It has been slowly dawning on me that this is an unusually historic time to be a human being. I know that, arguably, every year has the potential to change the course of human history. The Internet was invented in 1983, which turned what could have been a nondescript year in the records into a moment that will shape humanity for centuries. So yes, any year, any decade, could be historic and consequential. But this next decade will be for certain, as it is our generation that will likely decide the fate of large swathes of future humanity, our atmosphere and, potentially, the survival of our species. The decisions we make in the next decade may well be the difference between unimaginable geographic changes and a level of climate change we can ultimately curb.
I try to remain cognisant of just how misleading your echo chamber can be in conveying the pervasiveness of certain issues. But it still takes me by surprise sometimes. Most of the content I see online is not only aware of climate change, but also deep into despair for the future of the Earth and of us. Lots of the stuff I see is more radical than I am; I read a whole Twitter thread the other day full of voices stating that it is now unethical to have children, as we’ll probably all be burned alive by 2050 (as far as the research I’ve read suggests, we have a little longer than that before an inferno engulfs us all).
But then again, the UK saw its hottest day of all time the other week, and the BBC started tweeting about it as if it was a record we should be excited to break.
Anyone following European news will have seen the heatwaves that barrelled across the continent this summer, killing people in France, the UK and Austria. Mere days ago, the UK was literally the second hottest it has ever been (since records began, but still, that’s pretty shocking), hitting 38.1 degrees Celsius. This means that, as far as we know, this land mass has only ever been this hot one other time that we can recall or prove. Now, that heatwave has moved north, and melted an unbelievable amount of Greenland’s ice yesterday: 12 billion tons in twenty-four hours. Sometimes, it feels like the climate crisis has suddenly got much, much worse, which is why I’m hearing about it everyday now. But then I realise that I have started reading books, writing blogs and seeking out these stories every day, and, as algorithms are designed to do, the Internet is directing me to the world full of environmental activism and, if I’m being honest, panic.
It’s sobering to think that, provided Trump doesn’t start a nuclear war, climate change will probably be the defining issue of my life and the lives of everyone around me. It’s not going away, even if we never burn another gram of fossil fuel. We have put too many emissions into the atmosphere and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has probably already reached the tipping point that means it will break up entirely regardless of what we do now. I want to make noise, I want to make a fuss and make change, but I understand that this could be a news story almost every day of my life. We can’t operate in crisis mode 24/7; we’ll all crack before we’ve planted enough trees to suck out even a small bit of the carbon dioxide sitting in our atmosphere and acidifying our oceans. How you cope with a hundred year emergency? Does the word ‘emergency’ lose all meaning when applied to a problem of this timescale?
Until now, the most shocking global events were wars, terrorist attacks, unexpected political results and random natural disasters. The big moments that grounded us in history related to terrorism, politics and war. Perhaps in the future we won’t be asking “where were you when 9/11 happened?” or “where were you when Trump got elected?”
We’ll be asking “where were you at 450ppm?” or “where were you at four feet?” These big climate moments may well become the defining moments of our generation, of our lives.
Some places have started to get it – and unsurprisingly, it’s the Scandinavian countries, who seem to be better than everyone at everything. Iceland has created a monument to its Okjökull glacier, to commemorate the month it ceased to exist and note the cause, which will be unveiled in August. The inscription ends: “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you will know if we did it.”
Consider this blog post my humble commemoration of a day that marks the beginning of the end, or at least, the beginning of what comes next.
The 25th July provided an unflattering window into the UK’s total inability to cope with temperatures of that magnitude. The train lines were chaos; wires melted to the point that millions of people were stranded and whole lines were unable to function for days. Frustrated Brits took to Twitter to berate our fellow humans from hotter countries for telling us to just deal with the nearly forty degree temperatures, by emphasising that we have no air conditioning, little hot weather infrastructure and are not acclimatised in any way to temperatures of that size. Naomi Klein says that the upside of climate change is that it will provide us with the impetus to recreate our infrastructure in a more sustainable way – I don’t think the UK has a choice given that our train lines literally melted at the first sign of a tropical climate.
So, what was I doing on the UK’s second hottest day on record? I went to work and wrote about sustainable investment, exploring how the financial sector can continue to exist without contributing further to climate change or exploitation in the process. I cycled home and marveled at the heat, feeling my Aussie side come through as I basked in the warmth (my colleagues had spent the whole day complaining). At home, I cracked open my textbook, but not without opening all the windows and the back door to try to cool down our little hotbox of a house. It was like any other hot summer day in the UK; the trains stopped running, ice cream sales skyrocketed and it was literally all anyone talked about all day. Yes, it was like any other hot summer day – except of course, that it wasn’t any other summer day. It was a sign of things to come. A woman on Twitter said, “don’t think of this as the hottest summer on record. Think of this as the coolest summer for the next hundred years.”
So, my UK readers, where were you on one of hottest days the UK has ever seen? It may be a more pivotal moment than you think.