On September 10th, 2018, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres delivered a major address on climate change, warning that humanity is “careening towards the abyss”. Referencing the “extreme heat waves, wildfires, storms, and floods, leaving a trail of death and destruction”, Guterres said, “I have asked you here to sound the alarm. We face a direct existential threat. If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us.”
Further indication that we are now at the precise tipping point regarding runaway climate change is evidenced in two recent studies published in Nature Climate Change, which reveal that the Arctic will be ice free during its summer months, within the next five years. This shrinkage is faster than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) model predicted since models like this rely on the sea warming in a steady manner, and fail to take into account positive feedback loops. We have to face up to the realities of continuing on this path: with sea ice no longer reflecting the sunlight, the oceans will heat up even more, and the abrupt thawing of the permafrost will release ancient methane (30 x more damaging than carbon dioxide), causing irreversible and catastrophic climate change.
The Living Planet Report 2018 by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) indicates that we are facing a loss of biodiversity at a rate only seen previously during mass extinctions. There has been a 60 percent decline in the number of vertebrates since 1970. Mike Barrett, director at WWF says, “we are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff. If there was a 60 percent decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done. This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is. This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”
To step back from the cliff edge, we need to tackle the roots of inequality and our overuse of natural resources. In Bali, subak culture, based on Tri Hita Karana, a traditional philosophy that loosely translates as “the three causes of well-being: harmony among people, harmony with nature or environment, harmony with God “has created democratic and egalitarian farming practices of sharing water throughout the paddies for centuries. The solution to climate change is likely to be a balance of such Traditional Ecological Knowledge, engaging youth in the scientific/ artistic quest for truth, and mindful innovation, starting perhaps with peaceful, grassroot intervention.
While a joined-up, sharing, collective response to climate change is possible, we also face the considerably uphill challenges of denialism and wilfully negligent procedural thinking. An advert by UK supermarket Iceland sought to promote its palm oil free new products while raising awareness of the palm oil industry’s crimes against orangutans (in Bahasa Indonesia “orang hutan” – forest people), but it was not approved for broadcast by Clearcast, due to its association with Greenpeace, which Clearcast deemed a body “whose object is wholly or mainly of a political nature”. There are also economic loops that tie companies and people to ecologically unhealthy and unethical practices to maintain “shareholder profits”.
Guterres called for leadership “from politicians, from business and scientists, and from the public everywhere” as humanity faces this unprecedented ecological crisis. His call comes as scientists from all around the world are evolving their approach to sharing their findings directly with people, such as this art installation at Harvard, “Warming Warning”, and are beginning to step into social and political positions where they are directly advocating for our planet and peoples.
In 2018, a new international social movement launched with 100 academics as signatories; Extinction Rebellion, which is currently building up what it calls “mindful disruption to business as usual”, seeks to restore “the virtues of truth and the weight of scientific evidence”, and quotes John Locke in its declaration: “To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues”.
How can we, as girls in science, ensure the voice of the planet is heard? How can we create a dialogue with those who are skeptical about climate change to get them on board with our collective efforts to save our planet?
Picture credit: WWF