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Crisis, what crisis?

In 2015, nations pledged to limit global warming to 1.5–2 °C above pre-industrial levels as part of the Paris climate accord. But those governments are largely failing to meet their commitments, and emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases continue to rise. Even under the most optimistic assumptions, current national commitments have put the world on a path to around 3°C of warming compared with pre-industrial times.

As the earth warms, the Arctic ice melts, exposing us to the far greater danger of methane, a much more potent Greenhouse Gas than CO2, being released.

Is it an emergency? On geological timescales, it’s unquestionably an emergency. Our planet is changing in the geological equivalent of a twinkling of an eye, compared to similar changes in the past that have had a very traumatic impact on life on earth. We are seeing the consequences of those changes already. To me, this sounds like a fire alarm going off. What does it sound like to you?

Why haven’t we been able to hear this fire alarm, and to take appropriate steps to mitigate these existential risks? So far, action by Westernized democracies has been limited to setting CO2 reduction targets 20-30 years in the future. To my mind, this is kicking the can down the road. The trouble is, the road might be scorched or under water by the time we actually get to it.

It’s easy to become fatalistic and believe that there’s nothing to be done about it. The forces at play are too great, the powers-that-be can’t and won’t adapt. However, once in my jet-setting days, I got into a panic as I was packing my bag for a foreign workshop trip. I was still frantically packing when the taxi arrived to take me to the airport. Ten minutes later, as I got into the taxi, I said to the driver, “Phew! That was hard work. I don’t think I’ve ever been so stressed about packing to go abroad.” He fixed my gaze in the mirror and uttered these words, which I’ll never forget, “You could have been ready yesterday, if you’d wanted to!” I was stunned into silence.

“The biggest cost is the cost of doing nothing,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in September 2019. “We are facing a climate emergency.” My sense is that it’s overwhelming for us to hear about ice melting in the Arctic, reduced numbers of polar bears and so on. We just don’t want to hear about it. We want to do our jobs and take care of our families. We want to enjoy our lives. We’re just not very good at dealing with existential threats.

Governments reflect and perpetuate the attitudes of the people that they govern. Governments around the world have said that there’s no way we can shut everything down in order to lower emissions, slow climate change and protect the environment. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us two things: a lack of resilience in our economic systems and that governments can and will take drastic measures, if they recognise that we are in an emergency.

To many people’s surprise, in an outbreak of collectivism and compassion, governments have prioritized saving lives over economic considerations. Shared risks create a sense of community. People willingly accept shouldering their part of a collective burden – like the hardships of lockdown – when they share a common purpose and are rewarded with a greater sense of social belonging. And therein lies much of our hope.

Extract from Shantigarbha’s forthcoming book, The Burning House: a Buddhist response to the climate and ecological emergency. We’ll let you know here about publication dates as soon as we get them.

Feature photo by Melissa Bradley on Unsplash