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21st February 2019

Twelve years and counting

We can’t stop climate change by getting better at recycling, and we probably can’t even stop the worst of it with advanced technologies, but there is one reason we should continue the fight
Twelve years and counting
Photo: People and Planet

If you’ve ever read Stop All the Clocks by W.H. Auden, then you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

If we took seriously what some of the most respected scientists were saying about how long we have left to ‘save the world’, then we’d all be screaming from the rooftops, rushing the guards at Number 10, holding up our so-called leaders by the scruffs of their necks, and demanding our government take action right now.

Yet here we are, carrying on as usual, because we have learnt to accept what the media says as the truth. It is because we have grown up believing that we can ‘solve’ climate change by recycling our yoghurt pots.

Scientists are now saying we are in the 6th mass extinction, with rates of CO2 levelling those of the worst extinction episode in history, where 96% of all life on Earth was lost. The latest IPCC report gave us 12 years to limit the effects of climate breakdown.

That’s not 12 years to decide what we’re going to do about it; it’s 12 years to entirely reverse our policies and processes to alter our current direction if we are to have any hope of saving ourselves. Yet even the IPCC is conservative in its estimates, and has a publication lag of around three to four years. That’s three years of further destruction to our ecological systems, three years of even more thousands of species going extinct, and three years closer to the possibility of human extinction.

Let’s take a step back, and see how we got into this situation in the first place. We’ve known about climate change for the past century – honestly. Fossil fuel companies wrote in papers 30 years ago that they were aware of the effects of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, predicting – with a high certainty – that the effects this would lead to (global warming, melting ice caps, etc).

They saw what would happen to their businesses if this knowledge became public, so spent millions investing in smearing campaigns to confuse the public and get them to question the media, all in the name of capitalist greed.

And what did we do? We bought into it because consumerism is so deeply ingrained into our society that we’d rather believe corporations over scientists. These bottom-up and top-down effects are so inextricably linked that it’s often difficult, on the reverse, to see where to focus our energy in the fight against the systemic issue that has led us to face the extinction of our own species within the next two generations.

So what do we do now? Many environmental organisations up to this point have been encouraging us to reduce our energy usage, to limit our plastic consumption, to help us to reduce our carbon emissions – but they haven’t got us anywhere near where we need to be. These are all vital issues in themselves, but are sticking plasters to the greater systemic problems, and all point towards our broken, individualistic society.

We need to target our governments and the huge corporations that are ultimately responsible for putting us in this mess. And there are some amazing student organisations who are doing exactly this: People & Planet are one, Extinction Rebellion are another. Mission Lifeforce are building a case to hold the Government accountable for their criminal inaction on climate breakdown by trying to make ecocide law. And you, as an individual, can join them.

But there’s a question that still hangs in the back of my mind about all this – do I think this will make any difference? Can we really beat the system, and turn things around in a decade? The thing is, it’s not about whether or not we think we can change things.

We must face up to the fact that the obstacles in our way are undeniably huge and powerful, and that in all honesty we probably won’t succeed. But we are never going to get there if we don’t do it for the one reason that might give us a chance; that we believe it’s the right thing to do. Because, in the end, that’s all we have.

This is a guest submission from SU Activities Officer Lizzy Haughton.

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