Growing up in a House on Fire



Photo from US Fish & Wildlife Service, via Flickr Creative Commons

This is the (slightly edited and updated) transcript of a talk I gave to primary school staff in Norwich, on climate change, the youth climate movement, and supporting children to learn about and respond to the climate crisis. Numbers refer to slides in the original presentation, although the text is mostly self-contained, and I’ve linked to sources and graphics in place of the slides.

Nick Brooks, Garama 3C Ltd; Follow us @Garama3CLtd.

3 September 2019

(1) Good morning. My name is Nick Brooks, and I run a small company, Garama 3C, that advises organisations about climate change, focusing on how they can prepare for and adapt to it. Today I’m going to talk to you about climate change, what it means for our children, and how we as parents and educators can engage with them on it. I’m talking to you as teachers rather than directly to the children because (a) as educators you are better placed to know how to do this, and (b) I don’t mind terrifying you, as you’re all adults.

(2) I’m here today because in April I took my daughter out of school to join the local School Strike for Climate. The Climate Strike was started by a 15 year old girl named Greta Thunberg, who sat outside the Swedish Parliament every school day for three weeks in August 2018 to protest against the lack of action to tackle climate change, or what people increasingly are referring to as the climate crisis.

And what do you know? It turns out children really care about the world, and particularly about climate change. Greta Thunberg’s lonely vigil inspired young people across the world and spawned a global movement. In July there were school strikes in at least 802 locations in 101 countries.

The reason the School Strike has taken off so successfully is in large part because many children are deeply worried about their future, and share Greta Thunberg’s sentiment that there is little point going to school to prepare for a future that might not exist.

(3) I think the fear and anger felt by a lot of children is captured in this quote from a speech Greta Thunberg made at this year’s World Economic Forum:

Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope, I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act, I want you to act as if you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is.

Greta Thunberg, 2019 World Economic Forum

(4) So why are children – and some adults, let’s be fair – so concerned? What’s the nature of the problem?

Well, the problem is the release of greenhouse gases as a result of human activities. These gases – mostly carbon dioxide or CO2, but also methane, nitrous oxide and some other gases – are produced by the burning of fossil fuels, some industrial processes, and the conversion of land from forest and grassland to agriculture. The sun warms the surface of the Earth and this heat is then reradiated back to space, but some of it is trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases. Without greenhouse gases, the Earth would be a frozen ball incapable of supporting life as we know it, so some greenhouse gases are good as far as we’re concerned. But as we put more of them into the atmosphere, we trap more heat, making the world warmer.

On the left we can see how CO2 has varied over the past half a million years, and how rapidly we’ve increased CO2 concentrations in recent decades. In fact, more than half the additional CO2 we’ve put into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution has been emitted since 1988, which is around the time we first realised we had a potential problem with climate change. So we’ve caused at least half the problem knowingly.

On the right we see how the global average temperature has risen since the 1850s, expressed in deviations from the average over the period 1961-1990. So far, the world has warmed by about 1°C, and most of that has occurred since the 1970s.

(5) So why is the warming of the planet such a problem?

Well, there are lots of impacts associated with this global warming, linked to phenomena such as increased evaporation from the oceans, melting snow and ice, the fact that heating isn’t uniform across the globe, which affects things like winds and monsoons, and the fact that the world’s climate tends to organise itself in different ways at different average temperatures.

As the world warms, we’re seeing record heat extremes, such as the ones we’ve experienced this year, and also back in 2003. These are now much more likely, and may become the norm in the future.

We’re seeing wet areas getting wetter and dry areas getting drier. This is a problem for people living in semi-arid areas such as much of Africa, but also in Mediterranean, North America, Asia and Australia.

These trends are making droughts, floods, wildfires and some types of storm more likely, and more severe. In recent years we’ve seen record areas affected by wildfires in the US, Europe and Russia, and also in the Arctic, and fires are burning outside the usual seasons. We saw this with the unusual heat in the UK in February this year.

All of these impacts affect human societies. For example, drought has been implicated in the Syria conflict and in the surge in migration in Latin America, although its role is not straightforward. The impacts of climate change are only going to get worse as time goes on.

