The news we’ve been hearing the past weeks on climate has given many of us reason to despair; the draft IPCC 1.5C report makes it clear how difficult it is to stay within 1.5C without negative emissions and most recently a scientific article has suggested that feedback loops could shift the earth into a “hothouse” state.
This is also proving to be a year full of impacts that many of us have experienced ourselves – record heat in Pakistan and India during summer (April-June) resulted in approximately 4,000 deaths. Currently the whole northern hemisphere has spent these summer months struggling with high temperatures from Sweden to Canada, Japan to Algeria. And we are not only hearing about deaths in poor countries, but in wealthy countries such as Japan and S. Korea almost 200 people died due to the heat. We haven’t even mentioned the weather in the Southern hemisphere, such as the heat waves in January in South Africa and Australia.
It’s been a long time since I felt hopeless about the state of the climate. But I have felt the despair this boreal summer seeing the impacts that the hot weather is having here in Switzerland and the “hothouse” paper only made me feel worse. The Aare river in Bern, where I live, recorded its highest temperature ever, 23.8C, which is dangerously close to the upper limit that many freshwater fish species can handle. On a mountaineering tour, we did not need our crampons because the glacier had receded so much. While cycling through the countryside I have met farmers who are fearing that they will lose their whole crop for the year. What sealed my fear was a large article in the newspaper on the frontpage about farmers not being prepared to deal with climate change. Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world and priding itself on always being prepared, it has been caught off guard by climate change.
India is a chaotic country where you expect things to go wrong – I find it easier to deal with dire situations there, because it has been the norm so long. When something actually goes as planned, it is a nice surprise. But Switzerland? If the train is 1 minute late, there is an announcement, there is always a plan B.
I started working on climate change over 20 years ago and knew it was going to be for the long haul – it’s a complex problem that requires systemic change. And quite frankly, everything is in flux; when humanity solves one issue, another comes along. So, it’s been a long time since I felt despair, but one of those times was in Mumbai in 2005 when I was an active member of the “Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao” movement (Save the home, build the home). The movement arose due to a large number of slum demolitions that were happening in Mumbai at the time, home to half of the city’s inhabitants.
We had hatched a plan to resist a slum demolition, but one of the slum dwellers turned out to be on the payroll of the mafia that controlled the slum; even before we could resist we were arrested. It just seemed futile – fighting the government was one thing, but taking on the mafia was on a new level and quite frankly, scary.
But Balubhai, a resident of the slum reminded me that the struggle had to continue – we hadn’t any choice if we wanted to ensure that half the city who lives in slums would continue to have a home. Where would he go and what would he do if there wasn’t a movement? He also showed me all the ways in which we had made progress – we had delayed demolition of homes into two slums, we got media attention showing how the city gives away public housing plots to the mafia, and despite the presence of mafia in the slums people were joining the movement. In fact, we had seen a number of slum dwellers whose self confidence increased and felt comfortable demanding their rights.
That has stayed with me – if we give up, nothing can change; sure, maybe we need to rethink our strategy or tactics at times, but we do have agency and we can use crises to increase the size of the movement to be more powerful and effective. There is no ignoring the pain and suffering, but we can do something about it. And we must continue to see the beauty in life – it always amazed me that the slum dwellers continued with their lives, the movement was an important part, but not the only part; they continued to have babies, meet family and friends, and enjoy the rare moments of leisure they had. So I knew I had to keep on working on climate change and I forced myself to take joy in the flowers in my garden or hearing the birds while running.
When I saw that the “hothouse” authors were upset at the doomsday depiction of their scientific work by the media and explained that the recipe to prevent such a scenario is to get off of fossil fuels and transition quickly and fairly to 100% renewable energy, it also gave me renewed energy, because I knew what the climate justice movement has been demanding all along was on point and we do have a winning strategy that has resulted in many gains.
I know each person working on climate change falls into despair in response to different events and has their own way of dealing with it. We are working on an issue that is hard, scary and overwhelming all the time, but I hope each of you finds your way back to the reason you are doing this work and are able to find joy.