Ever since I first set foot in a university lecture hall, I’ve held onto the belief that education is our greatest defence against misery and suffering. Even if I cannot fix everything in this world, I can fight for good changes, using my voice in education to spur action. My conscience was thus clear, or so I thought.
I have several friends who care deeply about stopping climate change. They have been vocal in private conversations and on social media. Yet, I did not listen to them attentively. Despite the urgency of their rhetoric, I did not see an immediate threat to humans or other living organisms from climate change: I contrasted it with war, in which I could hear stranded children crying for their mothers, feeling my soul tear apart as I witnessed the horror. Nor was it like seeing animals suffer in traffic across borders. Climate change is more subdued.
I also thought that those fighting against climate change lacked an educational approach: I heard urgency backed by increasingly alarming data, flooding the media space without consensus on solutions. This way of raising awareness of the subject seemed unproductive: what could I do right now to address climate change with most effect?
The response was not unequivocal.
Imagine an ‘ordinary’ person who lives in the city, takes a bus to work most weekdays or works from home, cares enough to separate recyclables from trash and incorporates environmental concerns in their decisions before making a purchase or taking a flight.
What is the single most significant action this person could take, right now, to help stop global warming?
Use more public transport? Travel by bicycle? Switch off the lights more often? How often? Eliminate more plastic in their home? How much plastic is allowed?
The climate conversation seemed to lack a coordinated approach.
At the same time, I held onto a belief that the government would be able to protect us, like the good father it should act as. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary from various parts of the globe, I somehow thought the government, my government, would do the right thing.
Luckily, I have a friend who has a stark opinion on the importance of action to halt climate change. I first met Françoise at a workshop I facilitated for an association I worked with several years ago. She was curious and outgoing, had an impressive career and a PhD in thermodynamics. Fast forward a few years, she now advises companies on reducing their carbon footprint and runs workshops for Climate Fresk, an NGO, raising awareness of the consequences both of our actions and of our inaction. Françoise has joined problem-solving.rocks as mentor and works with me on delivering programmes for PhD students at several universities in France.
At her invitation, I attended her Fresk of New Stories (Fresque des Nouveaux Récits) workshop. Then she asked me to incorporate climate change as a theme in my work. I resented this for a long time, for the reasons given above. Finally, to appease her, one afternoon I sat down and started researching.
Now comes the sad part: it took Françoise several months to get me to investigate the topic of climate change more closely, but it took me about 30 minutes of basic research to get rid of my romantic nostalgia about governments and things being fine in the end.
Since that moment, I would no longer marvel at a designer car rolling by my window, burning diesel. I would no longer be soothed the comfy warmth of a gas flame by my kitchen counter. I would no longer appreciate the majestic beauty of a plane in the sky, wondering where it was heading; instead I would be keenly aware of the compounding effect of emissions to atmosphere as result of these and a million more activities. In 30 minutes, my world had changed forever.
Students in my class echoed my frustration with the lack of data about the impact of actions citizens could undertake. They spoke of feeling powerless and unsupported while being keenly aware of the urgency. They described forests they could no longer stroll in and ice caps they could no longer admire because these had shrunk to a distant pale dot on a mountain peak. They spoke of deadly smog preventing them from breathing properly for years on end.
Around the same time, I discovered initiatives by entrepreneurs, governments, individuals and businesses that have restored some of my faith in humanity. But they are desperately far from enough. We are going to boil as we dig up fossil fuel to burn in the air, hoping that one day carbon sequestration will somehow stop the suffocating future we are creating within our own lifetime, just a couple of decades down the road.
We need a strong movement coordinating and driving climate action decisively. When we debate whether to dig more coal out of the ground, climate protection needs to take precedence over economic and other arguments. We need to exercise our full power to vote for governments that make this an urgent priority and deliver on it.
However, voting will not succeed if I and millions of other people remain in the dark about what is really happening and what needs to be done. I can hardly believe that it took my friend months of insistence to get me to focus on the subject. I am grateful for her persistence.
But not everybody will have a friend like that.
Going forward, I will be writing different stories.