Wanted: Climate Heroes. No experience required

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There is a monster at the door and I need your help to fight it. It is a universal enemy, a threat that can connect and unite us all. It doesn’t care if you are left-wing or right, urban or rural. It is coming for us all. Defeating it is our only option.

The monster is climate change and it is already claiming lives. The slower we react, the worse it will get. Tackling it will benefit our health, our societies, our economies and our wider environment. But, so far, the response has been pitiful.

If we don’t transform the world in the next few years, we will trigger widespread misery. We have to be clear about this. But we must also be clear that is it not too late to join the fight. And that the more people who do, the faster we will slay the monster. We need a legion of everyday heroes, winning with acts large and small.

I first heard about climate change in the late 1980s, and I’ve spent the last 20 years learning and communicating about it. Part of me used to think it would all be okay, that our leaders would fix it. But they have badly let us down. So now we must step up.

Powerful forces have misled us

As we fight the climate change monster, we must not forget those who summoned it, who feed it and protect it. They are few dozen companies and their investors whose profits are built on the loss of our planetary life-support systems. They are a small number of billionaires and bad-faith politicians. They are the media outlets that played down the problem for fear of losing advertising revenue, and failed to report on the true costs to society of high-carbon businesses.

These groups have long known the problem and have actively delayed action. They knowingly misled us. For decades. They told us climate change does not exist or that human activities are not to blame. They have told us that our actions are too little or too late to make a difference. They allowed millions of us to believe we should not act.

Many people still believe that. Many others are aware but are trapped in states of shame or hopelessness and so rarely even bring themselves to think about climate change. There are many ways our minds can work against us. In a powerful article that I urge you to read, Mary Annaïse Heglar says it is time to snap out of our collective denial.

We need both individual and collective action

“In order to face climate change, to truly look it in the eye, we have to grow up,” she says. “We can’t pretend that some unnamed cavalry is coming to save us. We are the adults in this room.” She’s right. No doubt you have heard by now of Greta Thunberg. But if you think this young woman is going to save us, you are wrong. We will find the heroes we need looking back at us from our bathroom mirrors.

Getting involved does not imply becoming a hermit. As Max St John says, “we’re being fed — and feeding each other — a lie” that ‘now’ is as good as it gets, and that a cleaner, greener future must entail hardship. “The lie,” he says, “is that letting go of our current way of living is a bad thing.”

Nor does joining the climate fight require great wealth. The simplest actions involve learning about climate change, talking about it and using our voices and our votes to demand change. We need a mix of personal efforts to reduce our carbon footprints and collective action that forces governments to hold polluting businesses to account.

What we will gain by taking action now

With public pressure and bold leadership, in just a few years we could have limitless supplies of green energy and decent jobs for those who used to work in the fossil fuel sector. We could have growing forests that don’t just lock away carbon but also support secure livelihoods and protect wildlife. We could have cleaner air and fewer deaths from air pollution. We could have peace and equity and prosperity for all, not just those at the top of the tree.

These are things we can and must demand of our leaders. They are dreams we can summon into our waking lives. Climate change may be a monster to slay, but in fighting it now and with vigour, we can gain so much.

This is no pipe dream of utopia. It is our only viable option. Failure to address climate change fairly, productively and fast will diminish the futures of all but the wealthiest minority. They are already pulling up the drawbridge. They would abandon us in an eyeblink.

Fighting climate change is our only option

One of two futures awaits us. In one, people will look back and asked how we allowed ourselves to fail, how we allowed ourselves to destroy our only home. In the other, people will look back and hail the heroes who came together and, through acts large and small, saved humanity and the living world on which we depend.

We are at that crossroads. Whatever life may throw at us, there is one important decision before us all: do we act for the climate and a secure future, or against the climate and a secure future. It’s not really a choice. We need to start organising for — and celebrating — a new birth, not a death.

It will be hard. There will be tragic losses on the way. But not beating climate change is not an option, and the sooner we all realise that and get to work, the better. Mary Annaïse Heglarin another article I recommend, says: “We need to become many Davids against one big, bad Goliath.”

