The importance of acting now for a healthy future

A few weeks ago I went to a talk about climate change by the inspirational Hugh Montgomery. Hugh was a professor of intensive care medicine at University College London before he decided, for the sake of his children, to put all his energies into fighting climate change.

Hugh’s talk was impressive in that the data he was using was very up to date. Unfortunately the latest statistics about global heating make for grim reading. 2023 broke all sorts of records for high temperatures, fire, flood and melting ice caps, and 2024 looks likely to follow suit.

When it comes to climate science, there are mechanisms called tipping points. A tipping point is a critical threshold that, when crossed, leads to large, accelerating and often irreversible changes in the climate system. If tipping points are crossed, they are likely to have severe impacts on human society and may accelerate global warming.

There are many examples of tipping points. These include the thawing of permafrost, which will release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Another tipping point is the melting of ice caps. Ice absorbs less sunlight than darker sea water, and so less ice leads to faster global warming. A change in the gulf stream, which is showing signs of weakening, would lead to completely different weather in the UK. Without the warm gulf stream, we could expect to have a much colder climate, more like Newfoundland, with icebergs floating in our seas.

Some tipping points may be abrupt, others, like the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, may take much longer. Whatever happens we can expect more extreme weather, fires, floods and food shortages. Countries like Spain may become unliveable within the next two decades. Life is unlikely to get easier.

We have known about the potential effects of greenhouse gases since the nineteenth century. Fifty years ago we had the opportunity to make meaningful changes and divert the catastrophe. Even after disastrous IPCC reports there has not been enough decisive action. We can’t hope for action from our governments; successive leaders of all colours have failed to act, instead choosing to be ruled by short term economics rather than long term survival. So it is up to us.

On a recent train trip around Spain we went to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, where the artwork Rising Sea by the Ghanian artist El Anatsui really spoke to me. It was made entirely of bottle tops stitched together. At the bottom of the artwork a skyscraper city skyline was dwarfed by a massive wave of water, in a visual metaphor for the enormity of climate change. 

The vastness of the artwork is not dissimilar to the seismic action needed to halt global heating. It took a community a whole year to stitch together the components to create the artwork, but collaboratively they did it. So although the future may look grim, there is a sliver of hope, and we mustn’t give up on this. But we do need to act immediately and decisively.

These are the key actions we need to take. I know I have covered them before, but a refresher never hurts!

  1. 1. Probably the most important action is one that will take less than an hour. Change to an bank that doesn’t invest in fossil fuels. The worst offenders include Barclays, Lloyds and Santander. Change from these to the Cooperative, Nationwide, Triodos or Starling.
  2. 2. Buy 100% renewable energy from companies like Octopus or Good Energy.
  3. 3. Make your diet predominantly plant based. Eat local and seasonal food.
  4. 4. Use active forms of travel like walking, cycling or public transport. Avoid flying.
  5. 5. Reduce expenditure on new goods; every pound spent will have a carbon cost.
  6. 6. If your health permits, get used to a colder house; turn down your thermostat a couple of degrees and wear a jumper.
  7. 7. Use your influence to change things in your work place.
  8. 8. Immerse yourself into your local community, so there is no need to travel too far for entertainment, food, holidays or friendships.

Whatever you do, do please make these changes and make them as soon as you can. Don’t wait for someone else to act. Other countries are making progress (in fact China is one of the biggest movers when it comes to renewable energy) but we need to work together. And there are rewards; most of the actions above will save you money and make you healthier.

As a society we are resistant to change, and fossil-fuel giants have an incentive to spread disinformation. As a result there is plenty of well-funded propaganda to support climate change denial, which can be cunningly persuasive. It is after all what we want to hear. However I am a great believer in listening to the scientists. An influential study in 2013 by NASA showed that 97% of scientists agree that humans are causing global warming and climate change, and this number is rising. If you were to catch a plane with a 97% chance of crashing, wouldn’t you want to do some engineering to improve your odds before embarking? Or would you trust in the 3%?

Finally whatever happens, our lives will change. Adjusting our lifestyles to increase local resilience and combat global warming will mean moving forward with a clearer conscience and a better quality of life. 

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