Big solutions to climate despair



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.

US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez promotes speaks at a rally at Howard University in Washington, DC as part of the 'Road to a Green New Deal'. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)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 hierarchy of importance.


"With another global financial crisis looking like a real possibility, we might finally have a political justification for massive government intervention in the market, undercutting the dominance of neoliberal economics."


But there's a third barrier, one that hasn't been solved, and that has become even harder to overcome post-election. It's the problem of agency. While concern about the climate crisis has been rising, faith in government and democracy has been plummeting. Fewer and fewer people now see government as a solution to any big social issue, let alone the greatest challenge humanity faces. That's a huge problem because the market will never force a transition to a more sustainable society at the scale or speed required to avoid dangerous climate tipping points.

The moment that pregnant woman put down her phone and stared out the window hints at a lack of agency. She had just learned that civilisation might collapse around her future child. She probably felt a strong emotional response ... and yet there seemed nothing for her to do about it.

Even if there was a call to action, would she have believed it? Could she imagine an individual like herself making a difference? These are the real questions to answer. Too often, the solutions to climate change have seemed trivial against the scale of the looming disaster. They've been tacked on to the end of frightening films, as if five minutes of wind farm footage can balance out 90 minutes of harrowing predictions. The focus on individual action — all that guilt-mongering about turning off your lights — has also been a distraction from the large-scale structural change required. Finally, the election result has taken away voting for climate action as a credible response, at least in the short term.

People are lacking inspiration and courage. So right now, what we need is a solution as big as the problem we're trying to solve, and the best idea on the table is a 'Green New Deal' that combines action on climate change with tackling inequality.

There are differing interpretations, but the essence of this idea is an economic stimulus modelled on what was introduced in the United States after the Great Depression. The twist is it invests in the clean energy infrastructure we need to solve the climate crisis.

It's massive, transformative and speaks to post-election concerns about jobs in regional areas. Plus with another global financial crisis looking like a real possibility, we might finally have a political justification for massive government intervention in the market, undercutting the dominance of neoliberal economics.

Right now, the democratic party in the United States is building up a Green New Deal platform to take to the 2020 election. The lead candidate, former Vice President Jo Biden, has quite a radical plan for such a staunchly capitalist country. Australia needs something similar with a different name because we don't have the same historical context, and we need a huge movement behind it. A solid proposal has to be on the table before the next economic crisis hits, which could be soon.

If the democrats lose in 2020, or the momentum wanes for another reason, I'm worried the focus will flip from collective action to survival mode. The wealthy will use their resources to save themselves, buying up property for 'climate bunkers', and everyone else will bear the brunt of more frequent and ferocious extreme weather events. That's a terrifying thought for any new mum to contemplate.

Right now, a Green New Deal is the best chance we have to reform our civilisation for the long-term. And it might finally give people a solution they can believe in.



Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is a Melbourne writer and the author of the book Changing Gears. 

Main image: US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez promotes speaks at a rally at Howard University in Washington, DC as part of the 'Road to a Green New Deal'. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, climate change



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Existing comments

Yes, this young woman is bringing a new child into an uncertain world albeit, understandable that someone might ignore the “repent the world is ending headline”. Mother Earth hosts 7.25B souls today and will need to accommodate 10-12B in this century.... energy central to all development....the greater unfortunate truth is that without these people choosing not to have children, the earth cannot possibly provide the standard of living any of us aspire to. The worst misery will be across the developing world. Sustainability calculations were formulated back in the 1980’s by David Suzuki. You write well Greg but I still believe you fail to address underlying cause; population.
Patrick | 20 June 2019

I suggest people read the Climate Council Reports, including the following info: REPORT KEY FINDINGS: More than 40,000 Australian businesses are switching to renewable energy, substantially reducing their power bills and helping address climate change. Australian businesses – from big corporates to small enterprises – are making the transition to renewable energy. It makes sense to ditch expensive and polluting fossil fuels and switch to clean, low-cost renewable energy. Three quarters of Australians would choose a product or service made with renewable energy rather than one produced using fossil fuels. Gas and electricity are expensive for Australian businesses. Gas prices have tripled over the past five years while electricity prices for small business owners have increased by 80% to 90% in the past decade. Australians can use their purchasing power to support renewable powered businesses and, in doing so, enjoy a climate-conscious festive season. Here are a few examples of Aussie businesses making the switch: Victoria’s Meredith Dairy is using 100% renewable energy, having installed solar on their farm and purchase accredited GreenPower from the grid. In South Australia, Sundrop Farms is producing thousands of tonnes of truss tomatoes each year with solar thermal energy and sea water – it is the first commercial scale facility of its kind in the world Sydney-based wholesale bakery, Bakers Maison is running on solar power thanks to the local community, where 20 investors contributed almost $400,000. Australia’s biggest brewer, Carlton and United Breweries is making the switch to 100% renewable energy alongside more than 150 other global corporations as part of an international renewable energy program. It is vital that Australian businesses continue to lead on the transition to renewable energy, particularly in the absence of credible national climate and energy policy. The burning of coal, oil and gas is cranking up the intensity of climate change. Extreme weather events are worsening because of climate change. Australia’s greenhouse gas pollution levels have risen four years in a row; if we are to effectively tackle climate change we must quickly reverse this trend. The solutions are here now, and it makes economic sense for Australian businesses to switch from fossil fuels to renewables.
Grant Allen | 20 June 2019

