The full title of this book is Humanity’s Moment: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope. I find it hard to imagine that a climate scientist could have any hope. Report after report comes out, each hammering the same point – that we have to act NOW- only for it to be engulfed in the news cycle by some new event with better video footage to attract eyeballs. Australians concerned about climate change congratulated themselves for shaking off the climate inertia of the last ten years, only to see our newly minted government open up exploration licences for more fossil fuel extraction and parrot the mining companies’ “well-if-we-don’t-dig-it-up-someone-else-nasty-will” mantra. Even I with my admittedly limited scientific education was shouting at the television: so I wonder what climate scientists were thinking as they heard this?
Joëlle Gergis IS a climate scientist. She was one of about a dozen Australian lead authors working on the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report that was released mid-2021. As part of Working Group 1, her task was to provide the scientific foundation for understanding the risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and avoidance of dangerous levels (p10). It was her job to review thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies, and distill their key findings. Their draft underwent government and expert review, and they returned to their chapter to address the 51,387 technical comments they received before its release in August 2021, in the midst of the pandemic. By the time the Seventh report comes out in 2030, it may well be too late to achieve the Paris Target.
What a thought. Too late by 2030. Eight years. My eldest grandchild will be a teenager. My youngest grandchild will be in lower primary school. Ah, you say, you’re thinking with your heart and not your head. But this is exactly what Gergis does in this book: she thinks with her heart AND her head. This is not without risk. She is open about her own depression, much of which springs from being heart-sick about the implications of her work. This is still a ‘brave’ thing for a scientist to do, particularly a female scientist who would face old stereotypes of being ‘hysterical’ and ‘shrill’. But she insists that we cannot think about climate change with our head alone: we need to bring our hearts to it as well.
The book is divided into three sections on this basis: The Head, The Heart and The Whole. The first section, The Head, is facts and statistics. There was so much I didn’t know. As part of the the IPCC Sixth Assessment, five ‘shared socioeconomic pathways’ were developed, showing temperature rises under very low, low, intermediate, high and very high greenhouse gas emissions. It is discouraging that the ‘intermediate’ scenario is now seen as the most likely, with a rise in temperature of 2.0 degrees in 2040-2060 and 2.1 – 3.5 degrees between 2081 and 2100 (when my grandchildren will probably still be alive). A whole cascade of consequences will ensue: changes in weather patterns and ocean currents, sea level rise, loss of biodiversity, food insecurity, water insecurity, refugee flows… It is just overwhelming and terrifying.
Part II, The Heart, acknowledges this:
I’m sure, by now, many of you want to put this book down and stop reading. Trust me, I understand how you feel. These last few chapters have been really, really difficult for me to write….I’ve found myself overcome by tears many times and I’ve come to terms with the reality of what I’m writing, especially material that I don’t deal with directly as a climate scientist. Usually I’m working with physical variables like temperature and rainfall that can be neatly analysed and understood. But when you start to understand the reality of what the numbers actually mean for the people and places we love, you find yourself face to face with something so profoundly sad…This process has put me in touch with a sense of grief that sometimes leaves me feeling like a broken mess.p.137
This section is written in “us” language: she, the writer, is talking to us, the reader. She speaks of fear, despair, frustration – deeply human responses- and I feel as if here I am reading the answer to my own question “what were climate scientists thinking when they heard this?”. They were crying. They were frightened. And when I hear this, I am frightened too.
Who is going to lead us out from all this? she asks in Part III. Her answer is that we are going to have to do it ourselves. This is an ‘active hope’ for her but I wish I felt as sanguine as she does. She sees hope in COP26’s agreement to phase out coal-fired electricity in the 2030s for major economies and 2040s for developing countries. She despairs at the failure of leadership that led to the watering-down of pledges, but holds onto the awareness that the 100,000 people protesting in the streets of Glasgow were part of a world-wide Global Day of Action for Climate Justice taking place in over 100 countries. It is, she says “the biggest social movement of our time. A time of true global citizenry, driven by our passion to save the one thing that sustains us all: our Earth”(p.162). She celebrates the arrival of the Teal Independents and the success of the Greens in recent Australian politics, and the election of Joe Biden with his strong emphasis on climate action, especially in comparison to Trump. She looks to books, music, films and poetry as fuel for the social movement that will bring change. She acknowledges that
no matter how many facts and figures I give people, in the end it is probably going to be a book, an artwork, a song, a photograph, a play, a performance or a film that eventually helps awaken their sense of care for other people and the natural world…. We need artists to help scientists translate the cold, hard facts into raw human emotions.p 188,190
She talks about how change happens, looking at the domino effect when a critical threshold of society changes its minds. She cites a study by Damon Centola from the University of Pennsylvania who argues that the threshold for a social tipping point was passed when the size of a committed minority reached approximately 25 per cent of the population. Once this social tipping point was reached, between 72 and 100 per cent of people eventually adopted the new convention (p.194, 195).
I must say that I find some of these tendrils of hope rather insubstantial. Teals and Greens notwithstanding, those exploration licences were still issued by the Federal Government. The fossil fuel lobby is just as powerful as ever, now cloaking itself in support for “blue” hydrogen. That number of 25% support to bring about social change, however it was reached, can go just as easily the other way. I note that 25% was pretty much the proportion of votes attained by right wing parties in Sweden, and projected for the Brothers of Italy in the upcoming Italian elections. For myself, I bristle against the ‘preachiness’ of the arts dressing themselves in the most recent issue of the month, and climate change is too important to have us rolling our eyes at being ‘told’. Let music, art, writing celebrate being human and our environment on its own terms: it is enough.
For it is her final claim on the goodness of people and the need to keep “showing up” that probably chimes closest to my own ideas.
While we all behave badly sometimes, most people are honestly doing the best that they can from day to day. Most ordinary people, deep down, really do care about the planetary crisis we are facing, but they often feel powerless and disillusioned about their ability to influence change…Instead of being someone who confirms someone’s distrust of the basic goodness in humanity, you can choose to be a light in dark places for those around us…We can choose which side of history we want to be on and make the personal choices that help make the world a better place. So many of us have lost faith in the goodness in humanity, we’ve lost touch with our inner knowing of what is true and whole in ourselves and each other. When we contact this universal place of compassion and the interconnectedness of our hearts, we experience a sense of homecoming, a deeply felt sense of our belonging to our shared humanity.p. 226, 227
This is an important book because it connects the head and the heart. It is deeply rooted in the science- you only have to look at the bibliography to see that- but it is realistic about the political challenge. At times the writing, especially when describing nature, is a bit overwrought and self-conscious, but the passages where she talks about her response at an emotional level are raw and honest, and above all human. Because in the end, it is the recognition of being human, together, that is our best hope.
My rating: 8.5/10
Sourced from: Review copy Black Inc.