Opinion

"Climate concern is distinctly unremarkable. Why is not more being done?"

When he was 15, Joseph Hearn wrote a short piece about climate change for The Big Issue. Now a student at Cambridge University he has written an updated version of that article, reflecting on the lack of progress and his younger self's well-meaning but not urgent enough take on climate concern

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Just under five years ago, I wrote a short piece for the Big Issue expressing my anger at the lack of international action to combat climate change, especially given its effects would fall most harshly on my generation.

At the time, I was studying for my GCSEs and Spurs – my team – were challenging for the Premier League title. So much has changed for me since then; I am now well on the way to graduating from university and Spurs have just scraped into sixth place. More importantly, the current pandemic has shaken governments and societies, left hundreds of thousands of people dead, and seen (in some cases) vast resources mobilised to counter its effects.

Before writing this piece, I went and found that first article. Stuff from your childhood often seems quaint, possessing a sense of familiarity but also of remoteness. Although it was not very long ago when I was excitedly buying the edition which my article featured in from Jane, my local Big Issue vendor, the changes in my life since meant the physical magazine did hold that distant, sepia-like quality. Yet opening it and rereading what I had written dissolved any sense of a time removed.

It was nothing distinctively prescient or piercing that shook me out of my nostalgia. All of that had been written long before, by the grandfathers of climate science such as Guy Stewart Callendar and Charles Keeling. My teenage polemic, which I remembered as a great journalistic endeavour, was little more than a rehearsal of the classic warnings regarding global warming and its accompanying effects.

In fact, it sat very comfortably on the trendline of climate concern. It was the apparent lack of imagination and profundity that made the article so sinister. Its warnings were stark, but its nature was everyday. Teenage me did not need any great inspiration to say what nearly everyone was – and is – saying.

joseph hearn
Joseph's original article in The Big Issue

Following the pattern of global warming itself, there has been a steady acceleration in the worldwide consensus about the urgency and seriousness of the climate crisis. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion [pictured above] have recently captured the popular imagination, especially of the global North, in a way that has rarely been seen before in climate politics. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Centre, reported in the Washington Post, nearly two-thirds of Americans (the nationality perhaps most commonly associated with climate change denial) want the federal government to do more to combat climate change. Climate concern is now distinctly unremarkable. Why, then, is not more being done?

It is easy to blame ‘the international community’ for not making progress on major issues, but climate change is near unique in its global effects, and certainly in the scale of them. It is an issue that can only be viably fought at an international level. Although individual governments’ emission reduction and mitigation strategies make some contribution and help to create a moral imperative for others to act, there is ultimately little point to them if other countries fail to follow. Moreover, creating that imperative requires those fighting against climate change to account for the historic dominance of the global North in emitting greenhouse gases. There is no single way to calculate this burden of guilt, again emphasising the need for dialogue at the international level.

The response to COVID-19 does not inspire confidence in such climate diplomacy. Although there have been obvious errors, many governments have taken drastic measures to tackle the crisis. But international cooperation has been dire; even the EU, for which the principles of liberalism are near sacrosanct, saw desperate pleas for help from Italy and Spain go ignored.

There remain glimmers of hope, especially for a Joe Biden win in November, which could lead to a dramatic reduction in US greenhouse gas emissions and a new impetus for international agreement. But let’s not kid ourselves that climate concern is a minor consideration for people. It’s unremarkable to be worried and has been for many years. My staid little five-year-old article attests to that.

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