A coral reef destroyed by coral bleaching in the Indian Ocean

This article is a preview from the Spring 2018 edition of New Humanist.

Deep purple is not a colour normally seen on the weather report. In 2013, responding to a heatwave deemed “virtually impossible” without climate change, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology introduced a new colour to their heat index to depict the 50-degree-plus temperatures they were facing in a summer that broke 123 different temperature records across the country. Some of these records have been broken several times since. Climate change is making its mark on the world, and new maps are needed to chart the changes – from the now annual deep purple in Australian weather reports to the retreating ice of the Arctic.

In the echo chamber that is my social media feed there was a fresh storm over the New Year. Donald Trump, yet again, provoked anger by claiming that a cold snap on the east coast of the US showed that global warming was a liberal hoax. Cue indignant posts by scientists and campaigners, along with mainstream media coverage . The unfortunate fact is that we are already experiencing climate change, and we need to stop getting dragged into endless debates with sceptics. Instead, we need to focus on how we’re going to cope with the changes ahead of us.

That is not to say that environmentalists should abandon their campaigns to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, or to limit polluting industrial activity – we have much we can and must still do to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Recent literature, such as a 2017 paper in Nature, suggests we have just a 5 per cent chance of keeping warming within 2 degrees, an amount that will already see sea levels rise by an estimated 50cm and render much of the UK’s coastal flood defences useless. But each fraction of a degree of warming beyond this could spell the end for whole communities, cities and even some countries. The New Zealand government is considering a new climate-change refugee visa in order to welcome those forced to leave South Pacific islands by rising sea levels. The challenge, then, is to do both – to adapt to an already changed world and to take action against it getting worse. Collectively, we have some difficult decisions to make about what we choose to save and what we should accept we are going to lose. We need to reflect on what the changed world we are facing is going to look like.

This isn’t easy for anybody. People in my field of work – I’m head of oceans campaigns for Greenpeace – are trained not to dwell too long on the scary, or even the uncomfortable. The communications advice is to focus on the positive: stories of hope, of our ability as humans to innovate and collaborate, to avoid doomsday scenario descriptions. But does the avoidance of honest discussion hinder our ability to make urgent decisions now? As researchers warned in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last July, we are already living through the sixth mass extinction. Yet when I mentioned to a friend that I wanted to write an article about it, her response was typical: “but aren’t so many creatures adapting quite well? And technology is so good that surely we can save the rest.” We are quick to tell ourselves the stories we want to hear.

“One of the penalties of an ecological education,” said the conservationist Aldo Leopold, recently quoted in an article by George Monbiot, “is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” In trying to deal with these wounds, first we convince ourselves of our ability to save everything – and when that fails, we move on without critically examining our failures. Our adaptability as humans is a strength, but it can also be a weakness. Last year the media reported a triumph – North Sea cod was certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. Cod stocks plummeted by nearly 90 per cent between 1976 and 2006, devastating fishing communities and galvanising us against overfishing. The recent certification suggests we are on the right track, but it was disappointing to see it so uncritically celebrated, given that stocks are still roughly half their historic levels. The bigger change is not its recovery, but our ability, eagerness even, to redefine what is normal, and even sustainable.

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To cope with our future in a more honest and constructive way, perhaps we need storytelling that unpacks the difficulties of our age. There is not a complete dearth. The Archers does its bit, broadcasting the reality of an agricultural industry struggling to deal with changes in its environment – increased flooding and soil degradation two recent examples. But we continue to tell ourselves – via a mass media often unable to deal with nuance – that technology will fix things; or that climate change will be mitigated by benefits such as a thriving English wine industry. The flipside are apocalyptic stories that portray our future world as entirely barren. (See Cal Flyn’s piece on page 46 for more on the apocalypse in popular culture.)

Elements of this are true: in just a few years the Arctic may be free of all ice cover during the summer months, warned the “Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic” assessment last April. The home of polar bears and narwhals, creatures that have enchanted children for generations, forever lost. Such an event will no doubt be greeted with eulogies by poets and geographers, but perhaps what we need instead are more stories that show us how to deal with profound change.

Last summer, New York Magazine published an article by David Wallace-Wells entitled “The Uninhabitable Earth”. In it he outlined what many scientists would deem a worst-case scenario for climate change, its opening sentence setting the scene: “It is, I promise, worse than you think.” The article went viral, and widespread condemnation from the experts followed: Wallace-Wells had gone too far – a description of the human body cooking from inside out; subheadings like “The End of Food” – and the article was likely to frighten readers into inaction. But the environmentalist and blogger David Roberts pointed out that since the article was being read by millions, it evidently had something other climate-change literature lacked. A touch of honesty, perhaps.

Nevertheless it was too apocalyptic for my taste. Both over- and understating the truth squeezes out the necessary nuanced debates we should be having about our future. Rising sea levels, expanding desertification and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events mean we have already denied future generations the same quality of life we have enjoyed. The least we can do is first to not let it get even worse; and second to learn how to make difficult decisions as a society.