The good news is that almost anyone can be a climate hero. While some people will lack the means, or have more urgent needs to attend to, most people will not and can get involved today. Here are 20 things you can do right now to join the fight. We will always need more heroes, so please share this. And let’s all team up and defeat this monster.

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Related post: 20 things you can do right now to join the climate fight

Frying eggs, flying foxes, dying wasps, crying shame

Crack an egg in a pan, turn up the heat and you can witness a kind of magic. In just seconds the viscous egg solidifies. Despite the rising heat, it’s the opposite of melting that occurs. I was a teenager when I heard a biology teacher explain this paradox: “The egg is full of proteins and the heat has denatured them”. Denatured. The word was new to me. Twenty-five years later I find it is a fitting descriptor of more than just wayward proteins.

My teacher explained that every protein has a temperature at which it will function best. Too hot or too cold and the protein’s shape can buckle or break. It will no longer be able to bond with other chemicals. It will cease to work. I think about that fried egg often when I consider what rising temperatures could mean for the planet.

We know that when people die of heat stroke, part of the problem is that some of their proteins have denatured. Could our cells become our jailors?

The proteins inside us and every other living thing vary greatly. Some tolerate heat better than others. Others begin to destabilise at just a couple of degrees warmer than normal. It is not the average protein that poses a problem, but the weaker links, those most liable to destabilise in extreme heat. We don’t know yet which of them are also critically important – to our food crops for instance.

As the world warms, what will happen to the millions of different proteins in the millions of different species, from spores to sperm whales, soil bacteria to sunflowers? These invisible structures are central to life itself. They give shape not only to hair and to horn but also to hormones and enzymes and DNA. They are the messengers and mechanics that control and correct processes in and between cells. Like the gaps in music that make the beats thrilling, these in-between places are where wonder is born.

It’s the same between species. Life is not a zoo of caged individuals living in isolation but a web of shared destiny. And while activists go on about polar bears or other creatures in danger, I am more curious about what climate change could mean for the way species interact and provide us gifts as a result. It’s been on my mind since the early years of my career when I lived in a rainforest in Borneo and studied the most fascinating of plants, the strangler figs.

Every one of the 750 or more species of fig trees depends for survival on its own species of tiny wasps to pollinate its flowers. The wasps in turn depend on the figs, the only places in which they can lay their eggs. This mutual reliance combines with the wasps’ short lifespans to ensure figs are available year-round, and because of this they sustain more species of birds and mammals than other plants. In return for the fig flesh those creatures disperse the trees’ seeds, and provide the same service to thousands of other rainforest plants. These interactions between fig trees and animals help to sustain the great rainforests of the world.

What does this have to do with climate change? Researchers have shown that just a small increase above current temperature levels will shorten a fig wasp’s life to just a couple of hours – not enough time to find a fig, pollinate its flowers and lay eggs. No pollination would mean no ripe figs for animals to eat, and this would mean fewer seeds get spread from place to place. Tree species that form a key part of the forest and its capability as an ensemble to lock away carbon are likely to suffer.

The tiny wasps are frail but some of the fig trees’ bigger partners are at risk too. They include fruit bats called flying foxes that can carry seeds 50 kilometres or more before pooping them out, making them some of the most effective seed dispersers around. Their vulnerability became clear early in 2014 when thousands of them fell dead from the sky during a blistering heat wave in Queensland, Australia. For both the bats and the fig wasps, the heat was too much. It will have interfered, at a cellular level, with proteins that cooked and then closed for business. These snapshots suggest trouble in store for the fig trees and the forests, whose fates entwine with our own.

Ecology teaches us that no species is an island. It’s a lesson our leaders seem to have skipped. It shows us we’re all in this together, the fig wasp and the fruit bat, the you and the me. That’s what makes the human fingerprints all over climate change all the more ironic. As we develop societies ever more distant from nature to protect ourselves from its wild whims, we risk unleashing upon these denatured societies powers we cannot hope to control or even predict.

This post reproduces my contribution to Culture and Climate Change: Narratives, which launched on 24 June at the Free Word Centre. The whole book is available for free and anyone can reproduces its articles under a Creative Commons Licence.