This article provides a summary and reminder of why the Climate and Ecological Emergency is ‘the asteroid’ (as popularised in the film Don’t Look Up) – and also why ‘we are the asteroid’.
Multiple connected emergencies
Humanity faces the combined catastrophes of: climate change, a mass extinction of vital biodiversity and a degradation of ecosystems health which in turn affects human health.
This is the Climate and Ecological Emergency. Of these, climate change, or anthropogenic global warming, is the major threat multiplier because it is non-linear, containing many systems that feed back on each other and accelerate change. Destruction of nature – or ecocide – is resulting in major impacts on people and other species, including the Covid-19 pandemic.
This has become an emergency because governments and industry have not shown the necessary leadership, and, so far, have not acted fast enough. We are not waiting for more efficient wind-turbines or cheaper solar-panels. What is lacking is visionary and empathetic leadership. What is needed is urgent, comprehensive action to decarbonise, support places to adapt, restore nature and make reparations.
Fortunately, humans are capable of responding in a remarkable variety of ways to accelerate solutions and adaptations, and culture can help stir up human response as well as breaking old habits and creating new stories and visions for our world. We in the cultural sector have immense potential to be generators for transformation. There is no room for guilt and shame, and there is no time for excuses.
More about the climate emergency
There has been a gradual destabilisation of the climate due to the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, and in the last few decades this has accelerated. Droughts are getting longer and more severe, causing more scarcity of food and water. Extreme weather events are becoming more intense and destructive. Heatwaves are already magnifying the fire risk around the world and causing heat stress deaths. Widespread floods are escalating. Rising sea levels are threatening coastal and riverside settlements. Global temperatures have increased by 1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial levels. Atmospheric CO2 levels are well above 400 parts per million (ppm), which far exceeds the pre-industrial base level of 280ppm.
There are more signs that tipping points are being reached. In December 2018 it was reported that the rate of Greenland’s ice melt has quadrupled. Soon after, NASA discovered a huge cavern has opened up under Antarctica, and that a polar vortex destabilised sending freezing Arctic weather over the American mid-west whilst January 2019 was the warmest month in Australia, ever. In March 2019, the UN reported that sharp temperature rises in the Arctic are inevitable, even if the Paris goals are met. Reports in December 2021 say that the Thwaites glacier could shatter within 5 years, threatening every low-lying coastal city in the world.
There is only a 5% chance of limiting global average temperatures to less than 2° Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels. COP26, hosted by the UK in November 2021, aimed to continue holding nations to account to their Paris Agreement promises, but most nations’ plans are inadequate to stabilise the temperature increase between 1.5C and 2C.
2C has been wrongly seen by some as an upper safe limit. The Paris Agreement was based on the IPCC 5th Assessment which had been watered down due to pressure from high emitting nations. The actions from the Agreement are in no way adequate to mitigate or adapt to the emerging climate catastrophe in ways that will bring justice for the most affected people. The latest evidence suggests that the Paris targets will be insufficient to prevent a Hothouse Earth pathway.
Scientists have demanded 45% cuts by 2030, but the current agreement made at COP26 will deliver an increase in emissions of 13.7%. These Nationally Determined Contributions are only promises, that can be fudged, outsourced and delayed, and the hope rests on countries meeting again next year and annually (the ‘yearly ratchet’). The projections the agreement is based upon don’t fully account for the intersecting impacts of climate change and ecocide that are already starting to rapidly destabilise the planet’s operating systems. Also, the agreement doesn’t provide enough for reparations – finance for loss and damage.
More about the ecological emergency
The ecological emergency could be called ‘biosphere trauma’. Some call it the ‘biodiversity emergency’ but this might hide the impacts on humans. It’s important to talk of both climate and ecological emergency so that we can highlight the range of environmental harms that aren’t directly related to greenhouse gas emissions, including other kinds of pollution, deforestation, mining, wildlife destruction and land use change. All of these are a direct result of the industrial system that normalises committing ecocide for profit. The food system is one of the major contributors to this damage, as is the expansion of motorised transport. This damage intersects with climate change in complicated ways, leading to the Sixth Mass Extinction of biodiverse life on the planet.
Although it is difficult to estimate, or to project future rates of loss as the Earth crisis worsens, already three species are lost to eternity each hour. In February 2019, there were reports of a catastrophic decline in insect populations which will soon affect our food supplies. The Food and Agriculture Organisation has reported that 63% of plants, 11% of birds, and 5% of fish and fungi are in decline. There is a debilitating loss of soil biodiversity, forests, grasslands, coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds and genetic diversity in crop and livestock species. Dead zones are growing in the oceans due to acidification and warming, as well as run off from agricultural chemicals and plastic pollution.
More about human rights and justice in this emergency
The Emergency includes rapidly rising inequality within and between nations, the deterioration of democracy and human rights, and conflicts over resources. This builds on centuries of historic injustices through racist colonial exploitation and annihilation of People of Colour and indigenous communities, appropriation of lands and extraction of natural resources. The world’s poorest 58% are responsible for only 14.5% of global CO2 emissions. The crisis – resulting from industrial practices and overconsumption by the richest – is worsening injustices faced by people in the Global South, indigenous land defenders in particular.
Over time it will intensify inequalities experienced in every country. This diagram relates to the idea of the TransApocalypse, coined by Alex Steffen. Some parts of the world will experience death and suffering and tragic upheavals as horrible as any humanity ever seen, even while others experience unprecedented prosperity. However, more and more privileged communities are already being randomly affected by climate impacts, even in areas that were considered safe for decades to come.
There is also a generational justice issue. If we want people who are under the age of 20 to live a full life, we must stop burning fossil fuels and harming ecosystems now.
So, what can you do to take action?
This piece offers lots of routes for you to take to ramp up your action beyond single domestic changes.
If you’re an educator or parent, or young person, here are some learning resources on climate and ecology.
A guide to tackling the UN’s Global Goals.
And a guide to talking about climate with people