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Paul Vallely: The growing clamour for climate action 

10 May 2019

Have we reached a tipping-point psychologically, Paul Vallely wonders

BBC/Ross Kirby

The 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, in Climate Change: The facts (BBC 1)

The 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, in Climate Change: The facts (BBC 1)

WHAT does a 16-year-old girl in pigtails know anyway? So said several recidivist cynics after Greta Thunberg addressed British parliamentarians last month. They accused her of simplistic over-dramatisation. But their reaction provoked its own backlash. One snide critic was asked whether it made him feel like a big man to be picking on a schoolgirl.

What does a 16-year-old schoolgirl know about the damage that has been wreaked on the planet by her elders? Quite a lot, it seems. Her language may be dramatic, but no more so than that of this week’s alarming report from the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services. It catalogues how “nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history.”

The report is all the more disturbing because it has been produced under the sponsorship of the United Nations — an organisation whose documents usually reflect the timidity of anything that has to be agreed by consensus among all member states. But it is frighteningly authoritative. Written by 145 expert authors from 50 countries, drawing on 15,000 scientific sources, with input from indigenous peoples and local communities, it is the most comprehensive assessment of the global ecosystem ever.

There has been a catastrophic decline in diversity as a result of human activity over the past 50 years. Of the earth’s eight million plant and animal species, a million are at risk of extinction. The number of wild animals has fallen by 82 per cent, and climate change has altered the distribution of almost half the land mammals. Natural ecosystems have been halved. Plastic pollution in the seas has increased tenfold since 1980. One third of fish are being harvested unsustainably. The human population has doubled since 1970. A quarter of farmland goes on raising cattle, which produce 18 per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions — double the land-growing crops, which produce less than seven per cent of emissions.

We are not merely losing a few interesting species: we are damaging our life-support system. One in ten of the insects that pollinate our food has gone. “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life worldwide,” Sir Robert Watson, who chairs the report-writing body, said. “People shouldn’t panic, but they should begin drastic change,” another UN expert said. “Business as usual with small adjustments won’t be enough.”

Climate scientists often talk about the “tipping-point” — when global warming becomes irreversible because natural forces will begin to feed rather than resist it. But there is also a tipping point in human psychology when, despite the head-in-the-sand attitudes of climate-change deniers such as President Donald Trump, a critical mass of popular opinion will demand real action.

Schoolchildren are striking for climate change. Extinction Rebellion activists — many of them Christians who have replaced the theology of “subduing the earth” with a paradigm of ecological stewardship — are being supported by Establishment figures such as Rowan Williams (News, 18 April). The British Parliament has declared a climate emergency. Nearly three million people watched Sir David Attenborough’s prime-time BBC documentary Climate Change: The facts (TV, 3 May). People are eating less meat and leaving their cars in the drive. The era of consumption without consequences is ending. Perhaps that psychological tipping-point has arrived.

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