Joyce Fegan: How to overcome climate fatalism? Do an Obama on it

It's difficult to change minds with words like 'disaster', 'crisis', and 'radical', but appealing to common values like making the world a better place for our children are what bring the story home.
Joyce Fegan: How to overcome climate fatalism? Do an Obama on it

Composer and violinist Viktor Seifert, 14, from Edinburgh, plays the Driftwood Violin in front of the Climate Fringe mural at St John's Church in the West End, ahead of Cop26 in Glasgow. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

"If things continue as they are, in 50 years' time my baby granddaughter will have to live in an unlivable world."

I heard these words as I watched my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter walk slowly and intentionally across the road, hand-in-hand, with her childminder — innocent to the world's woes and to the petty minds and conflicts that stop the adults from addressing them.

Fifty years isn't too far away at all. I hope to still be around then too, but by then, my days will be numbered — my propensity for worry probably not.

An elderly woman I know who died this time last year, in a nursing home, having spent months and months only being allowed to have phone calls from loved ones, was reassured by only one thing on her deathbed — the wellbeing of her family.

In her final days, when some of her beloved children were finally allowed in to be with her, the only conversation went like this: "And how is John?" came the question. "He's good and his job is going well", came the answer, which was met with "Oh, thank God". 

The conversation went like that as each and every family member was named and their well-being accounted for. And once this woman, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother knew everyone was well, she passed on.

From tomorrow and for the coming week, we will be inundated with talk of "Cop26". What does Cop26 even mean? Clever communications people who have done lots of research tell us we should say "global climate talks" instead. "Cop26" is jargon speak and makes people just switch off.

When it comes to climate talk, there is a lot that makes us all switch off. Fatalism, namely. The idea that "we are going to hell in a handbasket" and we'll never be able to address this mammoth task of climate action, so why bother?

But there is one thing that switches us on, too — values.  Not facts or figures — though they help — but our shared values are what bring the story home.

When you're talking about climate change, don't talk in decimal points or use words like 'disaster', 'crisis', and 'radical', instead talk to me about how the world will be for my daughter, my nieces and nephews, if we do not get our act together.

In a world where our values vary vastly, and we identify people by ideologies and ostracise them for holding opposing opinions, family in whatever form, is our big unifier.

Who doesn't want to leave the world better, or at least not in too bad of a state, for their children, their grandchildren, their nieces or nephews?

The opening line in this article came from a conversation between Pope Francis and a scientist several weeks ago. Yesterday, Pope Francis shared the conversation in a one-off piece he did for BBC Radio ahead of our global climate talks this week.

In a polarised, divisive world, climate change seems to be one area of public debate that should not up for debate.

"There is little to no scepticism about climate change and people are already with us on it," reads a new report from the Public Interest Research Centre, in Wales. 

The report is specifically about how to talk about climate justice — how to mobilise instead of paralyse people, how to galvanise as opposed to divide. Compiled by various think-tanks and scientists, it involved focus groups and surveys with ordinary, decent citizens.

So when it comes to climate change, there is little or no division, but there are other things. Fatalism comes first.

We feel powerless. The task seems daunting. We believe humans are to blame and we also think humans are set in their ways and will never change — so the doom and hopelessness gets ramped up.

But, it's actually not human behaviour. It's systems — systems humans designed that have injured the planet and systems that we can redesign.

The research found that when people learned how systems were man-made, hope returned.

Because this is all about hope, hope gives us the energy to make the change.

When talking about climate action, do an Obama on it — talk in hope, not fear, found the research.

US president Barack Obama speaks at Lindley Hall in Westminster, London. Picture: PA Images
US president Barack Obama speaks at Lindley Hall in Westminster, London. Picture: PA Images

"The climate crisis has already been solved," says Greta Thunberg.

"We already have the facts and solutions. All we have to do is to wake up and change."

On particularly fatalistic days, I will find myself in the sweets and biscuits aisle of my local supermarket and feel my throat and chest tighten under the sea of all the single-use plastic. 

This is but one aisle, in one small supermarket, in one small town, in one small country. My mind suddenly has me driving, well sat in a traffic jam on a seven-road highway in the US, on my way to a super Walmart. And I despair. Next I'm in Brazil watching another forest being pillaged for mass farming.

Fires across the Brazilian Amazon have sparked an international outcry for preservation of the world's largest rainforest. Picture: Leo Correa/AP.
Fires across the Brazilian Amazon have sparked an international outcry for preservation of the world's largest rainforest. Picture: Leo Correa/AP.

And I'm a white woman from a stable democracy in the West, who, for now, will only have to worry about the effects of climate change as opposed to having my life directly affected by them.

Between 1850 and 2002, countries in the Global North, that's us up here in Europe, emitted at least three times as many polluting gasses as countries in the Global South — despite the fact that approximately 85% of the global population lives there.

That's a sobering statistic.

Put another way — the world’s poorest 50% contribute towards about 7% of the problem, according to Oxfam.

"When we talk about our 'responsibility' or 'duty' to support people in faraway places like Bangladesh or Ethiopia, we risk making people feel guilty and at the same time priming the fear that we aren't addressing the problems on our own shores," reads the Public Interest Research Centre report.

So talk about our shared humanity instead, the shared problems and shared solutions, and make it really local. Talk about the flooding in Shannon and Limerick and Cork, and the air pollution in Dublin, and the congested traffic on the M50 or the Dunkettle Interchange.

And then talk about the amazing wins that climate action can bring.

Writing in this paper on Thursday, Dr Hannah Daly, a lecturer in energy systems at UCC, talked about how climate action requires a "change to our mindset".

"The cost of the transition will be substantial," she wrote. "It will cost between €2bn and €5bn each year over the next decade to transform the energy system away from reliance on fossil fuels."

But it is essential we see this spend not as an expense or a burden, but as an "investment".

Think sustainable energy jobs, more efficient homes, cleaner air, a better quality of life, and "huge fuel savings stretching into decades".

To bring about climate change, we have to move away from just portraying Armageddon to painting a desirable portrait of the fairer and more sustainable world we can build. That reframe will give us the energy needed to do this, where fatalism in a grocery's confectionery aisle will not.

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