By Henry Greenwood
My first wake up moment to the reality of climate change came in 2007 when watching Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. I don’t remember being particularly aware of the issue before, but after watching it I realised that I wanted to do something to play a part in tackling this massive issue facing us. Al Gore talked about it as a crisis then, but not many people were treating it like one.
Since then I always thought of climate change as something that could be prevented if we all worked hard enough to persuade people to change their behaviour and governments to change their policies. The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, while being a long time coming seemed to be a big step forward to creating the consensus required for action. Three years after that, however, and with nowhere near enough having changed, 2018 was the year that I accepted that climate change cannot be prevented. It’s too late for that. The climate has already changed, and the still increasing amounts of greenhouse gases that we are emitting make further climate breakdown inevitable with increasingly devastating consequences.
It feels staggering that it took until 2018 for climate change to become a mainstream concern, but at least it is now happening. It seemed to me as though it was the first year in the UK that people saw and felt it so clearly that it became impossible for anyone, other than hardened deniers, to attribute the extreme weather to repeated freak occurrences rather than a long term trend caused by us.
There was the Beast From the East in March, followed a month later by record high temperatures in April, and then the prolonged hot and dry summer which led to even the Sun declaring climate change to be the cause of the heatwave.
Then in October, the IPCC report came out stating in clear terms that we were way off track to avoid catastrophe, and that we have 12 years to drastically change the way we live. Not long after, WWF produced a heart breaking report stating that 60% of wildlife had been wiped out by human activity since 1970. To put all this into a UK political context, however, around the same time, Philip Hammond delivered the 2018 budget without a single mention of climate change.
Two stories also emerged towards the end of 2018, though, that genuinely have the potential to change the course that we are on.
In November, I was recommended by a colleague and friend to read Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation report. Later that week, I went to an event organised by the Climate Action Society at UCL at which leading academics spoke about the reality of climate change. This was my second wake up moment, and it was an even harder realisation than the first. This time, it was the realisation that things probably aren’t going to be OK, and we are facing something truly terrifying that may already be beyond our control. So the following day I decided to join Extinction Rebellion and go and sit on Waterloo Bridge and shut it down to traffic, alongside around 6,000 others across five bridges.
I was initially put off by the name ‘Extinction Rebellion’. Extinction is not a nice thought to contemplate, it makes me deeply sad to think of the animal species that have gone and are facing extinction, but in this context it makes us confront the possible extinction of humanity if we continue on our current path. I’ve never particularly been the rebellious type either, and to me the word conjures up images of violence and bloodshed. But this is a different kind of rebellion, and those harsh words are offset by the movement’s simple demands and a powerfully compelling and compassionate method, delivered by ordinary people who care about our living planet and our collective future.
Their demands are that the government tells the truth about climate change and acts as though it is the truth, that the UK reduces carbon emissions to net zero by 2025, and that we set up a citizens’ assembly to determine the policies needed and oversee the changes. These may sound radical, but on reflection, they are merely a sensible and rational response to the existential crisis that we face.
The method to achieve these aims is non-violent direct action. Inspiration is drawn from the civil rights movement, and the realisation that everything up to this point has failed to change our suicidal trajectory.
The other story that has the potential to inspire action is that of young people rising to the challenge to which adults have failed. Greta Thunberg started striking from school and sitting outside the Swedish Parliament in September and has been doing it every Friday since then. What started as a one person protest has now led to tens of thousands of students in Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and other countries to follow her lead, making the point that their futures are being compromised by the lack of action from older generations on climate change.
I went along to the first UK youth school climate strike in London in December which was arranged in a few days and attracted around 12 school students. Since then young people have been organising, inspired by Greta’s message and there will be strikes in cities and towns across the country on Friday February 15th.
Where does Green Schools Project fit into all this? I left my job as Head of Maths at a Hackney Secondary School in 2015 to start the organisation as my way of contributing to tackling climate change. In assemblies we tell students about the reality that they are facing and how they can play a part in addressing the greatest challenge we face. I’m not planning to encourage students in the schools that we are working with to go on strike, that’s entirely for them to decide, but we stand squarely in solidarity with the young people choosing to take this action and support their call for a planet that is still habitable by the time that they are adults.
One of our goals as an organisation this year is to amplify the voices of young people calling for change to a system that is causing the mass extinction of species and will lead to the end of our current way of life. I hope with all my heart that the young people that I see in schools will have the opportunities and freedoms to live and work, travel, and enjoy the natural world as much as I have, but I fear that this will not be the case. Maybe young people like Greta will be the ones that finally provide the wake up call that is needed to treat this crisis as the crisis it really is, and decisively change the course of events.