(6) Reassuringly, the world is trying to limit global warming. The Paris Agreement commits the world’s governments to limiting warming to below 2°C above pre-industrial values, and encourages them to aim for a lower limit of 1.5°C. The 2°C threshold emerged some time ago on the basis that humans have never experienced anything above it, and based on studies that concluded large, disruptive changes to the climate system were more likely to occur above this threshold. As the science has improved, it seems that some of these changes may occur at lower levels of warming, hence the 1.5°C threshold.

Not so reassuringly, if countries meet their existing commitments under Paris – and that’s a big ‘if’ – we’re likely to see a warming of around 3°C before 2100 – in the lifetimes of the children who will be coming back into their classrooms later this week.

If countries don’t meet these commitments, warming is likely to exceed 4°C before 2100. That’s basically the difference between the climate of our parents and an ice age, but in the other direction and 50-100 times faster.

(7) It’s worth briefly looking at some of the impacts we expect from different levels of warming, and these are just a handful from a much larger study that you can find online via the Global Carbon Project if you’re interested.

Last year, there was a study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that looked at the difference in impacts between a 1.5°C and 2°C warming. An extra half a degree might not seem much, but it significantly increases some risks. For example, with a warming of 1.5°C we’re likely to lose 70-90% of the world’s coral reefs. This rises to over 99% at 2°C. So that half a degree could be the difference between having some coral reefs and not having them at all. With an extra half a degree of warming the number of people exposed to water scarcity in central Europe goes up from 17m to 41m, and the number of people affected by river flooding in India increases nearly 6-fold rather than just over 3-fold.

At higher levels of warming the impacts jump up even more. If we take warming to 4°C, the number of species at risk of losing more than half their viable range increases enormously, as do economic damages from floods in the UK. At 3°C – where we’re currently heading – the duration of droughts in many parts of the world increases by many months, and heating over land in Asia goes from one and a half times to twice the global average.

(8) The risk that we accelerate warming through what are known as feedback processes also increases with warming. More frequent ice-free summers in the Arctic mean more heat absorbed by the ocean, further warming the planet. More frequent and protracted warm episodes over land in the Arctic mean more melting of ice and permafrost, releasing carbon dioxide and methane from previously frozen soils and organic matter, as well as potentially releasing ancient diseases and disrupting infrastructure.

In both the Arctic and the Amazon, extended warm periods can increase the risk of wildfires, which also release greenhouse gases from vegetation. In the Amazon, deforestation and deliberate burning has a similar effect, and makes the forest more vulnerable to drought and wildfires.

(9) Of course, melting ice, when it’s over land, contributes to sea-level rise, which is also driven by the expansion of the ocean as it gets warmer. If we keep warming below 2°C, it may be possible to limit sea-level rise to under a metre by 2100. However, if we don’t manage that, high-end estimates are for a rise in sea-level of 2 metres or more by the end of the century, and around 7.5 metres by 2200. In the longer term it could be much higher – the last time the world was 3°C warmer than pre-industrial times, sea-levels were somewhere around 20m higher than today. Even a rise of 1-2 metres is likely to be disastrous for some parts of the world – many of the world’s largest cities are on the coast and vulnerable to sea-level rise. Larger values would be very difficult or impossible to cope with without mass relocation.

Just for a bit of local relevance, I’ve produced some maps of Norfolk under different amounts of sea-level rise. [link to global map-based interface for examining sea-level rise risks].

The Broads and the North Norfolk coast are highly vulnerable to a 1m rise in sea-level. In fact, it’s widely said that we’ll lose the Broads as we know them as a result of climate change. Not much changes on the map with 2m. These images show likely outcomes within our children’s lifetimes in the absence of stringent action on climate change that currently isn’t happening.

As we increase sea-levels we lose more and more of East Anglia, and Norwich. And remember, this is what we’re currently on track for, although it’s likely to take many centuries for sea-levels to rise by 10m or more.

