Perspectives | Environment

Why “I’d rather not know” is no longer an option when talking climate

By - 13.08.2021

The climate emergency has got us against the wall.

I recently posted on my personal social media a few pages of David Wallace-Wells essay The Uninhabitable Earth. The essay, based on robust and reliable science, is a distressing account of the best and worst case scenarios we can expect for our planet’s future depending on whether or not we decide to take serious action against the climate emergency.

I was motivated to bring attention to the climate emergency in the context of the recent wildfires that are spreading across the Balkans, Turkey and Greece. The few pages I reposted reference the cruel ways that wildfires have been multiplying in the last few years, like the seemingly never ending destructive fires in California or those that led to the the death of 26 people, found burnt and hugging each other, in a Greek resort after they could not reach the beach to escape the flames in 2018.

In his essay, Wallace-Wells delves into the many biological cycles that will only be made worse by the more frequent and intense wildfires we can expect to see: unprecedented rain torrents and mudslides, increased carbon emissions, the accelerated melting of the ice sheets, a “profound negative effect on individual wellbeing,” contamination of drinking water, and death and, well, the list goes on. 

The first and only response I received after sharing these climate horrors was: “I’d rather not know about this apocalypse now.”

“I’d rather not know.” 

“I’d rather not know” is a common response to any news about our planet’s and our humanity’s current path to ruination. It’s a response I have always found cynical and at the very least, useless. I have always believed that information is power. If we know, we can act.

The thing is, remaining ignorant of what the climate emergency is going to throw at your face is no longer an option.

On August 9 the latest report came out from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s authority on the evolution of the climate emergency. The report is only the latest gloomy reminder of our stark reality:

“Many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion—such as continued sea level rise—are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years.”

In other words, the United Nations says that humanity is no longer safe from the irreversible damage caused by climate change. 

Some have been lucky enough, especially in the privileged parts of the northern hemisphere, to give “I’d rather not know” as an answer. But it is no longer an option. 

“I'd rather not know” is no longer an option for the over 1.2 billion estimated climate refugees who will have to leave their homes in the next three decades.

“I’d rather not know” is no longer an option for the more than 2,000 people evacuated so far from the Greek island of Evia, where many inhabitants lived off resin and olive tree products and where now it’s all burned down to ashes along with their homes. Neither is it an option for the other many thousands of people displaced across the country due to more than 500 wildfires spreading across the Hellenic geography this summer. 

“I’d rather not know” is no longer an option for Ritsopi Panayiota, an 81-year old woman whose anguish as she abandoned her burning Evian village of Gouves was captured by Konstantinos Tsakalidis, in a wicked photograph that some are already comparing to the desperation of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” 

“I’d rather not know” is no longer an option for the more than 200 people who died in unprecedented floods in Belgium and Germany early in July this year, nor for the local governments of the towns destroyed, who are now facing monetary damages in the billions

“I’d rather not know” is no longer an option for the over 20 million climate refugees displaced annually due to climate related events since 2010, or the over 1.2 billion estimated climate refugees who will have to leave their homes in the next three decades — not in a hundred years but during your lifetime.

And there is no need to wait for mass death, Dantesque scenarios or biblical rains. We must realize, the earlier the better, that the climate emergency is not only going to bring natural disasters upon us. Climate change is also the backdrop against which our neglect of resources and absence of proactive policies becomes exponentially more damaging. 

In that light, “I’d rather not know” has never been an option for the poorly equipped firefighters of Kosovo, who must respond to fire emergencies — which will only become more frequent with time — and who have recently written an open letter to Prime Minister Kurti asking him to address the longstanding structural deficiencies of the fire department, in order to be able to work in minimally safe conditions in the years to come.

“I’d rather not know” is no longer an option for the residents of Deçan, Kosovo, who have seen their drinking water at risk on numerous occasions in the past few years. First, their Lumbardhi River was channeled into pipelines as a consequence of bad policy-making which has only taken into account the interests of investors, ignoring environmental and community concerns.

More recently, the value of this essential liquid was highlighted once again after 1,500 people required medical attention in what is suspected to be a mass poisoning caused by the drinking water coming out of their taps. Signs of bacteria were found later in the town’s water infrastructure and the issue is still under investigation. But before anyone says that this was not caused by a climate-related event but by neglect, let us remember that this has taken place in a water-stressed era and things won’t be looking better anytime soon.

