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Big solutions to climate despair

  • 19 June 2019


She's scrolling her Facebook feed on the train to work. Cute dog pics. Baby photos. And then another post grabs her, the headline screaming, 'High likelihood of human civilisation coming to end by 2050.' She clicks through. Runaway climate change could create a 'Hothouse Earth' scenario. Mass die-off in the Amazon. Drought. Wildfires. Famine. More than a billion refugees. She reaches the end of the article, sees the flashing ads for wedding dresses and baby formula. She scrolls back up.

After a few minutes, she turns off the phone and tucks it underneath her pregnant belly. She stares out the train window, and keeps staring for the next 15 minutes, frozen, silent.

She's a real person — I sat next to this woman on the train a few weeks ago, and I've been thinking about her ever since. She was about to bring new life into the world, and had learned it probably won't have a safe climate for her child.

There's a lot to this scenario, but I want to home in on a single moment: when she finished reading and put down the phone. This should be the point where information and action intersect, but instead it shows what's missing in people's minds when they contemplate climate change. It also hints at where advocates should be focusing their energies.

For many people, climate change has seemed far away in both location and time. The early framing of the issue reinforced this, with pictures of polar bears in the Arctic and messages about saving the planet for 'future generations'. All distant, all seemingly irrelevant to our daily lives.

Suddenly, the impacts are here and now. We're facing worsening heatwaves, bushfires and drought in Australia. But what's most shocking, what's really waking people up, is that 'future generations' means the toddlers tugging on our pant legs right now. That baby in the cot, wide-eyed with curiosity, could face cascading catastrophes in middle age.

And so, for perhaps the first time, the climate crisis seems immediate and urgent. It's been bumped up the list of everyday concerns, at least for those of us tuned in to this kind of news. (Not everyone, of course, or the election result would have been very different.) For a large proportion of the population, two of the key barriers to communicating climate have been cast aside — the lack of proximity to people's lives, and the low priority in their internal