How to solve the climate crisis by stepping out of our echo chambers

Gabrielle Walker
As I write, many parts of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico are still reeling from one of the most destructive hurricane seasons in decades.

As I write, many parts of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico are still reeling from one of the most destructive hurricane seasons in decades. Meanwhile, across the Indian subcontinent more than 1000 people have been killed and more than 40 million have been affected by intense monsoon rains and floods. And closer to home, of course, Peru is still counting the costs of some of the worst floods in living memory.

Inevitably, there are those who have insisted on linking this litany of catastrophes to climate change and those who object strenuously to any connection. And so the old battle between two old stories goes on. I've been working on climate change for more than two decades and I'm tired of this. We are behaving, many of us, as if climate change were a university debate, where the objective is to score points off the other side. And yet, the real objective is, or should be, for us to tackle collectively, and with all our human ingenuity, the biggest challenge our species has yet faced.

In this year, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's Reformation, Hay Festival asked me for my "Reformation" of our actions on climate change. I will be coming to the Peru branch of the Festival, in Arequipa, to deliver the results. The more I thought about this question - and the more I wondered why it has taken us so long to act so feebly on something so obvious - the more I want to point the finger not at sceptics, nor at vested interests, but in the way we have become trapped in a battle between two stories fighting for the truth, when the truth is that they are both wrong.

Let me explain.

In the red corner we have the sceptics. Climate change is not happening, they say, or it is happening but it's nothing special because climate changes all the time. Humans are not responsible, its effects have been exaggerated, we can adapt our way out of it, and above all that it is a leftist (or, in the case of President Trump, a Chinese) conspiracy designed variously to bring down capitalism and to stop the development of rival countries.

In the blue corner are the environmentalists, and - disclaimer - there are aspects of this story that I and many of my colleagues have been telling for a long time. It runs that apocalypse is coming, leaders are doing nothing to stop it, business is the enemy, the only hope is if you personally take responsibility by giving up your spoilt western lifestyle. Stop driving, stop flying, stop eating meat, stop using energy to make yourself comfortably warm or cool, and even if you do all this we are probably doomed. In summary: "Be frightened, guilty and miserable."

Of course there are aspects of truth in both these stories, and in my opinion more truths in the second than the first. But there are also flaws in both. To those in the red corner I say that climate change is real; and although it has indeed been happening since the dawn of creation; the latest bout of warming that the Earth is now experiencing is caused at least in part by the greenhouse gases that we are pouring into our air from burning oil, coal, natural gas and forests, and by the way we fertilise our fields. Moreover, although many environmental groups are also aligned with the politics of the left, many of the loudest voices calling for action on climate change today are those of businesses, military generals and traditional church leaders. And to those in the blue corner I say that many leaders are also acting. On the very day that President Trump announced that he was pulling the USA out of the Paris climate agreement, he triggered a movement amongst mayors, governors and CEOs; hundreds of these have now declared that their cities, states and businesses were sticking with Paris regardless.

However, there are at least two problems with allowing these conflicting narratives to fight it out. First, we are expending far too much time trying to prove which story is right and not nearly enough figuring out how to solve the problem. Second, neither of these stories gives us anything to reach for, any way to thrill the human race into unleashing our collective creativity.

The first story abdicates responsibility, which is never an inspiring choice. The second story risks spreading the sort of pessimism and fear that shuts down human creativity instead of inspiring it. Luther's namesake, Martin Luther King, inspired the civil rights movement by declaring that he had a dream. And yet we have failed to build a collective dream of a world in which we have invented our way out of climate change.

I can offer some suggestions for what this world could look like. It will involve clean energy and widespread electric vehicles (even the CEO of Shell recently said his next car would be electric) with the result that our cities will be free of air pollution. They may also have an abundance of city farms. Perhaps you will walk through London, New Delhi or Lima and they will smell like forests. More local production, perhaps with a good helping of 3D printing, could feed the thirst that so many people have recently been evincing to take back control of their communities. If (I would rather say when) we solve this problem we will surely have more effective institutions, collaborations that cross traditional divides, governments being held to account more fully and businesses that are more inclined to work for the common good as well as for the profits of their shareholders.

Some of these might sound utopic, but all of them are potentially on their way. And the way to ensure they happen, I believe, is to rewrite the stories so they say much more about the world we are trying to reach for. If we don't know where we're going, it's no surprise that we should be pouring so much heat into arguing about the present instead of collectively building the future.

People often ask if I am an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to climate change. I always say neither. Both of these options are fatalistic, a guess about what is inevitably going to happen. I prefer a concept that Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute calls "applied hope". Pessimism and fear shut down creativity. Optimism can be foolish and unrealistic. But applied hope takes the positive in human invention and pours it into creating, not simply stumbling into, the future.

To make this happen, I believe we all have to get out of our echo chambers, have thoughtful conversations with people we disagree with, and work collectively to build the future we all want to live in. After all the best way to predict the future is to create it.

Gabrielle Walker delivers her reformation of climate change at Hay Festival Arequipa on Friday 10 November 2017, part of the festival's 30th anniversary series to mark 500 years since Martin Luther's Theses, as writers and thinkers from around the world re-imagine institutions and orthodoxies.