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Live Encounters Magazine Volume Two December 2022.
Surviving Climate Change, Now Towards Relational Thinking
Guest editorial by Dr Margi Prideaux
News from the United Nations about the shortfall in national emission pledges is echoing across the world. To my diplomatically tuned ear, the United Nations’ latest message vibrates with genuine fear. I’ve spent my career inside the international negotiation space and when a United Nations agency says there is ‘no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place’, this diplomatic speech really means achieving that goal is now impossible. This desperate position is now clear, despite legally binding promises made by the world’s governments in 2015 to prevent temperatures rising by over 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
The chair of the next climate meeting (COP27), Sameh Shoukry, has warned the geo-political climate may cause even further slippage. ‘If countries are to backtrack or deviate from their commitment, and their efforts to maintain these agreements and understanding made in Paris and Glasgow, we will be on track to have over 2°C and maybe up to 3.6°C, according to the science available,’ he said in an interview ahead of the meeting.
The situation could not be more grave. A year ago the preeminent scientific body, established by governments to advise on the impacts of climate change—Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—warned that climate change was already affecting every region on Earth, in multiple ways, and that the scale of change was escalating—increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons, more apocalyptic wildfires, killer heat domes, catastrophic rain bombs, lethal floods and mudslides, deadly droughts, and violent sandstorms. Chillingly, they warned, the critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and human health will soon be crossed.
That we find ourselves at COP27 with an impossible task is not a failure of science, or of the United Nations as the radical right would have you believe. Nor it is a failure of each one of us, although if we live in the wealthy west we shoulder responsibility for our rapacious consumption. The failure rests at the feet of governments across the world who sustain their power through a deal with the devil—the fossil fuel industry—and the promotion of the neoliberal myth that the market will fix everything.
Fearful of stating the brutal truth in case it upsets people not yet engaged with the climate chaos reality, progressive media is still scrambling for a hopeful solution—a hidden fix that can put us magically on track. Many commentators promote ‘hopium’, and an exclusive focus on reducing emissions, while failing to notice the disaster and disintegration around them caused by governmental denial two decades ago. Caught in a mental warp that climate change is a problem for the future, their hopeful messaging only delays the inevitable reckoning.
Ahead of the commentators, people living through floods and fires and storms in many regions of the world have already woken from the dream, and are fearful of the escalation of climate change-driven disasters on their doorsteps. Their concern is immediate and real, but they lack climate chaos vocabulary and platforms, so no-one hears them. Yes, people want NetZero by 2050, but they also want to survive right now.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is giving voice to this fear. Inger Andersen, UNEP’s Executive Director said at the release of their latest Emissions Gap Report, “We had our chance to make incremental changes, but that time is over. Only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster.”
Current climate pledges leave the world on track for a temperature rise of 2.4-2.6°C by the end of this century; levels that will cause a catastrophic breakdown of everything. The updated pledges since COP26 in Glasgow take less than one percent off projected 2030 greenhouse gas emissions when 45 percent is needed to limit warming to 1.5°C.
Meanwhile, climate-driven disasters are already eroding the fabric of society, now. The media’s city-driven attention has failed to notice that once a wildfire, or flood, or mudslide, or storm has landed, and the immediate rescue has been done, the pain-filled ‘road to recovery’ is already chipping away at society’s resilience. Farmers, unable to pick up and rebuild again, are walking off the land. Rural towns, without infrastructure, are emptying. Business, without stock and customers, are shutting their doors. Entire communities are vanishing, lost to the ghettos of the city because insurance payouts were too small or denied, government decisions are too slow, and the reality that nothing is being done to adapt for future protection makes the risk of staying too high.
People’s health is failing from wildfire smoke inhalation, toxic sewage-laden mud, or the debilitating trauma of PTSD. These are the long, hard, and often invisible stories of the fabric of people’s lives ripped and torn; of those lives being patched and rewoven through the fog of depression and fear that they have insufficient internal strength to get the job done. Nature—the forests, and rivers, and wetlands, and wild landscapes—has no-one left to defend it from the next cataclysmic climate-driven weather event. This is the story of the broken contract between governments and the governed in the face of climate chaos.
Absolutely, government should transform their economies and societies to achieve NetZero, but there is an immediate need that also requires radical attention. An urgent and facilitated discussion must start about how we survive the next colossal disaster that destroys our forests and our crops, crushes our homes, closes our transport, and stops our income. We need to look carefully at the biodiversity estate and commit localised action to protect what we can before it is lost forever, remembering fences around parks don’t protect these wild places. People do. But, right now and pretty much everywhere in the developed world, the collapse is unnoticed. Rural communities are waking to the reality that we are service providers to big cities with little internal resilience. We are dependent, and when disaster hits, we are broken.
Time is up. The COP27 will fail and excuse the neglect away, because governments don’t serve the governed or Earth’s biodiversity. They serve the market, and the market is cutting us all loose.
Realising this is to experience a twin existential crisis—that the world as we know it is collapsing and the world we newly face is life-threatening.