Greg, Reading the Climate Change Reports as I do almost daily, crunching the weather data for the BoM as I do daily, doing the stats on climate as I have been doing since 1965, can lead to a feeling of hopelessness that nothing will happen until it is too late. Patrick is right to point out that we have around 7.25 billion souls at present with estimates of 10 to 12 billion by the century's end What we need to consider is how much of the earth's limited resources each of us in Australia uses each day and compare that with a person in India, China, Bangladesh, Vietnam or the Philippines for example. The answer is a disconcerting massive amount ; it is untenable. The fact is, it is impossible for all the present population of the world to have the standard of living that we have, without destroying the planet. As a retired teacher, I know that EDUCATION of women as well as men, in the Third World is the answer, as well as ending the idiotic religious beliefs (and not just Christianity is at fault here ) that out law birth control. Finally we have to curb our lust for more and more "things" which use up so much of the earth's resources. I firmly believe that when we face God at the end of our earthly existence, He will ask us "How well do you care for my creation?". I wonder what a response from an Australian will be, compared to someone from for example Bangladesh?
Gavin O'Brien | 20 June 2019

Population certainly, as well as greed and ignorance. Wars over resources are happening already in Africa and Asia. Also, modern medicine has had dangerous consequences since birth control , the kinder way of controlling numbers, is not universal. Because there is no longer a balance, one day waves of desperate climate refugees will overrun the gated communities on their artificial islands or hilltops. Millionaires like a gold miner I know may dream of colonising Mars, while others imagine huge umbrellas or other crackpot schemes. Read George Marshall, 'Don't even think about it, Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change' , Bloomsbury 2014.
Karis | 20 June 2019

Could someone, anyone, please tell us why the ice caps melted aeons ago and retreated to the poles, accompanied by massive rises in sea levels which submerged the land bridges between continents,when the vast part of the planet was sparsely inhabited by human beings without any technology or fossil fuel power supplies and covered by vegetation absorbing far more Co2 than is absorbed by the reduced vegetation of today. Something is missing from the equation.
john frawley | 20 June 2019

If the Democrats win in 2020, their policies will eliminate some one million odd babies per annum in their mother's wombs in the US and millions more in Africa through abortion. No Christian can in conscience ever support such genocide unless they believe that the environment is of greater importance in God's creation that the human being created in his own image. The Republicans meanwhile are limiting abortion and have removed the Obama/Clinton $US 500 million annual contribution to the UN for abortion "services" in the third world. If people wish to get emotional re the fate of today's babies in this world, think carefully and face the truth.
john frawley | 20 June 2019

A new green deal may be implemented by Bishops encouraging, perhaps promoting ways each parish could become green. Imagine the impact of every parish in Australia used renewable energy, and changed to a radical been parish. What an example in following our Pope's call to 'care for our planet' Many Parishes are doing this in America and hopefully here in Australia. Bishops ....take a stand and perhaps be more pro active.. I feel our Church could be asleep !!!
Bernie Introna | 21 June 2019

Thank you Greg for another very good article about the pollution crisis that is causing climate change and making millions around the world very sick.It is good to see that Patrick raised the issue of the world's ever increasing population rate. In 1798 when Thomas Malthus introduced his Principle of Population and the notion that population growth increases exponentially while food production only increases arithmetically, the world's population was only about 800 million. Many have argued that Malthus was unnecessarily pessimistic because of the new scientific research that has seen greater food yields. The fact is though, that as the earth's population increases dramatically, we will need a much greater area of the planet's surface to grow more food, provide extra housing and to step up industrial production to meet human needs. Already we have lost many rain forests necessary to sustain life and much land area has been lost because of rising sea levels and toxic pollution. This means that just as we need to effectively manage the pollution we already have, we need to be doing far more to keep population growth under control. Gavin O'Brien's comment about the role of education around the world is very important. Succeeding generations will need to have the skills to care for the environment and to practice family planning. We have a lot to do to avoid huge disasters for those who come after.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 22 June 2019


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