of the window, the sun shining, while the glaciers, even in the Antarctic – previously thought relatively stable, are melting. One, called Thwaites, like a naughty public schoolboy, alone is responsible for 4% of the rising sea level. One of the scientists says there is no going back: ‘we can’t regrow the ice sheet.’
Meanwhile, in the UK, wildlife species have declined by two-fifths, that is, nearly halved. A much balder picture than the clinical ‘41%’ they use on the radio – more graspable, but more devastating. Bathed in sunlight, the whole day ahead, I am sitting listening, the whole world alive and trembling inside me.
I sit up a little straighter, heartened by economist Kate Raworth’s upbeat tone as she exposes the problems created by thinking only in terms of GDP and expecting endless growth – like having just one dial on your car’s dashboard to cover petrol, mileage, air and oil etc: it simply doesn’t work. What she recommends instead is economies that promote ‘thriving and balance – something we understand in our own bodies’ – that meet the needs of all people while meeting the needs of the planet, taking into account health, education, housing, water, politics, reinvesting in soils, regenerating landscapes. New metrics for the 21st century. Officially the new decade doesn’t actually start until 2021 but everyone seems so keen to see the back of the old one, we’re ushering it in already. The softer side of ‘imaginative accounting’ perhaps?
The positivity continues with an interview with Massive Attack’s Robert del Naja. The band has been working with the Tyndall Centre and Liverpool City Council on creating a carbon neutral model for an upcoming concert and plan to travel by train when they go on tour next year. In the background, they play a track I haven’t heard for nearly twenty years that takes me back to another life and does something strange to my stomach – not unpleasant-strange, just time-travelling-strange. Because of music’s emotional resonance and social influence, del Naja says they have something to contribute to addressing Climate Change and they are committed to changing their way of doing business.
What would it look like if we all changed our way of ‘doing business’? Wouldn’t that be the best New Year’s Resolution? For me, it’s something to do with Time – how we use it and how we think about it, straddling the Now of our daily choices and the invisible future of the complex, unanticipated consequences of our actions; holding both in our bodies at the same time, remembering Kate Raworth’s ‘thriving and balance’. In the coming year I want to find out how to walk that edge.
When Greta Thunberg’s father Svante is interviewed, he talks about how all he wants is his daughter to be happy and so he and her mother ‘took time to listen’. His wife stopped flying and he became vegan not to save the planet but to save their daughter, who had been distraught to the point of starvation and silence with the state of the environment.
In another report, Joanna Sustento from the Philippines, tells how she lost her entire family apart from her brother in the 2013 Super Typhoon Heiyan, and now dedicates her life to campaigning against fossil fuels. It’s hard not to feel angry when the presenter Sarah Smith still insists on suggesting that there is no definitive evidence that extreme weather events were caused by Climate Change and still uses the term ‘net zero’ so carefully unpicked by both Kevin Anderson and Greta Thunberg. Typhoon Heiyan was responsible for more than 6,300 lost lives and over 4 million displaced citizens. The Philippines is listed as the country most affected by Climate Change in the Global Climate Risk Index 2015.
The programme properly comes into flower in a Skype conversation between Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough. Their shared openness and humility is inspiring. When Greta says she is honoured to be talking with the man whose films she watched when she was 9 or 10, that showed her what was really happening in the natural world, David assures her he is very flattered. But he says she has achieved in a very short time, what people like him have been trying to get across for the past twenty years. She is ‘keeping the issue on the front line… Every day we delay changing things we are missing an opportunity. In history no one has ever agreed but now we need some sort of consensus…some kind of electric shock to bring them to their senses.’
And then, again, the disjunction after this, with the shift to the Sports News and whatever’s happening just now between Celtic and Rangers (football, of course, more important than life or death).
Interviewed at the end of the programme, Greta Thunberg (less like ‘a brat’ than anyone I’ve ever met) admits it’s been ‘a very strange year’. And wouldn’t we all agree with that? She’s glad she’s being listened to but concerned that it isn’t being translated into action, seeing a huge lack of awareness in politics, finance and the media. Pragmatic and realistic beyond her years, she knows that the campaign must continue whatever the crucial outcome of November’s UN Climate Conference 26 in Glasgow. No single solution will solve everything but what she’s trying to do is change the conversation. ‘Once we start to act, hope will be everywhere.’ Her phrase ripples out in the air, filling my room with the sweetness of what is possible.
She wants to go back to school and be educated like any normal teenager. But, she says, ‘this isn’t a normal situation and we all have to step outside of our comfort zones’. Climate Change is only going to become more urgent. The medicine is to become active, says Dr Greta. Inform yourself about the science, the actual situation, what is being done and what is not. Be an active democratic citizen and make our governments change their policies.
If you do everything you can, there is no reason to be sad and depressed. It gives you a meaning, makes you feel as if you have an impact. It is an amazing feeling to be part of something bigger, she says: ‘I wish all people could feel like that.’
As a sort of coda to the past three out-of-joint hours, the next news bulletin leads with Mark Carney, outgoing Head of the Bank of England, talking about Climate Change as a ‘tragedy on the horizon’ and asking ‘at what speed are we going to change?’
Festina lente – make haste slowly. Take a fortnight to cross the Atlantic and raise the tempo. If we let go of everything we think we know about Time, maybe we will have a chance to thrive. I come downstairs to start the day, hours and minutes already falling into a new balance as the light begins its slow annual return.