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Laughing in the face of climate change despair



Someone on Twitter asked how people feel about the future, taking climate change into account. I replied that I don't expect to have grandchildren, but imagine that humanity would remain resilient.

Woman imagines future utopian and dystopian futures for her child. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonNaturally, we segued into survivalist-apocalyptic jokes. My kid wields swords and sticks with a bit of flair, I offered. My friend said that would come in handy when the bullets run out. It was a bleak exchange, hovering between the smallness of our lives and harsher, larger realities.

This week in Pakistan, mass graves are being dug in anticipation of a heat wave. Last year, more than 1500 people perished from the heat, too many to bury at once. 'Thank God, we are better prepared this year,' a Karachi gravedigger says. At least 300 holes in the ground are ready.

In Rajasthan, India, a weeks-long heat wave spiked to 51-degrees Celsius last week. It has overlapped the drought in more than 13 states, affecting more than 330 million people. Life has wilted to a halt in parts of the country.

There is a temptation, when such unusual severity unfolds, to minimise it as anomalous. Heat waves aren't uncommon in certain regions, and can be part of the seasonal cycle. In this way the scale of casualties, damage and response may be framed in terms of preparedness, something to be managed.

But it is getting harder to suppose that human efforts could long outrun the inevitable. Recent data visualisation of global temperatures from 1850 to 2016 indicates the heat is set to reach levels never seen in all of human civilisation. Every single month since August 2015 has been the hottest on record.

Among other things, this means that many cities will become uninhabitable by mid-century. My kid will only be 42 years old then.

According to Johannes Lelieveld, director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, 'the climate in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa could change in such a manner that the very existence of its inhabitants is in jeopardy'. Heat waves could occur ten times more frequently, and last longer — up to 80 days each year. Lelieveld says such conditions 'will surely contribute to the pressure to migrate'.


"In Australia, as in the United States and elsewhere, we'd be hard pressed to find election campaigns indicating that climate change is a serious issue."


If governments struggle today to respond to the exodus from conflict-ridden areas, how will they cope when climate change further reorganises populations? To what extent would such movements of people shape international alignments and armed conflict? Where do things like food security, trade and technology fit into irrevocably changed climate patterns? Are our roads, rail, ports and buildings engineered to withstand disruptions from extreme heat and inundation? What are the pressure points on health infrastructure and social cohesion? The questions go on and on and on.

Just don't expect political leaders to respond. In Australia, as in the United States and elsewhere, we'd be hard pressed to find election campaigns indicating that climate change is a serious issue. This gap between governments and voters will likely widen as the impacts become more concrete over time.

Surveys over the past year suggest that most Australians are increasingly concerned. The latest Ipsos study shows that a sizeable majority believe that extreme drought and bushfires, as well as the decline of the Great Barrier Reef, are linked to climate change. Two-thirds of respondents think that the current federal government is doing 'not very much' or 'not at all' to address it.

In this regard, future-proofing seems more precise and salient than Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's techno-optimism. Unless 'innovation' speaks to people's anxieties about the future — of which climate change has become a significant variable — then it hardly means anything. It offers little political or policy value.

People understand that some of the solutions for the problems faced by current and coming generations are likely rooted in decisions made now. Future-proofing is not merely anticipation, but intervention on a scale that goes beyond households. It involves design and culture. It demands an international rather than insular outlook.

Perhaps this is why gallows humour has seeped into my conversations about the future. I no longer expect our leaders to do something worthwhile about it.

Now, how do I go about future-proofing my kid?


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister .

Original artwok by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, climate change, Malcolm Turnbull



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Existing comments

Gallows humour can relieve tension and uncertainty. It doesn't help in a practical way. In a sermon first published in 1948 and titled "Nature, Also, Mourns for a Lost Good" theologian Paul Tillich explores this issue. The texts are Psalm 19:2-5; Romans 8:19-22 and Revelation 21:1 and 22: 1-2. He asks: what does nature mean to us? what does it mean to itself? what does it mean in the great drama of creation and salvation? We are tied to nature and nature's tragedy is our tragedy. It doesn't get more intimate or serious than that.

Pam | 27 May 2016  

To help future-proof our kids we can: install solar panels; change light bulbs to LED's; have energy efficient appliances; scrap the second fridge; bury kitchen scraps in the garden to cut back methane; reduce red meat consumption; buy Green power; offset carbon emissions by donating to Greenfleet, etc. We can also support political parties that are serious about climate change mitigation. The Coalition have a Renewable Energy target of 20% by 2030, compared to Labor's 50% target and the Greens 90% target by 2030. The Gillard Labor/Green Government's CARBON PRICE, much maligned by the Coalition, resulted in Australia's carbon emissions falling. Our emissions are now rising again with the Government's Direct Action (Inaction) policy. Another Hung Parliament with the Greens negotiation climate policy with Labor is the best possible climate scenario after the coming election. It's good to subscribe to the Climate Council too, check out their reports and get their emails. The Catholic Climate Covenant and ARRCC, Australian Response to Climate Change, are great organisations too, and have great ideas for action to save planet Earth. Pope Francis' encyclical 'Laudato Si ON CARE FOR OUR COMMON HOME ' is great and is meant to be read by everyone.