(10) Another impact that has been largely overlooked until very recently is the direct effect of very extreme temperatures and humidity. Critical to this impact is what we call the wet bulb temperature, which is the lowest temperature achievable through evaporative cooling. We essentially measure the wet bulb temperature by wrapping a standard thermometer bulb in a wet rag. This cools the bulb as the moisture in the rag evaporates. The lower the humidity of the air, the greater the difference between the wet bulb and normal or ‘dry bulb’ temperature. That’s why we can survive temperatures well above body temperature – the evaporation of our sweat can keep us cool even if it’s 40 or 50°C. Even at these temperatures, in dry air the wet-bulb temperature can be in the twenties.

However, once the wet bulb temperature gets above about 31°C we start to have problems. When it reaches about 35°C the body can’t cool itself sufficiently, and we get heatstroke. A healthy person can survive for a number of hours in these conditions, but ultimately a wet-bulb temperature of 35°C or more is fatal.

Luckily for us, nowhere on Earth has seen these conditions historically. That will change if we don’t limit warming in line with the Paris targets. In the event of such a failure, wet-bulb temperatures approaching or exceeding 35°C are expected by the 2070s in parts of Western Asia and South Asia in some seasons. This will mean people will have to be evacuated from these locations, stay entirely in air-conditioned buildings, live underground, or die in their millions.

(11) I’ve only scratched the surface of what we know about the actual and expected impacts of climate change. What we can say is a combination of long-term changes and periodic climate extremes will pose huge challenges for human societies. We will see long-term changes in water availability, agricultural productivity, habitability – as a result of warming, changes in rainfall changes, sea-level rise, and increased disaster risk.

We will also experience short-term disruptions to water supplies, food production, transport, infrastructure, services, supply chains and commodity prices as a result of increasingly frequent and severe climate extremes. These disruptions will be local and regional in nature, but they will also be increasingly global as the risk of multiple simultaneous disasters increases.

These impacts will combine and interact to affect human societies, and are likely to result in food insecurity, economic disruption and even collapse, social and political instability, large-scale displacement and migration, and conflict over resources and habitable land.

Increasingly, climate change is recognized as a threat to human societies in general, and to civilisation at large. This scientific paper talks about a ‘broad threat to humanity’:

…ongoing climate change will pose a heightened threat to humanity that will be greatly aggravated if substantial and timely reductions of GHG emissions are not achieved

…while this more policy-focused paper goes much further, and talks about the potential collapse of human civilization as a consequence of climate change:

Even for 2°C of warming, more than a billion people may need to be relocated and In high-end scenarios, the scale of destruction is beyond our capacity to model, with a high likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end.

(12) So, what are our prospects of keeping warming below the Paris thresholds and avoiding these nightmare scenarios. These curves show some mitigation or emissions reduction pathways that keep us below 1.5°C (on the left) and 2°C (on the right).

You can see that if we want a decent chance of staying below 1.5 degrees we need very steep reductions starting now. According to these curves, we have around 9 years of emissions at current rates before we have to stop all emissions overnight, which is clearly impossible.

If we aim for 2 degrees instead of 1.5 degrees, we have more time and the curves look more manageable, but the reductions are still very steep – 5% per year.

And we’re nowhere near that. Last year emissions increased by between 2 and 3%, up from 1.2% in 2017, and following a period of 2-3 years when they didn’t change.

These curves look a bit easier if we include so-called negative emissions, in which greenhouse gases are removed from the atmosphere. The pathways to limiting warming to 1.5°C and 2°C above pre-industrial levels in the IPCC reports – and in the plans of various governments to achieve ‘net-zero’ emissions by 2050 – assume the use of these negative emissions technologies. The problem is, these technologies are not yet available at anything close to the required scales, and are largely untested. We can make a significant dent in emissions by planting trees and rewilding, but forests take decades to grow, and again our current trajectory is one of increasing deforestation and habitat destruction, so we’re talking not just about doing better, but reversing current trends.

To a large extent, the reliance on future negative emissions is about passing the responsibility onto the next generation, who we assume will develop these mythical negative emissions technologies, so we can carry on burning fossil fuels and using land unsustainably for longer.

