Kaja Fenn

Inspired by Ricky’s blog (see here) I decided to watch the National Geographic documentary “Before the Flood”. There has been quite a lot of hype around the film, so what better way to spend the night of the American election…?

The film follows Leonardo DiCaprio on his journey as the United Nations Messenger of Peace culminating in the Paris Agreement in 2015. He shows what climate change means for different areas of the world, how people are trying to prepare for its impacts, and other issues linked to climate change around the world. Having spent the last seven years of my education looking at a variety of environmental problems relating to climate change, it is quite easy to say that the coverage of issues is almost superficial. I suppose they had to make it into a 1.5 hour film and didn’t want to bore the audience with the details, just to whet their appetite showing a range of problems….

Unlike Ricky, this film did not leave me tearful. I am not saying it did not touch any emotions, but rather it added to my overpowering despair and frustration. This is not the first time that a documentary film has shown us that climate change is a real problem and called for change. It is pretty much ten years since Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” came out, with the aim of educating the general public about the dangers of climate change. It was the hot environmental message then, but that was the mid 2000s… I remember having conversations (arguments) about global warming in the mid 90s and early 2000s when I was in my early teens.  I admit back then I disagreed, saying that we don’t see temperatures rising everywhere (not that untrue) and that humans may or may not cause it. But I was only a teenager at the time and was armed with much less evidence. It is scary to think that we have been around this problem for such a long time and not much is changing. Having re-watched “An Inconvenient Truth” it reminded me that the consequences of even a few degrees warming are still much the same: more extreme weather events, more storms, sea-level rises, and ocean acidification. The science has been the same for the last ten years and we are at a point where there is an international scientific agreement that climate change is real and humans are causing it. So is the Paris Agreement a strong enough statement from the world on such an important global issue? “Before the Flood” has made me more pessimistic. This website shows how the global temperature is rising as we speak.

I keep on asking myself why we don’t see any change. Do we not care about the environment? Do we not care about the Earth? And if you asked most people they would say that they do, but it’s not their priority. If you have not read it, check out this old, yet very relevant, paper by Hardin – “The Tragedy of the Commons”1. I think a couple of points are particularly valid.

“Put another way, there is no “technical solution” to the problem. I can win only by giving a radical meaning to the word “win.””

Can we solve climate change problems with technology? A number of technical solutions have been suggested, which show incredible human ingenuity: solar panels, wind farms, electric cars, better batteries, I could go on. These might help, but these alone will not solve the problem – we need a psychological change.

We could be appealing to reason, see video below. It is clear that despite the costs we need to take real action, because the effects of inaction are ultimately costlier than the money spent.

In most cases, we appeal to human conscience or their beliefs to do the right thing. Could this be the way to solve the problem for the common good? A big part of the problem is that the Earth doesn’t belong to anybody, in the same way the oceans and Antarctica don’t Consequently, from a psychological point of view, appeals to conscience won’t do the trick. The individual that receives benefits “from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers” chooses denial1. In other words, as humans we are programmed (overall) to focus on short-term gains, be it economic, political, or social. We appreciate the most when the consequences of our decisions bring direct benefits in a relatable timescale. It’s the equivalent of being good this year to get more presents for Christmas. We struggle to relate when the consequences will be for our children or grandchildren.

Can people be the drivers of change, steering politicians to make decisions that have real impact? At the moment, it feels a lot like a vicious circle. Some government representatives are denying climate change is happening, and let those with an economic interest in not taking action undermine the value of scientific opinion. As long as capitalism, politics, and exploitation are driving at least one side of the argument the odds are stacked against the planet. Waking up to hear that America has elected a president who is a climate change denier was devastating. The best case scenario is that we have at least 4 years of inaction on climate change from the country which needs to make the largest changes. In the worst case… well, president-elect Trump has already said that he will attempt to scrap the Environmental Protection Agency and tear up the Paris agreement. It seems that every step forward results in multiple steps back.

I realise I am being pessimistic here. I am moving more and more to a glass half-empty view, because whilst I believe we will realise what is happening it will eventually be too late. So… No more appeals to conscience! No more appeals to reason! We need strong definite actions like  “a carbon tax” and at least keeping our side of the bargain. I want to be glass half-full again!


1. Hardin, G. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science (80-. ). 162, 1243–1248 (1968).