The narrative of “start with yourself” is distracting us from making radical demands

I have moderated a few discussions in Kosovo about the impact of human activities on the environment, be it rivers, wildlife, or the air we breathe. And like in many other discussions about the environment, I always hear the same answer to the question “Where do we start to fix all this?”

“Start with yourselves!” they say. “Recycle, eat less meat, eat no meat at all, buy sustainable clothes, stop using plastic containers, support local products, minimize the consumption of water, enter the circular economy, walk to work, avoid airplanes, use tote bags, plant a tree!” they say.

This narrative, that pushes for necessary individual change, is rooted in a sense of guilt.

This is a very respectable and necessary list of lifestyle goals that every individual should consider as we get personally involved in the hard task of conserving our environment and reversing the damages we have caused to it — if we ever can. 

But with time, I am coming to the conclusion that this narrative of personal responsibility and the importance of individual initiative is standing in the way of the people demanding action from our governments to solve the climate emergency on a political level.

This narrative, that pushes for necessary individual change, is rooted in a sense of guilt — a guilt also inherited from our parents and our grandparents, who did not know enough, or do enough, about the danger of climate change.

This underlying sense of guilt that we have as individuals might also make us feel reluctant, or even hypocritical, to push our governments to take climate action because we put in an extra washing machine this week or our shopping cart is full of plastic-packaged food. This sense of guilt is something common to many in the younger generation and the good news is that we can turn this guilt into something more useful. 

Our individual actions can only have a limited effect, and as much as we should act in an environmentally conscious manner, this should not stop us from also demanding accountability from those who are responsible for systemic environmental pollution, and more importantly, from those who have the capacity to make meaningful changes for society.

If there is a fundamental problem in Kosovo with tons of trash in rivers and forests, it is not going to end with a few days of the dubious “Let’s do it Kosova” clean up campaigns, or citizen-organized initiatives that are no less valuable for small communities, but that remain a small patch to a big problem. 

It is only going to end with robust government investments in proper waste-management systems, awareness-raising, education and yes, serious legal enforcement of environmental laws.

If there is a fundamental problem with Kosovo’s forests — it is estimated that by 2035 there won’t be any fully healthy forests remaining — then it is up to the government to implement radical policies to mitigate the loss and reverse the trend.

If there is a fundamental problem with the way people heat poorly insulated homes, or if they burn wood for heating because they can’t afford the electricity prices, then it is time to be brave and implement measures that support and encourage energy-efficient and decent living conditions across society.

We should not be afraid to demand radical climate relief policies from those responsible for the greatest damage: the big polluters, the big industrial investors, the governments who invite them in and the ones who pass policies to allow more of the same. 

We can make amends. But it’s also time to make demands.

In the same way that we demanded the end of the war in Iraq without necessarily putting our bodies on the line, or attend protests against sexual harassment in schools without necessarily being currently engaged in the educational environment, it is necessary for us to demand governmental action regarding the climate emergency, even if we feel we are not doing as much as possible on the individual level.

We can and will take on our individual duties to help the planet and humanity survive. But seeing as I am Spanish, I’ll be the one to say that thinking climate change can be solved by individual actions alone is like Don Quixote charging off against the windmills.

We can make amends. But it’s also time to make demands.

We’re doomed but it is not over yet

And now, as the news broke that we really, really screwed up planet Earth for humanity, and the rest of animals and what not, let’s confront some of the consequences for a second before I move on to my apparently overly abundant sense of hope.

In the near future we will experience some brutal changes. Over the next 20 years Earth will become hotter by 1.5 degrees Celsius on average, and there is nothing we can do to stop that from happening. All our actions from today on can only influence what will come after that. If we change nothing, the planet could warm up by as much as 6 degrees by the end of the century, and you really don’t want to know what happens then (but you can always read Wallace-Wells and others if you feel you need to know). 

But even if we succeed at keeping the temperature rise to just 1.5 degrees, we will likely see more dangerous storms, more intense heat waves, longer heat seasons, displacement of people, destroyed agricultural lands, and much much more that you can learn about in reports here.

After knowing all the bad scenarios that will affect our ecosystems in the very near future, I keep returning to some key notes that Wallace-Wells made in his book, as he reflects on why, nevertheless, he was happy to have a daughter born only a few years ago. 

Simply put, we have the roadmap, and we have the tools to solve the problem — it can be solved if we take aggressive steps. And while it has taken a lifetime to destroy everything, it can be fixed in only a lifetime if we have the will.

That is our lifetime, and the time is now.

Feature image: K2.0