The challenge before us is enormous, and the longer we delay, the harder it gets. But we are delaying, and passing the responsibility and the costs onto our children. As things stand, it looks very unlikely that we’ll limit warming to below 2°C, let alone 1.5°C. Right now, the choice we’re making is catastrophic climate change in our children’s lifetime.

No wonder they’re angry.

(13) We might just be able to avoid catastrophic climate change, but we’re running out of time. If we are going to succeed, we need to make some massive changes to the way our societies and economies are organised. Last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the 1.5°C threshold stated that we need

rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems…[that] are unprecedented in terms of scale.

IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5℃, Summary for Policymakers, 17

Greta Thunberg puts it more succinctly when she says,

…we can’t save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed.

Greta Thunberg, COP24 Katowice Climate Conference, 3rd December 2018

As adults, we’ve demonstrated that we’re very bad at changing the rules. It’s taken decades of scientists chipping away at government reticence, a decade of arguing over settled science, and finally the boiling over of people’s frustrations through movements like the School Strike and Extinction Rebellion, to get where we are today. Today’s children know that we don’t have time for more of the same, and they are a critical voice in the fight to change the rules.

And we have a moral responsibility to support them. As a recent editorial in the top scientific journal Nature put it,

The youth climate movement’s members are brave, and they are right…Younger generations know, perhaps better than the adults, that the world might not have another three decades to prevent climate impacts that will be even more serious than those we face now.

The three decades mentioned here represent the time since the world formally committed to address climate change, desertification and biodiversity loss at the Rio Earth Summit and the then with the establishment of the UN convention on climate change.

(14) Children are already playing key leadership roles in the fight against climate change and climate inaction. Greta Thunberg is the highest profile example. As she said at the last UN climate conference,

…we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again.

We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not… And since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.

Greta Thunberg, COP24 Katowice Climate Conference, 3rd December 2018

But Greta isn’t the only such leader. These are the words of eight year old (yes, eight year old) Havana Chapman Edwards, speaking at a rally in Washington DC:

In my elementary school, we talk about recycling and gardening, but that is not enough. We talk about protecting keystone species like elephants, but that is not enough. I hear the adults leading our country talking about how they care about my future, but not actually passing any laws to fight against climate change. That is definitely not enough.

The world cannot wait. Kids like me cannot wait. I may be tiny, but my voice is not.

(15) Given this leadership, and how quickly the climate change agenda is evolving, there are some critical questions we need to ask ourselves as parents and educators. Young people – including our children and pupils – are increasingly concerned about climate change. Many are better informed than adults. So, we have some catching up to do. We need to ask ourselves how we talk to children about climate change, given how serious an issue it is. We need to ask ourselves how we support children to cope with the anxiety they feel about the future. How do we support and empower them to play a role in driving the changes that are necessary to confront climate change, both now and in the future? How do we build their capacity to do a better job than we have done at running the broken world they’ll inherit from us? How do we prepare them for the consequences of our failure to address climate change and other critical problems? And what is our own moral responsibility to our children when it comes to our own behaviour?

(16) The first thing we need to do as adults is to make sure that we are informed. Climate change is a huge and complex topic, but the important stuff is accessible. Given the importance of climate change for our children’s future, and our culpability in causing it and failing to address it, we have a responsibility to try and understand and address it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told by colleagues and clients that policymakers and government members can only understand things when they are put in the simplest of terms. However, as that editorial in Nature points out:

[Greta] Thunberg makes a point of namechecking the IPCC and quoting paragraph and page numbers in speeches, as she did in an address to the French parliament at the end of last month.

As government delegates get ready for [climate conferences in] Delhi, Nairobi and New York, they must prepare to answer why, if children can understand the meaning of the IPCC assessments, adults cannot do the same?

(17) Only when we understand the issues will we be able to inform and educate our children. Our children who will be tomorrow’s leaders, but who will also need to live in the world we leave them. They’ll need some formidable skills to navigate that world.

They’ll need to understand the science of climate change, because that will be their guide to what decisions they need to take if their societies are to survive in it. How much warming can they expect, and how fast? What will the impacts of warming look like? What don’t we know?