What kind of decisions do I mean? Every area of policy-making will be affected – from public health, with the likely spread of infectious diseases, to insurance regulation struggling to deal with bigger, more frequent hurricanes and floods – our fast-changing world requires new rules. No area, however, is changing as fast as wildlife protection. According to a 2014 paper in Conservation Biology, with an estimated 10,000 species going extinct every year, we are experiencing a rate of species extinction up to 10,000 times higher than what would be considered “natural”.

Species that have evolved over millions of years in a relatively stable climate are for the most part struggling to keep up with the pace of change. Many of them will not make it. With our help, some of them might.

As one of the most diverse habitats on the planet, coral reefs will be among the worst hit. The fate of our coral reefs, often characterised as underwater gardens of paradise (the earliest written reference to coral is in a Chinese historical text from the first century BCE), is front-page news. Mass bleaching – the killing of coral by rising water temperatures – provides news outlets with shocking “before and after” images. I can’t count the number of “Save the Reef” campaigns I have seen or been a part of – save them from fishing, from pollution, from mining – the list goes on.

Are such campaigns worthwhile? Is it possible to still save coral, given that ocean temperatures are already set to rise beyond what may make them habitable? The answer – maybe we can save some. Such uncertainty presents us with challenging decisions: whether to expend significant capital putting the world’s coral ecosystem off-limits to human activity so that it might regenerate; whether to invest in technologies like the recently reported “coral sperm bank” in the hope that at some point in the future we’ll be in a position to artificially restore the reefs. This is before we even think about how to prevent the plastic polluting our oceans from flooding on to the reefs. Conservation was already filled with these complex decisions, but the prospect of a world altered by climate change is only making them more difficult.

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How to judge what is ecologically valuable or culturally significant enough to preserve? In general, solipsism rules. Any ecologist can make the case for the species or habitat they are an expert in. Speak to any campaigner and they will relay all the reasons to support their particular cause. And most policy makers will tell you why the suggestions of these scientists and campaigners are not possible given the resources available. Put all three together and you risk years of point-scoring, at the end of which no decision is made.

It is tempting to advocate a purely rational decision-making model. This could include criteria against which policy-makers could undertake cost-benefit analyses to inform decisions. Such a model might sound appealing, but is it realistic given the extensive gaps in any evidence portfolio? We know less about the seabed than about the surface of the moon, so how are we meant to make these judgements, given the unknowns? An evidence base could probably be constructed to justify protecting pretty much anything from the smallest creatures at the bottom of the food chain to the apex predators keeping everything else in check. In his work on rational decision-making models, the political philosopher Peter Allen discusses how such a narrow approach may also preclude more radical policy, the kind of transformative action that we’re desperately in need of. Ideas such as Kate Haworth’s doughnut economics, the sharing economy and decentralised decision-making should all be explored to help us be innovative.

A “rational” model also denies the less tangible cultural and social factors that play a role in conservation decisions. My own reaction to the RSPB’s 2017 report that the Scottish Crossbill is facing extinction due to climate change served as a reminder that our cultural identity remains highly influential in how we approach conservation. The report made me feel miserable, but my misery was at the prospect of losing the only bird to be found in Britain and nowhere else rather than any ecological assessment of what it might mean for the pine forests of the Highlands.

Evidence-based policy should still of course be the guiding principle. Not least because our lack of meaningful discussion about the future means that we lack the emotional intelligence to allow us to make good decisions. As an example, one can look to the example of the vaquita – the world’s smallest dolphin. Last year saw its population fall to below 30. The cause of its decline has been known for years: illegal fishing for the totoaba fish, whose swim bladder is highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine. One of the first petitions I was involved in at Greenpeace was to “save the vaquita” – at that time there were still several hundred left and it felt like a realistic prospect.

Now, in a bizarre twist, the Mexican government is considering the use of military-trained dolphins to round up the few survivors and keep them safe in captivity. All historical evidence suggests they won’t do better in captivity than in the wild and that the genetic pool of just 30 animals is unlikely to be large enough for population recovery. If action had been taken sooner this absurd situation could probably have been avoided. Instead we are witnessing irrational, last-minute action by a government concerned about its popular image. Wouldn’t these resources be better deployed securing the future of another species under threat? Do we throw everything we can at saving the Scottish Crossbill because it has the word Scottish in its name? Maybe, but if we do let’s be honest that it has as much to do with nationalism as with ecology; and that it will come at the expense of concentrating efforts elsewhere.

The challenge of our generation is a daunting one, with no easy avenue. We know what is coming, but we are currently unable to pull back and understand the bigger picture. We may not be able to save everything, but it is likely we can halt the most radical changes – the ones that will destroy all that is familiar to us. But we will only be able to do this if we take seriously our situation, come to terms with what we will lose, and start talking frankly about where we need to concentrate our resources. We should allow ourselves to be hopeful, to be inspired by the possibilities of technology and science – but not at the expense of dealing with the consequences of our actions.