The heavy hand of climate history — why we need to pay attention

Most of us have an appreciation for historic events: D-Day, Battle of Waterloo, bombing of Hiroshima. How about 17th December 2010? That day Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, triggering a revolt in Tunisia and sparking the flames of the Arab Spring that still simmer across north Africa and the Levant to this day. While police brutality was the final straw for his actions, it was climate change that drove many people into Tunisian and other Arab cities, desperate for work and food. In Syria, years of drought forced many from the countryside, heightening tensions, and proved to be the catalyst for the war that consumed the country. In turn, millions of Syrians and Iraqi refugees fled, travelling into Europe, sending migrant rates soaring, and in turn acting as the catalyst for populist parties to gain either footholds or outright majorities in many European countries. 17th December 2010 is possibly the day that climate change nudged history in a direction none of us expected, and stands as an example of what potentially is to come.

History is never in the moment, for we cannot tell precisely what events will have profound impact, and what events may appear large, but fade into the background. Epoch shifts, such as 9/11 or Pearl Harbour, structurally alter our perceptions of how we see ourselves, how the world sees itself. Humanity has come through numerous such events in the 20th Century, and already in the 21st we have had three: 9/11, Arab Spring, and now Covid-19. 9/11 tipped the world from the almost comfort of neoliberal globalisation into something darker, with the Arab Spring and Covid-19 in part due to its tendrils. 9/11 left weakened political and social structures, left the world vulnerable to systemic shocks, and opened the door to the worst effects of climate change. It did so by stripping societies of faith in effective leadership, squandering of vast resources on chasing phantoms in deserts, and taking politicians eyes off the real impact that our consumption was having on the world.

Yes, this is being reductive, to a degree. Society and nation states are intricate and delicate, where one jolt can send them careening in a whole other direction. It is easy to point a finger and blame one specific cause; yet, without climate caused migration for marginal lands to urban centres in the global south, many of the more pressing political issues faced by the developed world would play out slower and allow for more room for effective action. Climate change is robbing us of the chance to take stock, to see the holistic picture in all its intricacies. One Tunisian vendor ignited nations, in turn tumbling down old assumptions and orders. Drought and civil instability in Central America drove immigrants north towards the US border, giving Donald Trump enough of an edge to give his platform a veneer of legitimacy. We ignore the climate at our political peril.

Hindsight gives us wonderful vision, and it is clear that over consumption and over reliance on fossil fuels is depleting our world at rates far faster than it can repair in our lifetimes. It is not just about temperature, but about disruption of climate cycles — drought in one part of the world, hurricanes in another. Locusts swarming in the Horn of Africa migrate and devastate Iran and Pakistan. Heavy rain in the spring leads to crop failures in the Autumn, and food prices rise. Food shortages and price rises are a significant factor in destabilising countries, especially developing nations where food staples are subsidised. By ignoring history, we store pent up rage in nations that can ill cope with more disruption.

Climate change is not about driving less, consuming less, picking the right energy supplier, recycling that plastic. No, it is all of those, and more. It is the loss of agricultural land, poisoning of fresh water by salt as water tables rise, it is extinction of species because they cannot adapt fast enough. It is about humanity as a whole not seeing how interconnected everything actually is. Each of us on our own cannot solve the problem. Yes, we can demand divestment by our pension funds, we can eat dolphin friendly tuna and wear only natural fibres. But, until we can collectively affect change we may as well be Ahabs chasing our whales.

Our children’s futures are today, tomorrow, and the next century. We, as a collective whole, need to see the heavy hand of history, recognise that nothing less than a systemic change in how we all do things will mend things enough that that future is comfortable and tolerable for most of the world. Change is never easy, and systemic shocks will continue to happen, but if we all pull together that change can become embedded and long lasting.

What change needs to be made? For starters, it needs to be across the whole of society, not just those who can afford it. Every family must have affordable access to sustainable resources. Each of us needs to look at what we are consuming and ask do we really need it? This is not a case of going without, but rather buying durable, fixable, long lasting goods. Asking ourselves do we really need something that will just be thrown away on the morrow, be it fast fashion or the latest phone that lasts only 18 months. Consumption is something we all do, but by slowing down our cycle, finding ways to make things last we stop them entering the waste cycle. Yes, there are many issues of poverty and deprivation, and those systemic issues need to be addressed in radical ways, potentially a universal basic income, before society can effectively wean itself off fast consumption.

No solution is perfect, everything requires compromise and trade-offs, bold and radical does not always mean better. Yet, possibly, the time has already passed for an evolutionary approach. Society generally avoids shocks to the system, as revolutions rarely achieve their instigators goals. The climate is shifting at an ever-increasing pace into critical temperatures, and if we want our children’s future to be comfortable, we collective need to shift our approach. No-one is asking for anyone to immolate themselves, but each of us may have to sacrifice the portion of ourselves that delights in bargains and easy consumption. We have to look for effective leaders, effective action, and building and effective society where we can all have a planet whose ecosphere remains human friendly.

We need to pay attention to history because it teaches us where the fault lines are, yet paradoxically we cannot learn the future from the past. Ours is the future unwritten, and it is up to us to ensure that ecologically we do everything we can to prevent any more systemic climate shocks.

Writer, researcher, and generally curious