Dr Alice Bell explores the history of the climate crisis, the action needed to help to stop it, and what role we can play.
Long before Greta Thunberg skipped school to take her “Skolstrejk för klimate” banner and sit outside the Riksdag every day in the run up to the 2018 Swedish general election, there was 12-year-old Severn Cullis-Suzuki, and her rousing speech to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.
With friends back home in Canada, Cullis-Suzuki founded ECO, the Environmental Children’s Organization. They’d raised money to travel to the UN environment conference in the summer of 1992, or, as she put it bluntly to the assembled world dignitaries at the conference: “travel 5,000 miles to tell you adults you must change your ways”.
She was “fighting for my future,” she told them. “Losing my future is not like losing an election, or a few points on the stock market.” Talking about the environmental worries she and others in her generation held, she asked the delegates: “Did you have to worry of these things when you were my age?”
But Xennials (that is, people on the cusp of Gen X and Millennials, born in the late 70s to early 80s) like Cullis- Suzuki didn’t invent worrying about climate change either. Her message was partly that her generation – a generation who, today, has kids of their own – had to worry about climate change like no one before.
Back to the future
The environment, generally, had been a big topic throughout the 1980s. Over in Hollywood, Ted Turner was launching Captain Planet, a cartoon about children from around the world cooperating to battle pollution, signing Whoopi Goldberg, Meg Ryan, Sting and other luminaries to do the voices. Time Magazine decided their 1989 ‘Person of the Year’ would be a ‘Planet of the Year’ instead, “the Endangered Earth.” Membership of environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace boomed. Blue Peter even launched a special green badge.
Within this, climate change was emerging as a core issue, sitting alongside the hole in the ozone layer and Save the Whale campaigns. In 1988, after a blisteringly hot summer in the US, NASA scientist James Hansen was invited to give testimony at a Senate hearing and declared this wasn’t just a worry for the future, it was already happening right now. This hit a nerve and pictures of Hansen looking resolute made the news around the world.
Invited to appear on Sunday morning television to talk about this testimony, he made a special set of large dice – one standard die to represent ‘normal’ weather up until 1980, the other loaded to demonstrate how global warming weighted the climate to more extreme weather events, like drought or storms. The audience knew what he meant. They were already experiencing it.
On the campaign trail that summer, George Bush Sr declared: “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the White House effect.” Margaret Thatcher addressed the Royal Society a few months later, warning “we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself.”
A year later she was saying similar to the UN, calling for an international convention on climate change. The path to the Rio Summit, Severn Cullis-Suzuki’s address and the signing of a new convention on climate change (which would provide the rhythm for climate talks since) was starting to be laid.
A hot topic
Climate change didn’t arrive on the public sphere in the 1980s. Indeed, it was a relative of Greta Thunberg’s, chemist Svante Arrhenius, who first publicised the idea that fossil fuels could heat the planet back at the start of the 20th century.
The basic theory – that an atmosphere heavy with carbon dioxide could cause temperatures to rise – had been established in the 1850s, with research first from American scientist and women’s rights activist Eunice Foote, soon followed up by work at the Royal Institution in London by John Tyndall.
At first, few scientists took the danger of fossil fuels seriously. Even Arrhenius himself thought any discernible warming would be centuries off, and might be quite nice. We now know, thanks to modern science, that we’d already started warming the Earth decades before Foote and Tyndall’s research, but at the time they had no idea.
It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that it was established that climate change caused by fossil fuel emissions was already happening, and the topic became a serious area of concern. At this point, scientists moved fast. Congress was first briefed on the issue in 1956 and it started to be talked about in presidential speeches in the 1960s. It wasn’t just a topic for scientists and politicians either.
In 1958, Frank Capra, fresh from success with It’s A Wonderful Life, made a television special about weather science, where a cohort of cartoon characters watch wide-eyed as a scientist warns about the melting polar ice caps, imagining people in the future taking tourist trips in glass-bottomed boats to view long lost cities drowned under the rising seas.
The year before, a BBC television special on Earth science, presented by Prince Phillip, had also warned that glaciers were melting, and if this continued, the oceans would rise so high, water would reach halfway up Nelson’s column. This was mainstream science, even in the 1950s.
Getting involved with climate activism
Protests can be a great place to meet and talk and learn. They can also be a space for personal reflection, giving you time to sit with the issue, and think about your commitment to change. Of course, you can do this elsewhere, but you might be surprised how powerful a protest space can be in this respect.
You don’t have to glue yourself to anything, just turn up and hang out. Bring some friends, family, or go alone if that’s more your thing. You might want to download a bust card from a group like Green and Black Cross, who provide legal support for activists. But the main things to remember are sunscreen, water and your phone – the usual things you might want in your bag for a day out in the park with friends.
But there are plenty of other things you can do too. Indeed, we need to do a lot more than just protest. As well as demanding political change, you can and should try to make changes in your own life. Don’t just walk around feeling smug that you’ve switched your energy provider – invite others to change with you and help it go viral.
Don’t just swap the plane for the train – tell everyone how much fun your trip was. Research from psychologists of climate action shows that if you cut flying for environmental reasons and say so to your friends, they’re more likely to cut down too and are also more likely to support policies which make low-carbon travel easier.
Similarly, don’t just cut down on meat in your own diet – cook up a plant-based feast for your friends. Help make climate action normal. We’re going to need big, bold policies from our governments but we need cultural change too, and that starts with you and me.
Indeed, one of the most powerful actions you can take is to simply talk more about climate change. One of the many things that gets in the way of the action needed is that most of us avoid talking about the climate crisis. Of course, this is understandable – it’s a complex issue, it’s depressing, and people might get upset or feel guilty about it. But allowing the climate silence to fester just makes it harder to know what the problems and solutions really are, and keeps the pressure off people who could change things.
So, get chatting – invite your friends over for a climate activism cuppa. Maybe ask them how long they’ve been worrying about climate change, then see where it takes you.
3 small ways to make a big difference
- Raise awareness: Visit takeclimateaction.co.uk to find your local climate action group and help raise awareness in your area.
- Make your voice heard: Ask the government to take action to stop climate change – visit act.friendsoftheearth.uk
- Ditch meat and dairy: “A vegan diet is the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth” concluded recent research which studied 38,700 farms in 119 countries.
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