AT THE START of the northern hemisphere summer, essayist Sarah Miller wrote a piece for Nieman Lab called ‘All the right words on climate have already been said’.
‘What kind of awareness quotient are we looking for?’ she said, fairly furious at having been asked to once again write a newsy piece about the state of the climate. ‘What more about climate change does anyone need to know? What else is there to say?...all the right words about climate have already been deployed.’
I got to the end of it and completely agreed with her. I still completely agree with her. She is right. It’s time for doing. There is nothing more to say.
And yet, here I am.
Still, apparently, writing.
I’ve been writing about climate change for around ten years, off and on. I have heard and read a lot about how climate change should be communicated – scientists need to be better at communicating, journalists need to write more about science, facts are important, people’s values are important, myth-busting is important, never mention the myths, tell the truth because only fear will motivate them enough, give people hope because only hopeful people can act.
We tried it all and yet – weird! – climate change is still a problem.
The sixth IPCC assessment report came out last week. You already know what it said: we’ve utterly wrecked the ocean and it’s too late to fix that; we’re on track for all sorts of other horrors. But also, everything we do to reduce emissions is worth doing: without it, everything will be so much worse.
There isn’t much to say about the report (though much has been said). Everyone who is likely to care about its contents already cares – there are probably no unchanged changeable minds left. Since the fires of the summer before last, Australians have largely recognised that climate change is here and it is now and we need to do something about it. IPCC reports are incredibly worthwhile, don’t get me wrong. Scientists and policymakers need this information to do their jobs. But you? And me? We just need someone to get the fuck on with fixing it.
Inaction on climate change is not because we do not know what’s going on. It’s not because we’re waiting for someone to write just the right essay about why we should care. It’s not because we want to die in a fire. We don’t want our homes to flood or people we love to die during a heatwave. Do we want to lie awake three, four, five months of the year because the nights are too hot to sleep and the power keeps cutting out? Do we want to go to the shops and find the vegetables we need to cook this week’s meals just aren’t available right now? Do we, on the hottest days of an insufferably hot summer, want to be locked out of the pool because there is no chlorine to treat the water because a climate-change-strengthened hurricane wrecked the main chlorine factory last summer?
We do not.
We want somebody, somewhere, to do something. We would love it if politicians would do something. But as far as I (a non-expert) can tell, political donations have busted our democracy so thoroughly that we cannot vote for a major party that will stop coal mining in this country. Which, given what we know, is – come on! – not that radical a thing to ask for.
Apparently, it is up to us to do whatever it is that we can do to change this system, to get us on a better track. Divestment, probably. Protest. Direct action. Getting involved in citizens’ assemblies. Donating time or money to the organisations trying to solve this.
Is it pointless to write once more that things are a terrible mess? It would be good if we could write instead, or as well: here is the path to fix it. To write, yes, our house is on fire but also, here is the fire exit or – even better! And if only! – here comes the fire brigade. But what do we write in the section marked ‘how to fix climate change’ when our options are necessarily limited by the sheer bloody-minded inertia of government? So I guess it is: do whatever you have the ability and the courage to do; support other people’s efforts, even if you think they’re stupid or pointless. We don’t have any proof yet of what works or even of what works best. Try everything; try all of it.
I wake up most mornings and the first thing I think about is how awful it all is and how much worse it’s going to get. Poor me: as if it hasn’t been awful for most people for most of the history of the world. And what’s more, out my window is snow on the mountains, is a forest of stringybarks, is the sound of birds and then, seriously, as I was writing this, a wombat sprinted past (late for bed, I assume – it’s 7 am here).
Recently a friend sent me an essay from The Point about Wendell Berry. It discussed how we might live morally at a time when the world is going all to hell and it feels as though there’s nothing that little tiny you can do about it. The author suggested that while I should obviously be caring a great deal about climate change, I needed to also pay attention to that wombat sprinting past the window and to let it fill my heart with joy, for ‘the likelihood of loss is unbearable only if value – the goodness of a neighborly deed, the beauty of a creek at sunset – arises from consequences, not from things as they are in themselves’. It’s a good wombat – full to the brim with value, in and of itself. And this, I guess, is why I’m still writing even though I have nothing useful to offer about any of it – writing pins me to the moment and makes me look at it up close. It’s how I’m alive. Should I be locking on to a coal train instead? Yes, probably, and perhaps I will. But writing is my love and, well, to quote old Berry,
O when the world’s at peace
and every man is free
then I will go down unto my love.
O and I may go down
several times before that.
This article is part of 'Through the Window', an online series published as part of Griffith Review's Friday Great Reads newsletter.
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