Rethinking climate change

The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) Climate Conference finished last month.

The optimistic take seems to be that it’s building towards an effective agreement, even if the commitments aren’t yet strong enough.

The pessimistic take is summed up by Greta Thunberg, ‘Blah, blah, blah… words that sound great but have so far led to no action.’

The UN climate meetings, or COPs have been happening almost every year since 1992. After 26 meetings, the only thing that has significantly reduced emissions in recent times has been Corona Virus.

I was at COP15 in Copenhagen twelve years ago, which, like this one, was billed as a now or never moment by climate activists. The agreement then was so weak and disappointing that many people, including myself, felt totally disillusioned and despairing.

Since then, what’s given me hope is reading a different perspective on the issue, from the writer and philosopher, Charles Eisentein. I think most of us could do with a bit more hope when it comes to climate change!

His approach is set out in his book, Climate: A New Story. Below is the five minute version.

Eisenstein argues that we’ve been asking the wrong questions when it comes to climate. Instead of ‘How can we survive?’ or ‘How can we grow our economy and reduce emissions?’ he suggests the question, ‘What kind of world do we want to live in?’

If we could maintain constant temperatures with carbon sucking technology, bleaching the sky with sulphur aerosols or putting giant mirrors into space, would we want to do that?

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Do we want to continue destroying ecosystems, creating a concrete world and growing our food in hydroponic factories? Do we want to be reduced to looking at the nature we’ve lost on digital VR displays, all so that we can keep increasing economic growth?

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The main floor in our thinking, Eisenstein believes, is a geo-mechanical worldview that sees the earth as a complicated machine. Like in a diesel engine, if the air and fuel mixture is out of balance, the engine won’t perform well. Likewise, if levels of greenhouse gases are too high, the earth won’t perform well.

Whereas, if we think of the earth as a living being, we could ask what will make her more resilient to higher levels of greenhouse gases. Even if we reduce emissions to zero, if we continue to degrade the organs and tissues, the earth will die of organ failure.

Rainforests, mangrove swamps, seagrass meadows, kelp forests, water, soil… are all at a fraction of their former vitality and health. The planet is much less resilient because its tissues and organs are so degraded.

This means that the earth is less able to maintain a stable state and deal with challenges or fluctuations, whether that’s human CO2 emissions, volcanic emissions, fluctuations in the sun or whatever.

If we hadn’t lost half of the trees or turned vast areas into deserts, then 400 parts per million of CO2 might not be such a problem. Because we’ve made life so much less able to handle challenges, greenhouse gases are a much more serious threat and are very destabilising.

Production of fossil fuels might be even more damaging than their burning. The Alberta tar sands, mountaintop removal to extract coal and oil spills destroy whole ecosystems.

Imagine great swathes of cells in your body being poisoned — how would you be able to maintain a healthy body temperature?

A living planet perspective changes the priorities of how we address climate change.

Here are Eisenstein’s top four:

Priority #1

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It is crucial to preserve the reservoirs of health that are still intact. If we reduce the Amazon to how much carbon it sequesters, we’re over-looking all of the other ecological benefits of the immense diversity of life that exists there.

We need to hold these areas as sacred. If they are destroyed, even if we compensate for the carbon, this planet will still spin out of control.

Priority #2

We need to repair, regenerate and heal the organs that have been damaged, particularly the forests and soil. Soil is probably the most important organ on the planet. By far the fastest way to take carbon out of the atmosphere is building topsoil, which can be done through regenerative agriculture. We used to think it took 500 years to build an inch of topsoil, but there are farmers doing it in one year.

Priority #3

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We need to stop poisoning all the earth’s tissues with things like plastic, sewage, herbicides, insecticides, pesticides, toxic waste and pharmaceutical waste. We’ve got to put an end to this 90 year experiment to see what will happen if we douse the earth in poisonous chemicals, again and again.

We also need to protect and allow the repopulation of megafauna such as whales. Whales feed, poo, migrate, and dive between the surface and the ocean depths (known as the ‘whale pump’), which circulates essential nutrients throughout the ocean. This in turn supports healthy marine ecosystems and the growth of phytoplankton, which locks in a massive amount of carbon from the atmosphere.

Priority #4

We need to reduce fossil fuels. It’s controversial to put this as the fourth most important objective but we can’t do the other three without doing the fourth one. You can’t hold ecosystems as sacred and continue to frack, drill and strip mine.

How to achieve this

The tactics need to come from an understanding of what we’re serving. We’re serving the healing of life on Earth on one level, but on another level we’re serving a change in the mythology of who we are, why we’re here and what’s real.

Part of that is a new understanding of each other and the people we demonise, trusting that they’re here to serve life too. Knowing that you’re the same as I am instead of vilifying you as a greedy polluter and thinking the only solution is to conquer you and win a battle. By doing that we make enemies of people. Instead, speaking to the part of you that I know doesn’t want to be causing harm and draw you into being an ally.

Feeling despair draws from the same theory of change and the same understanding of reality that the problem comes from. The theory that if you exert a force on a mass then something changes, and the greater the force, the more power you have to change the world. From that theory of change, the powers that be have a lot more than you do, and you’ll never have enough power to change anything. But maybe the world doesn’t work like that. There are other ways to change the world besides dominating others by force.

Hope lies in the fact that nature and other beings can be our allies. We’re tapping into another world of cause and effect that puts us in the right place at the right time, saying the right words to the right person for awakening in them what’s been awoken in us, bringing them into greater courage in the service of healing.

Maybe the change happens that way. When we accept that if we don’t really know how this world works, and if anything, the failure of our civilization to live in harmony with the planet should bring us to a point of humility. From that point of humility, anything is possible.