Emergency. Crisis. Catastrophe. We know what these words mean. They mean that something terrible is happening to other people, probably poor people. Deep down, we in the West think that catastrophes are things that happen to others.
What is so heartening about the recent wave of School Strikes and "Extinction Rebellion" protests is that they finally started a conversation. What is so disheartening is how much of that conversation misses the point. On Twitter, television, in Parliament and on the streets, well-meaning people spoke out against Extinction Rebellion’s direct-action tactics. When directly challenged with facts like the collapse of global insect populations, they pivoted to arguments over hypocrisy, tactics, privilege.
Anything, really, to avoid talking about the actual issue of climate change.
We speak around what is coming as "The Future That Must Not Be Named". We speak in euphemisms and acronyms. Our policy-makers murmur about parts-per-million, representative-concentration-pathways and ‘risks related to inevitable uncertainties and complexities’.
British, Canadian, Australian and American governments censor their own scientists from talking to the media about the true extent of our danger, then say that the people aren’t asking for action.
Even those who now claim to get it, talk around it. The Bank of England’s Governor says that finance has to "raise the bar". The Australian Labor Party say it is ‘time for serious action’. Now our more far-sighted leaders are using the language of "crisis" and "catastrophe", but what does this mean?
It is as if our leaders were preparing us to fight World War II without explaining who the Nazis were.
If you are forty or under, and we do not reverse course now, the catastrophe that is happening to our biosphere isn’t going to happen to someone else.
It is going to hurt you.
It is going to hurt you harder as you age.
And in the probabilistic parlance of climate scientist, it could eventually kill you.
Forget about the Other People. Forget about your unborn grandchildren. Worry about yourself. Amidst the ups and downs of love, work, children, groceries, colds and karaoke, here is a glimpse of what the next thirty years might look like to the lucky ones. To people like you.
It is 2019. You are annoyed that climate protestors are causing traffic jams. Perhaps you say that someone should do something, but not like this.
You read that we are exceeding the supposed worst-case-scenarios on carbon emissions and ice-melt, but you figure that if it was really that bad, governments would be doing something.
It is the 2020s. You share a sad headline on Facebook, the last wild rhino has died. The photo shows its leathery corpse in the sun. Someone should have done something.
You realise that you don’t hear insects like you used to.
You are frustrated when fish prices in the supermarket quadruple, it turns out fish stocks have crashed in 88% of fisheries. Someone should have done something about overfishing.
For the first time in your life, you go hungry. A "once-in-a-millennium" combination of heat and rain wipes out the Ukrainian and American grain harvest simultaneously and there is not enough food to go round. Bread comes back next summer, so you joke that you "survived the crisis". Millions of people are not so lucky.
Your old friend has died in a wildfire. Cooked in their car on a clogged freeway.
A storm surge smashes central Shanghai. The world suddenly wakes up to the fact that coastal properties are close to worthless, the housing market crashes again and triggers a global recession. Your superannuation fund takes a big hit, friends lose their jobs.
It’s been ten years since we had ten years to act and didn’t. Climate change is now cascading beyond our control as methane bubbles out of melted tundra.
It is the 2030s. Every decade is hotter than the one before. Someone you love very much dies of heat exhaustion. The hospitals were overwhelmed, the ambulance never came. Your world is emptier.
Glacial melt and aquifer collapse means that freshwater is running out in Asia. You are afraid when you read that a hundred million people are now fleeing drought and flooding. This is twenty times the number who fled the Syrian war.
You cry when you are told the last wild elephant has died. Why didn’t someone do something?
Things are falling apart. Your country elects a new government that promises to do "whatever it takes".
The new government launches drones to shoot any refugees who enter your national waters.
You go hungry again. It turns out once-in-a-millennium events are more common than they used to be.
The tigers are gone.
You are surprised to be told that air travel is now restricted for official use only.
You try insect-protein for the first time. You pretend you like it. Hakuna Matata. Your kids don’t understand the reference and they don’t pretend to like it.
2040s. The Amazon Rainforest is burning. You can taste the soot from half a world away.
You have dengue fever. From a mosquito. In your own, temperate, city.
They try to hide it, but your own children hate you. You read "The elderly are to blame" spray-painted on the seawalls and a teenager spits at you in the street. Why do they blame you? You always recycled your drink-bottles.
Due to the ongoing catastrophe, the new government is suspending elections until the situation stabilises.
2050. You get dengue fever again, it’s much more dangerous the second time. There are limited beds in the hospital and unofficially the doctors are favouring the young. Because they still blame you. You can barely stand, but you’re told to go home and sleep it off.
You lie in bed watching blood patches spread beneath your skin. It is hard to say whether your body or the street outside is at a higher temperature. And you realise that this, this is the catastrophe people used to talk about. It has reached you.
And nobody is going to do anything.
It won’t happen exactly like that — there will be expected horrors that don’t come to pass and a few unexpected ones to take us by surprise. But if we keep raising our emissions, then it will be something like that.
I don’t know how else to say it, except that if you are relatively young, and we do not stop destroying our planet, then a time will come when the collapse of our ecosystem will kill people that you love. Or it will kill you.
And if you still think that chalking pavements and blocking traffic isn’t the answer, then fair enough.
Help us come up with better strategies. We’re in it together and we only have a few years left. We are all scared, but once you allow yourself to imagine the problem, then you can start imagining solutions.
Extinction Rebellion is right to make their first demand that our governments tell the truth about the climate emergency. Telling the truth means more than just acknowledging facts, although that would be a good start. It means educating people on what the repercussions of those facts really mean.
Climate change is not like Lord Voldemort. It won’t come any faster if we name it. We must speak truth to power, but before that, power must speak truth to us.
Let’s tell the truth. Take a moment to accept the future we are facing. Then let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Jack Nicholls is an award-winning science-fiction writer and essayist.
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