Be(at) the (climate) change you (don’t) want to see in the world.

Be(at) the (climate) change you (don’t) want to see in the world.

“Who is thinking to stop flying all-together?”

The room stays awkwardly silent. It is a room full of young students of international development which is definitely aware of the realness of climate change. We are painfully confronted with our own lifestyles and compliance in not stopping this dreadful heating of the Earth - enough. We understand that in order to not see our planet go up in flames in a few decades we need both top-down measures and voluntary behavioural change on a personal level. The latter meaning less (or no) flying. Less meat and dairy. Less buying things we don’t need. We know it. Yet it remains hard to walk the talk.

One reason for this is simply because many of us feel climate change cannot be stopped. We are a generation has been marked by climate despair and which feels a little bit betrayed by previous generations for leaving such a messed up situation for us to solve (OK boomer!). We are a generation being told “you must do something or we are all gonna go extinct”.

To this end academics argue that the most effective way to inspire a change of young people’s mind-set towards pro-environmental behaviour are positive and solution-oriented messages, rather than by negative framing of climate change (M. Riede, L. Keller, A. Greissing). Psychological research shows that people are extremely bad at understanding future negative consequences of current behaviours. Instead in order to change, people need to believe that their behaviour matters and that there are reasons to be optimistic. Which raises the question…

Is there reason to be optimistic?

Well. Our planet is already facing the consequences of the climate being one degree warmer than in pre-industrial times. And even if we manage to limit global warming to 1.5C, millions of people will be pushed into poverty, more biodiversity will be lost and natural disasters will become even more frequent. Being optimistic does not mean being naive. Rather, it implies keeping in mind that solutions exist and that yes, we can still do it. Latest IPCC report assessed that we have 12 years to win that fight. So here are four reasons to believe that yes, we can do it:

1. Youth is calling for change: Friday’s for future.

There has been a strong change of mind-set already. A bit more than a year ago, 15 years old Greta Thunberg sat down in front of the Swedish government, waving a sign were “Skolstrejk for klimat’’ was written. That year, Sweden recorded the hottest summer ever, and elections were about to take place. She did not know it back then, but that day marked the beginning of a worldwide #FridaysForFuture movement, with millions of students skipping school to take the street and ask their governments to take their responsibilities. For policymakers this was an important turning point. Seeing their future electorate accusing them of failing them managed to change the political discourse that was at the end of 2018 dominated by a fear of yellow vests. “It changed things”’, assessed Frank van Veulen (Dutch MoFA, IGG directorate). In a recent intervention in the Times Magazine, Al Gore wrote that ‘’harking back to the great social movements in history - women suffrage, civil rights, gay and lesbian rights - youth activists are taking the lead”.

2. Politicians are picking up on the urgency.

In 2009, governments failed to reach an agreement at the COP15 in Copenhagen. ‘’Back then, no one believed it would be possible, In fact, neither did I’’, said Christiana Figueres (former executive Secretary of the UNFCCC) in 2016. What changed afterwards? She realized one thing: ‘’We have got to change to tone of the conversation. Because you can’t deliver victory without optimism’’. 

It is a big deal that 194 countries and the European Union have signed the Paris Agreement and are starting to give the battle against climate change importance in their policies. Lots can be said for the need of additional efforts of governments for reaching the specific climate goals, but at least there is an international near-consensus on the fact that fighting climate change is a priority.

3. Clean energy is becoming the cheapest.

Energy transitions are on their way. Worldwide we see more new investments in renewable energy than in fossil fuels as investors tend to prefer growing markets. This leads to the fact that renewable energy is also the cheapest and more profitably option. It is thus not surprising that EU Commission Vice-President Timmermans has been charged with the mission to design a Green Deal for Europe including a green energy transition strategy.

‘’With the dissemination of these technologies [together with transportation and intelligent buildings], we are going to understand that we are going to get cleaner air, better transportation, more livable cities and more energy access to the developing world (…) Those are the first steps towards a decarbonized, more resilient economy’’, as said by Christina Figueres.

Reason 4: Resilience

In the early 1900s, the annual average of deaths caused by natural disasters was often in the range of 400,000 to 500,000 deaths. In the second half of the century and into the early 2000s, we have seen a significant decline to less than 100,000.This decline is even more impressive when we consider the rate of population growth over this period: When we correct for population – showing this data in terms of death rates (measured per 100,000 people) – then we see a more than 10-fold decline over the past century.

Resilience can be criticized for being an overused development buzzword, but  measures such as information on climate change risks and adaptation options are achieving results. Nature resilience is  itself be mind-blowing: looking at Chernobyl today, once the scene of the worst nuclear incident in Human History, you see nature as animals taking back their spaces.

And basically this is how we survive. We are resilient. We adapt. We stop being scared of the future and of each other. In the words of Al Gore: “We must be on guard against despair, which is ultimately another form of denial when the future of humanity is at stake’’.

Written by Julie Capelle (CARE Nederland) and Kim van Kastel (MinbuZa-DIE), on the lecture on Climate Change on November 8, 2019