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 hierarchy of importance.
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.