Ten years ago, writer Paul Chefurka penned an important essay, Climbing the Ladder of Awareness, about how each of us understands the unfolding global crisis. His essay proposes most of us fit somewhere along a continuum of awareness that can be roughly divided into five stages.
The first stage is dead asleep, where the individual believes there are no fundamental problems, just some shortcomings that can be fixed with the proper attention to rule-making. People at this stage live their lives happily, with occasional outbursts of annoyance around election times or the quarterly corporate earnings seasons.
The second stage is an awareness of one fundamental problem. Here the individual becomes engaged in one issue (climate change, overpopulation, peak oil, chemical pollution, overfishing, socio-political injustice) and becomes an ardent, vocal activist for their chosen cause, while being blind to any others.
At the third stage, people develop an awareness of many problems. They gather information from different places and their understanding of complexity grows. They worry about the prioritisation of problems in terms of their immediacy and impact, and can be reluctant to acknowledge fresh problems because their problem space is already complex enough.
By the fourth stage, their awareness of interconnection deepens; of the connections between many problems and the grave risk that solutions in one domain may worsen problems in another. They move to large-scale system-level thinking. It is at this stage the possibility that there may not be a solution creeps into their consciousness. Individuals in this space often withdraw into tight circles of like-minded individuals.
The fifth stage delivers the awakening that the existential crisis encompasses all aspects of life; where the knowledge that everything we do, how we do it, our relationships with each other, as well as our treatment of the rest of the biosphere and Earth is the core problem. At this stage, the floodgates open and despair and depression can take root.
Chefurka suggests that people in stage five have two choices. After pondering this ladder of awareness for most of the past year, I agree with him. There is an inner and an outer path. The inner path involves re-framing how you see and function in the world in terms of your consciousness and self-awareness. Those who have arrived at this point have no interest in hiding from or easing the painful truth, rather, they wish to create a coherent personal context for it. Personal spirituality is a path often followed. The fifth level’s outer path is one of adaptation, community-building, and local resilience, while never denying the grave consequences for all that will be lost.
Says Chefurka, ‘From my observations, each successive stage contains roughly a tenth of the number of people as the one before it. So, while perhaps 90 percent of humanity is in stage one, less than one person in ten thousand will be at stage five (and none of them are likely to be politicians). The number of those who have chosen the inner path in stage five also seems to be an order of magnitude smaller than the number who are on the outer path.’
After the experience of a lifetime—a catastrophic climate-change driven firestorm that erased my world—and the focus that becomes seared in a painful moment, I have reached a point where I am done with my life before. I am standing with my feet firmly in the fifth stage, and I have witnessed many in my community leaping with deep discomfort to this same place.
As I’ve travelled through my pain, I have learned from my community, listening to what they have said, but also to the wisdom held between the words; to the meaning deep within people’s eyes or in the catch of their voice as they hold something back and glance away. My community has experienced the beginning of the climate change curve. We know we cannot hand this hell to tomorrow.
My community has a fleeting opportunity. We are armed with knowledge like never before in human history. Our elders live longer and their words are captured and shared. Science can speak to us with real-time revelation and advice. We are connected and literate, and we have all experienced or witnessed profound trauma. We have a rare, brief, precious moment to develop a shared community-owned plan about how to face the future, and start building our resilience around that goal.
By necessity, my community needs to plan for extreme wildfires. That is our grave climate chaos threat. Other communities will face floods, or droughts, or heat, or sand, or inundation from the sea. Extreme weather, which the World Meteorological Organisation now calls the ‘day-to-day face of the climate emergency’, that is already exacting a heavy toll on human lives and on nature.
The United Nations warns us that even previously unaffected countries are likely to see uncontrollable wildfire blazes and other catastrophes within the next 20 years. They make the sobering point that governments can minimise the risk of extreme events by being better prepared and building back better once a climate-driven storm rages through, yet there is little evidence of government awareness on this level. In Australia the failure of the past three years is heart breaking. Despite multiple floods and fires, the political focus remains on the bright and shiny future of targets and emissions, and future technologies, wilfully overlooking the terrible human and biodiversity cost being paid right now.
Communities everywhere need to recognise their government won’t save them. The contract is broken. We all need to take community-level control and consciously adapt to living in a world with more apocalyptic wildfires, killer heat domes, catastrophic rain bombs, lethal floods and mudslides, deadly droughts, and violent sandstorms.
The time for pretty words and hollow targets is over. We must adapt to survive and save what we can before it is too late.
© Dr Margi Prideaux
Margi Prideaux has lived and breathed wildlife and international politics and law almost every day for the past 33 years. As an international negotiator and independent academic with a PhD in wildlife policy and law, she has tuned her words to inform policy audiences in over 20 different international conservation processes. After losing her home, farm, and wildlife sanctuary to the unprecedented and climate-driven Australian Black Summer wildfires, she is spending the next decade as advocate for communities (human and non-human) impacted by unfolding climate chaos, reflecting a radically new direction for her writing in the period to come. Her latest book is FIRE: A Message from the Edge of Climate Catastrophe. linktr.ee/margiprideaux