Grant Allen | 28 May 2016  

The best way to future proof your child is to teach about pollution. Pollution is insidious and it’s effects on marine life for example are profound, to the point where some species will soon be extinct because of tiny plastic pieces polluting the waterways and oceans. Plant trees and greenery, insulate your home properly, use natural products, don’t be greedy. Take responsibility for your own patch and stop expecting other people to do the hard lifting. Doom and gloom will not solve problems. Above all, remember what Pope Francis said about being joyful.

Jane | 30 May 2016  

The population of the earth is a plague with respected population scientists forcasting 8.5b by 2030 and almost 10b by 2050. You future proof your children by not having them. Half of the worlds population will come from less than a dozen countries including Pakistan where the governments and the people are ill equipped to deal with the numbers. Europe has fences, the US will build fences under Donald Trump, Australia has a mighty fence with its ocean passages and a fail safe via policy of both major political parties. This is the world they will inherit. The richer western nations will still be compassionate but will keep borders closed in the face of overwhelming and totally unimaginable numbers of poor.

Luke | 30 May 2016  

Fatima, a great article. Sadly the 'debate' last night between Malcom and Bill was as boring as watching grass grow! Nothing on the biggest single issue facing our grandchildren - an uninhabitable planet, massive overpopulation and civil strife as people try to survive. I have commenced a study of temperature stats for my home, Canberra where our weather records start 1939. My weather records starting in 1983 tell a story of temperature rising on a trend basis despite yearly fluctuations. As a teacher in high school teaching RE, I used teach about "Stewardship" where we looked at our relationship with the world. I pointed out at our judgement , which we all face, God will not go through a list of our sins etc. but simply ask each of us; "How well have YOU cared for my creation?" I wonder what our response will be. How will we explain our pursuit of the 'good life', Our lack of empathy for the poor and marginalised, the refugees, the millions doing it tough in heatwave stricken Pakistan, India, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam where record high temperatures are being recorded almost daily and severe drought persists !So sad.

Gavin | 30 May 2016  

Surely any and every way of encouraging birth control, at home and linked to overseas aid would be one of the most important ways to reduce human suffering, from climate change.

Marg | 30 May 2016  

Awareness of climate change has been thrust upon us. As we recite the litany of our sins and resolve to be good stewards of the earth by paying the 'climate tax' to help in the long term, the earth is being destroyed by conflict. The poor can do little to help with climate change, yet it is mainly their children who will pay the price. What is the impact on climate change caused by military activity; bombs, trucks, warships, fighter jets, etc. How much does the destruction and the rebuilding of cities and infrastructure cost in terms of additional energy and resources consumed. The leaders of the world are doing their part to support the 'big money'. Destroy and rebuild. What better business can there be. Climate change is good. Create the awareness so that the foolish 'informed' public will pay for feeble efforts to mitigate the change.

DonaldD | 30 May 2016  

The big issue of the current federal election is the economy. However people don't seem to be making the connection between the economy and the environment. The former depends on the latter. When the planet becomes uninhabitable due to climate change, there will be no human economy.

Frank S | 01 June 2016  

To attempt an answer to your final question, Fatima, I suggest that you seek political endorsement. The country needs more people of your intellect, perception, and vision as its leaders! Add another dimension to your written communication!

Jim Slingsby | 02 June 2016  

How do you go about future-proofing your kid - try being optimistic. Maybe tell them that their exceptional quality of life comes from burning fossil fuels. And that depriving that quality of life to others would be sinful. Celebrate your good fortune first, then try to share that good fortune with others.

lucy | 08 June 2016  

Re. India's heatwave: the linked post notes: "India’s former record high was 60 years ago, when temperatures reached 123 degrees Fahrenheit". So despite all the supposedly catastrophic global warming we've been told has been going on for decades, it took sixty years to break the Indian temperature record by a mere half a degree - a figure which is well within the margin of error! The molehill-to-mountain achievement of this post would indeed be something to chuckle about, if not for the fact that millions are being refused cheap fossil fuels and locked into poverty on the basis of this sort of hype.

HH | 12 June 2016  

As a people we have lost faith in facts, science, experts and our instinct is to trust no one which leaves the field wide open to purveyors of magic, denials and charlatanism. This is the level at which the "climate change" debate is being conducted. Add to this the post-modern notion that there is no longer truth but simply my truth is as good as your truth, and we have a recipe for chaos. We have a crisis of trust, or in other words a crisis of faith.

Graham Warren | 29 July 2016  

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