The helicopters swept overhead, their helibuckets trailing behind, toward the smoke rising over the hill. We checked Twitter. The fire was three kilometers away on the outskirts of the neighboring town of Competa, according to the Andalusian forest fire emergency service Infoca.
The helicopters – a Super Puma and a Kamov – each dropped 4,500 liters of water while 25 specialized firefighters fought the blaze on the ground. The flames were dangerously close to houses.
Four hours later, at 10 p.m., the fire was under control. “Thankfully the night will be calm,” Infoca tweeted. That was on Monday, our first day of vacation. Fire outbreaks continued throughout Andalucia throughout the week. Infoca tweeted a wildfire risk map: Almost the entire province was colored red, indicating “extreme” risk. “Hard days are coming,” they said.
I had chosen Kim Stanley Robinson’s acclaimed climate novel, The Ministry for the Future, for my holiday reading. “It got hotter,” reads the opening line.
The first chapter describes a mass-killing heatwave in India, seen through the eyes of a young American aid worker who survives it. The novel is set in the near future as the climate crisis spirals into catastrophe and the struggle to avert it becomes increasingly desperate. As we watched the news last week, this fictional dystopia eerily merged with the scenes on our screens: train tracks buckle, runways melt, the busiest day for London Fire Brigade since the Second World War.
But, as in Robinson’s bleak vision of the near future, the dystopia is not just the physical effects of climate change, but our renunciation of responsibility for its causes. Irish emissions continue to rise; Meanwhile, Irish farmers are pushing for lower emissions reduction targets.
Dystopian visions can be a powerful tool for change. “As someone roused by the alarm from complacency to environmental concern, I see real value in fear,” said journalist David Wallace-Wells, author of The uninhabitable earth, has said. His book – a kind of non-fiction answer to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The street – provoked me to a new level of dealing with the topic. But too easy, too often, dystopian predictions can be overwhelming and fear crippling.
The science of the climate crisis and the psychology of climate change have one thing in common: the challenge in both is to avoid falling into a “doom loop” in which negative impacts amplify in a downward spiral. For example, in the scientific death loop, wildfires release the CO2 stored in forests, exacerbating the warming effects and making such fires more likely. In the psychological death loop, the notion that climate catastrophe is inevitable discourages action and becomes self-fulfilling.
According to Michael Mann, one of America’s leading climate scientists, the challenge is to convey both urgency and agency. Commentators often use the metaphor of a cliff from which we will fall if warming exceeds 1.5°C or 2°C (or, in the more somber pronouncements, a cliff from which we have already fallen). A better analogy is written by Mann in his 2021 book: The new climate war, is that of a minefield. This is a perversely optimistic picture.
Falling off a cliff is irreversible, but you can always improve your chances in a minefield. “The further we go, the greater the risk. Conversely, the sooner we end our urge to move forward, the better off we are,” he writes. “Every bit of extra carbon we burn makes things worse. But conversely, every bit of carbon that we don’t burn prevents additional damage.”
That kind of hard-won optimism is crucial. In her book Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, Katharine Hayhoe quotes environmentalist Katie Patrick: “Fear and Doom shuts down your brain’s capacity for creative thinking. Vision and optimism give him a super boost.”
Paradoxically, we can draw optimism from last week’s dystopian scenes. As climate change makes itself felt and its threat undeniable, it catalyzes greater action. As Philipp Rode of the London School of Economics said about last week’s heatwave (in the New York Times): “I guess we can hope it’s a wake-up call.”
Mann argues that such weather events could contribute to a “perfect storm” that could be a tipping point for concerted global climate action composed of three factors: first, “a series of unprecedented, extreme weather disasters that have revived the threat of climate change”; second, a global pandemic that has taught us “important lessons about vulnerability and risk”; and third, a “reawakening of environmental activism,” particularly among young people.
Robinson also believes the lessons learned from the pandemic have accelerated the response to climate change. Interviewed for The Ezra Klein Show Podcast (from the New York Times) Earlier this month, Robinson said he is “more encouraged now” than when he was writing The Ministry for the Future three years ago: “It’s a different world than 2019.”
He, too, chose to see good news in bad news. “What I think could happen in an encouraging way is that the climate crisis is starting to hit us now,” he said. Crucially, it hammers us at a level that “we can handle.”
Ireland has a role to play here on the international stage. The country brings with it a number of climate protection benefits. The effects here are likely to be less acute; our scientific literacy is relatively high; our connection to nature and the landscape is strong; the country is prosperous; our politics is (still) less polarized than in many other western democracies; and our small population and high level of social solidarity make mass communication and coherent action more achievable, as we have seen during the pandemic.
This combination makes Ireland a cheap petri dish for climate solutions – not only in the hard technology (like in wind energy, where Ireland is already among the world leaders), but also in the soft technology of modeling compromise and conflict resolution mechanisms.
The peace process, town hall meetings, and slow but steady campaigns for marriage equality and abortion rights are all precedents here. Seen from this perspective, the conflict between environmentalists and farmers over emission reduction targets should not be seen as a cause for despair, but rather as an opportunity.
Whether Irish agriculture meets a 24% or 26% emissions reduction target will not have a significant impact on global warming, but should Ireland develop a model to achieve societal agreement on ambitious emissions reduction mechanisms, it could prove to be an export of real prove worth.
The Andalusian Forest Fire Service has been relentless in its efforts over the past week, affirming the transparency with which it details them and feeling optimistic. The fires kept coming and it kept putting them out. That’s not a bad model.
“Hope – optimism – this attitude is a necessary political attitude,” Robinson said New York Times. “We are in a privileged position and the situation can be salvaged. In the face of these two, it is a dereliction of duty to be pessimistic and cynical.”
Dystopian visions can focus the mind, but beware of despair. Tough days will come, but with foresight, optimism, and relentless focus, we can get through them.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/climate-terror-could-paralyse-us-or-ireland-could-be-a-leader-for-change-41862519.html Climate terror could paralyze us – or Ireland could be a forerunner for change