POLITICAL theatrics are underway in Islamabad. War still rages in Ukraine. The rapacious news cycle has already distracted from what is arguably the biggest story of the year, if not the century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest assessment report has described climate change as irreversible and spelled out the resulting humanitarian crises.
The review emphasises that climate change mitigation and adaptation measures are proceeding too slowly, and that we are in danger of missing a “brief and rapidly closing window” during which to secure a sustainable future. Many consequences of climate change are already irreversible, and if we do not act with speed, over three billion people will live in climate vulnerable contexts, with extreme climate events fuelling food and water insecurity. Alarmingly, the report concludes that between 50 and 75 per cent of the global population will be exposed to periods of “life-threatening climatic conditions” due to extreme heat by 2100.
The findings were widely published, and registered briefly in the public imagination. But the war in Ukraine pushed the IPCC report out of global news headlines. And even as an unseasonable heatwave hits Pakistan — with temperatures seven to 10 degrees Celsius higher than normal, and the Met Office forecasting heavy floods and drought to follow — we do not have bandwidth to consider the report’s findings, embroiled as we are in political shenanigans.
Journalists, academics and climate activists face a pressing challenge: how to tell the climate story in a way that resonates with the public, drawing out the climatic implications of all other major developments.
Those striving for climate action are struggling to pitch it right.
Those striving for climate action are struggling to pitch it right. For years, environmentalists chose the dry, rational approach, issuing detailed reports laden with evidence, to convince the sceptics. As climate change evidence was better established as irrefutable, the tone veered the other way: doomsday scenarios and emotional pleas, depictions of a climate apocalypse in the hope of sparking sufficient fear to spark action. But this approach has engendered helplessness and a fatalist mindset about the planet’s fate. Long-ranging, multifaceted doomsday scenarios also do not sit well with the 24-hour news cycle. When climate change is covered, it’s made bite-sized and digestible, rendering a generational issue as today’s headline, with no bearing on tomorrow.
The inadequacies of fact-based climate narratives have spurred other forms of climate change-related storytelling. Science fiction imagines the dystopic landscapes and resource-scarce, conflict-ridden societies that lie ahead as our reality. This is compelling, but the fact that it is fictionalised distances the problem.
Writing in the New Yorker last September, David Wallace charted the rise of the “climate memoir”, books and stories that simply bear witness, with writers observing the climate-driven changes in the ecologies and communities they know well, and documenting their emotions about what is happening. The writers’ implicit hope is that the process of honest acknowledgement starts to change behaviours, narrowing the gap between what we know about climate change and how we act. But how many people will seek out such climate memoirs, particularly those in the most climate-vulnerable contexts?
Given how structural, systemic and ever-present climate change is, we need to find a way to tell the story in a consistent and holistic way, drawing out the implications of political and economic developments through a climate perspective.
So while the horrors of the Ukraine invasion displaced IPCC findings from the news cycle, there are ongoing efforts to better highlight the environmental and climatic implications of the conflict. The most obvious is the focus on the Western world’s willingness to consider ways in which to conserve oil reserves in anticipation of shortages and price shocks (including banning private cars on Sundays and promoting public transport and train travel), begging the question why the threat to the planet can’t drive similar initiatives. Similarly, links are being made between the disruption to the global nickel supply chain, in which Russia plays a key role, and slow climate change mitigation efforts: nickel is required for electric car batteries and surging prices will hamper take-up, delaying the green transition.
What’s the climate impact of Pakistan’s current political turbulence? Less government bandwidth to implement climate mitigation and adaptation plans; disrupted diplomatic initiatives to secure the transfer of green technologies; blocked foreign investment that would increase the private sector’s capacity to mitigate and manage climate risks. Meanwhile, our hot cities become unlivable, and our water reserves dry up, making food production a greater challenge. So what really matters?
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2022