They’ll need to know what actions they need to take to reduce and perhaps reverse warming – what technologies they can deploy, what behaviours they need to address, and how to manage natural systems to maximise their ability to draw down carbon?

They’ll need to know what options they have for adapting to unavoidable climate change. How do they identify, understand, and address risks associated with the impacts of climate change? How do they avoid decisions that increase these risks – what we in the business of climate change adaptation call ‘maladaptive’?

They’ll need strategies to address obstacles to action, whether these are political, economic, ideological, behavioural, or from other sources.

Most importantly they will need the skills to govern, manage and live in a world beset by large-scale environmental changes, economic instability, food and water crises, systemic conflict & mass migration & their knock-on effects – a world that is changed beyond the recognition of their parents.

(18) Just as important as educating our children is supporting them. There has been a lot in the media recently about what has been labelled ‘eco-anxiety’. This is described by Psychology Today as “a fairly recent psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis”, and by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. It’s worth mentioning here that climate change is unfolding alongside, and is linked with, other environmental crises such as mass extinction, habitat destruction, air pollution, and the tide of plastic waste.

One of things we need to do is look out for the emotional and psychological effects of climate change on our children. We can’t simply avoid the issue and hope it will go away, but we need to be careful how we respond, and engage with children on their terms, letting them initiate the conversation. We need to talk to them from informed positions and sensitively address the frightening aspects of climate change and environmental destruction.

There are also really constructive things that we can do. Taking positive actions to reduce our own emissions, and getting involved in groups working for climate action both give people a feeling of agency and can reduce feelings of helplessness and anxiety. So, we can work with children to make positive changes at home or at school – either leading or letting them lead us. For example, the school might set up a staff and student council for climate action, that looks at actions the school can take to reduce its climate impact and respond to climate change in other ways.

Critically, we can support children’s involvement in activist movements like the School Strike or Extinction Rebellion. And remember, even the world’s top scientific journal endorses these movements. These are great ways of linking with others who share their concerns and are working for change. Getting involved in such groups increases children’s agency, gives them a sense of empowerment, and makes sure they are not isolated in their anxiety. Hopefully, it also makes a real different politically. If you’re in the UK, one very tangible thing you can do is to sign this petition asking that young people be consulted when the government makes climate change policy.

And if we’re really serious about supporting children, we can think about our own personal choices, and how these relate to the climate crisis. This might involve decisions to fly less, switch to green energy, examine where we put our savings and investments if we’re lucky enough to have any, where and how we shop, what we eat, whom we vote for. Making positive choices about our own lifestyles is an example to children of the small actions we can take, and demonstrates our support for them in their struggle to protect their own futures. Individual action alone won’t solve the climate crisis, but it’s not a case of either-or when it comes to individual versus collective action. Both can help, and they are closely interrelated.

(19) As this talk is about children and climate change, I’m going to let Greta Thunberg have the final word.

The year 2078 I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else and yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes. Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible there is no hope.

…I’ve learned that you are never too small to make a difference and if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to.

Greta Thunberg, COP24 plenary session December 12 2018

Thank you.

Links to resources & further reading

Simple video explainers

General reading and resources for understanding climate change

Opposition to climate action / climate denial

Climate extremes

Climate change and extreme weather in general

Climate change and extreme winter weather:

Eco-anxiety and talking to children

Climate change education and resources for schools

About Nick Brooks

Nick Brooks is the Director of Garama 3C Ltd, a small consultancy firm specialising in climate change and development, with a focus on adpatation and resilience. Garama offers consultancy and training to a wide range of clients, including governments, international organisations, research bodies, NGOs and the private sector. Nick is also active in research, publishing on issues relating to adaptation and past human responses to rapid and severe climate change. He co-directed the Western Sahara Project with Dr Joanne Clarke, and led seven seasons of archaeological and environmental fieldwork in Western Sahara from 2002 to 2009. Nick has a PhD in climatology from the University of East Anglia and is a Visiting Research Fellow at UEA's Climatic Research Unit.
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1 Response to Growing up in a House on Fire

  1. Pingback: Schools outreach | Garama 3C – climate change training

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