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Slowly catching on to a dangerous climate

02 January 2015

An innate reluctance to dwell on disaster is undermining efforts to cope with climate change, argues Joe Ware

FROM our vantage point at the start of 2015, most of the next 12 months is shrouded in mystery. We don't know for which celebrities this will be their final January, which team will win the Rugby World Cup, or even who will be Prime Minister on 8 May.

But one thing we do know is that 2015 will be the most significant year humans have had to tackle climate change since the impact of our actions on the environment was realised. The good news is that there are signs that we might just pull it off.

Next December, world leaders will meet in Paris to sign an agreement that, for the first time, will include every country. It will shape how we go about cleaning up the atmosphere we polluted.

Climate change is an opponent on which it is hard to land a punch. First, it's an example of a market failure. For markets to work, they need feedback loops to calculate costs; but the cost of burning fossil fuels is not, usually, felt by those doing the burning. It will be felt, instead, by future generations, and by people in the developing world away from the offices where these calculations are made. Since the costs of carbon-dioxide emissions are not "priced in" to the market, there is no economic incentive to reduce them.

Not only has climate change managed to infiltrate our economic systems. It is perfectly designed to defeat our psychology as well. The human brain is great at detecting danger, helping us flee from impending attack, or duck out of the way of a cricket ball. But it is not particularly well-equipped for dealing with slow-moving threats, which sneak past our defences without triggering the alarm.

As Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, has said, the problem is not that climate change is happening too fast: it's that it's happening too slowly. Twenty-six years after a NASA climatologist, James Hansen, told a US Senate hearing that "the greenhouse effect is here," governments are still only sluggishly responding to the problem, despite mounting evidence of the size of the danger and the suffering it is causing.

Another perspective comes from the author Naomi Klein. She compared climate change to racing through a rural landscape on a bullet train: "Our culture, powered by fossil fuels, is that bullet train, hurtling forward toward the next quarterly report, the next election cycle, the next bit of diversion or piece of personal validation via our smartphones and tablets.

"Our changing climate is like the landscape out the window: from our racy vantage point it can appear static, but it is moving, its slow progress measured in receding ice sheets, swelling waters and incremental temperature rises.

"If left unchecked, climate change will most certainly speed up enough to capture our fractured attention - island nations wiped off the map, and city-drowning superstorms tend to do that. But by then, it may be too late for our actions to make a difference."

Like the frog boiled in the slowly heating water, we face being cooked before we realise it is too late.

Humans are also not good at making decisions that involve short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. In studies, children that told they can have one piece of chocolate now or two if they wait a few minutes often go for instant gratification. The same is true for the many adults who fail to make financial provision for their old age.

Ensuring that we have a safe and healthy planet to live on in future requires changes to how we live now, even if we are unable to feel the benefit.

THANKFULLY, humans are blessed with logic and reason, and so can overcome the snares of the anti-climate-change arguments. In many instances, it is Christians who are leading people along the path out of the wilderness.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu described climate change as "our global enemy", and called for a boycott of fossil-fuel companies. Bill McKibben, a Methodist, and leader of the campaign group 350.org, has led the divestment charge, something the World Council of Churches and the diocese of Oxford signed up to last year. Mr McKibben chided the C of E for not acting more swiftly to review its fossil-fuel investments, triggered by an overwhelming vote to do so at the General Synod.

The global divestment campaign has even seen the likes of the Rockerfeller oil dynasty join its ranks. The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, admitted that most of the world's known coal, oil, and gas reserves were unburnable, if the goal of preventing climate change was to be achieved, making fossil-fuel stocks increasingly dubious investments.

LAST year was one of climate records, not just in terms of global temperature but also the heat of public anger. Last month, with still a few weeks of the year left, the World Meteorological Organisation described 2014 as the warmest on record. The year saw the largest-ever mass mobilisation for the climate in September: 400,000 people marched through the streets of New York during the UN climate summit, joined by another 300,000 in capitals around the world. For the crunch talks in December, it is possible that close to a million people will descend on Paris.

If these efforts are to be of any use, 2015 needs to be the year we really do turn the tide.

Archbishop Tutu again: "Who can stop climate change? We can. You and you and you, and me. And it is not just that we can stop it: we have a responsibility to do so that began in the genesis of humanity, when God commanded the earliest human inhabitants of the Garden of Eden 'to till it and keep it'.

"To 'keep' it; not to abuse it, not to make as much money as possible from it - not to destroy it."

Joe Ware is Church and Campaigns Journalist for Christian Aid.

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