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The Uncertain Solicitor on ... Reality
I wrote in my last post about how a shifting sense of time is making me feel queasy. In this one, I will focus on something which seems to makes us feel worse, given it is the biggest elephant in the room: the reality of our situation, how we got here and how we get out.
Here is a reminder of that situation (which, however often it is mentioned, we seem incapable of translating into something to act upon):
Think about the behaviours of governments, investors and businesses in the last few years. Do any reflect a shift consistent with what is required to go from that black line on the chart showing the trajectory of recent emissions to the pink the science tells us is essential for a liveable future?
This unresponsiveness brings to mind the film Don’t Look Up released in 2021. This is one of those ‘marmite’ films which provokes a strong reaction, positive or negative, from its audience. With a spoiler alert for any yet to see it, it depicts humanity confronted by its own demise and devoting more energy to denial and distraction than to facing up to our situation. Talking to some of those who express their loathing of the film, they do seem also to be those engaged in similar distraction and dither when confronted by the climate crisis. This can take many forms: some intentional, some perhaps coming from a genuine desire to engage but a lack of conviction in terms of how to do so in the face of an unresponsive status quo. The illustration below offers a handy summary of the forms it can take.
These are some of the common reasons given for not acting with the degree of urgency demanded by Fig 1. Perhaps one antidote to such approaches is to read the first chapter of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 novel The Ministry for the Future. You will find this in bookshops in the science fiction section but the opening scene, harrowing as it is in its own right, is all the more so when we recognise that it does not depict some imaginary scenario in the far future. It describes India being afflicted by lethal wet bulb temperatures (where heat and humidity combine to devastating effect) in 2025. Unnervingly, something close to the scenes from those first 12 pages of the novel is playing out on the Indian sub-continent already, in 2022, whilst last year nearly 600 people died in an eight week period in British Columbia (231 of them in a single day) as it suffered a heat dome effect. That is British Columbia: at a latitude of 49°N, closer to the North Pole than the Equator, not somewhere historically known for being heat-stressed.
So achieving the change represented by Fig 1 matters. The consequences of failure are real, deadly and imminent. But here is another truth, perhaps the most inconvenient of all, which might explain our collective failure to come close to making the changes we need, even as we pay lip service to the goal of restricting increases in global temperatures. It is us, the affluent, that bear greatest relative responsibility for emissions to date and who need to make the greatest changes if we are to get where we need to be.
The World Inequality Database has established that 10% of the world’s population are responsible for about half of all greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom half of the world contributes just 12% of all emissions. This is not just a rich world / poor world divide. In Europe, the poorest half of the population emits about five tonnes per person, while the richest 10% emit about 30 tonnes – a difference of six to one. Needless to say, lawyers are in both those top 10% brackets.
It is ‘natural’ for our first instinct to be resistance to making fundamental changes when, in many respects, our current daily lives remain so comfortable. However, Robinson’s powerful prose and the raw statistics from BC are a vivid, arresting reminder of what we are facing. And, to a very large extent, the primary cause of the climate crisis (as well as those of biodiversity loss and social injustice) is the imbalances we have allowed to develop:
Ø between human and non human use of the planet’s resources;
Ø between use of those resources within different sections of humanity (including the creeping privatisation of the elemental commons of soil, water and air);
Ø between the rates of extraction and replenishment of those resources;
Ø between the free ride given to those despoiling those resources to deliver financial returns whilst externalising the related costs and the pre-eminence given to rewarding those making the capital available to fund that devastation.Ø
Ø between the few empowered to make the decisions which will determine the fate of life on earth for the foreseeable future and the many, living and not yet born, whose lives with be formed by those decisions.
It is in correcting these imbalances that most of the interventions necessary to move us towards something approaching the trajectory in Fig 1 might reside. Inevitably, it means doing things very differently to what has brought us to this point. Things like:
Ø a general acceptance that our collective consumption of natural resources has to remain within planetary boundaries
Ø the priority in terms of sharing what is available within that constraint being to ensure that all can access the basics necessary for a secure and healthy existence
Ø some rationing (eg in relation to permissible emissions) and reallocation of surplus wealth being fundamental to ensure we achieve these two goals without losing the climatic conditions for life to flourish that humanity has thrived on till now
Ø welcoming a diversity of opinion and voices into decision making at the highest levels to access the perspectives and wisdom necessary to design solutions that work for all
Doubtless many reading this will instinctively flinch at suggestions so at odds with the mantras that have held sway over the last 30 years or more – those years which have seen the production of “half of all of the emissions from the burning of fossil fuels that have ever been produced in the entire history of humanity”. Yet it is evident change at the scale and speed we need will not happen otherwise. The black line on Fig 1 makes that perfectly evident.
Some may regard this as ‘unrealistic’. That may be so, viewed through the lens which has led us here. However, that lens is also leading us to those deadly wet bulb temperatures. They represent a far more irresistible reality than the insistence on sticking to what we know, even as it accelerates the chaos already enveloping us. Meanwhile, the ones who scoff at such suggestions as being ‘unrealistic’, when asked how they see us remaining at or below 1.5°C of warming, mutter vaguely about technological innovations. This is an approach which, in terms of the timescales and ubiquity required of them, is being increasingly regarded by scientists as being akin to believing in pixie dust: an interesting reality in the circumstances.
Those most affected by measures such as those suggested above will be the top 10% - that is those who have contributed most to the situation we are in (and who will continue to do so without such changes); those best able to absorb the changes imposed on them and still retain a relatively desirable standard of living; us.
No need though to feel sorry for ourselves. If in the coming years and decades we own less, it need not mean we are any worse off, either relatively, in those terms, or because financial wealth and material accretion will no longer be the default measures of success. We may have the opportunity to improve our quality of life, if it leads to a greater emphasis on having time to spend with those that matter most to us; or connecting with the natural world; or developing skills and interests. As our focus shifts to the nature of our relationships with one another, human and non-human, and our collective health and wellbeing, we may find life reacquiring a vibrancy dulled by the relentless march of converging crises this century has so far brought forth. In other words, it is not a sacrifice being asked of us but a gift being offered.
It does though, in the first instance, require us to look up – to face what is coming towards us, to name it, to step into our collective responsibility and to act.