Our current weather, and the damage caused by the appalling floods across Britain, changes everything. Or at least it should. Perhaps it should have done long before, when the hurricane hit Haiti, or when a report revealed 400,000 people a year dying due to climate change, or even when the first major British campaign on climate change kicked off back in 1989. But we don’t live in the world as it should be. If we did, the floods wouldn’t be happening in the way they are, and our climate would be stabilizing.
Nestled behind the temporary safety of the Thames Barrier, my house didn’t flood last week. But reading the reports of the countryside underwater, my heart sank, turning to anger at the pictures of politicians in wellington boots, trying their best to look concerned in the midst of a problem they collectively failed to solve and contributed to creating.
They say that when you drown your life flashes before your eyes. It may well be true, because even reading about the floods made 15 years of climate activism flash before mine. From the first inklings of environmental consciousness on the residents’ march against the second runway at Manchester Airport to the present fight against fracking, every struggle has been about facing down different ills – noise, harm to nature, local pollution. But sitting above them all is the recognition that more dirty infrastructure leads to more climate change, which in turn leads to the kinds of extreme weather events we’re beginning to see now.
Of course, the pedants can argue that it’s difficult to prove that this flood here was because of that pollution there. But the fact remains that scientists have consistently warned that more climate change will lead to more extreme weather. It’s a message we’ll need to repeat again and again.
As the memories keep flooding back, most of all I’m taken back to a conversation with a stranger on a bus in Copenhagen on the final day of the 2009 climate talks there. My arm in a sling – having been beaten by a police officer the previous day – I was asked by the stranger what we would do if the politicians failed to stop climate change and the effects got worse. It wasn’t a question I’d considered before. I responded that we’d work for justice with the worst-affected communities, to stop the effects from hitting them so hard, and keep working to stop the process of climate change intensifying. With the news this month – and especially the many unreported tragedies outside of the wealthy South East – it feels as though that time may now be up on us.
Like me, my grandfather was a lifetime activist, although his work was principally for peace. But when the world descended into war, he didn’t just step aside. As many other Quakers did, he joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, committing to practical tending of casualties on the ground. Some pacifists were critical, calling it a process of clearing up the mess rather than tackling the causes, and even seeing it as counterproductive, as it involved liaising with various armies. But the experience served to strengthen – rather than water down – his pacifist convictions, and the project was a factor in the Quakers being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a few years later. Many commentators have called our current crisis a world war moment. If it is, then those of us sceptical of authoritarian solutions need to ask what a transformative response should be.
And that’s why this changes everything, not for the media and politicians, who will continue to focus on the concerns of the rich, but for us. It is clear that the onset of climate change even further demonstrates need for a radically different form of politics and economics, but it also suggests the need for us – the activists – to ask ourselves some difficult questions about how we get there:
Some of us have learned how to work with our communities against site-based dirty infrastructure, but how do we work differently when the effects are dispersed? Some of us have learned how to block roads, but do we know how to unblock drains? Some of us have suffered at the hands of the police, but can we reach an understanding with the emergency services so that the maximum number of people can be helped? And reflecting on the emotional distress that most people encounter in the context of site-battles, how can we prepare ourselves inwardly – even spiritually – for situations still more intense? And perhaps most importantly of all, how can we work with people affected by extreme weather to stand against the process of climate change which is magnifying the scale of the weather events in the first place?
These and more are questions we’ll need to answer as a movement in the coming days and weeks. No doubt the weather will drop from the headlines at some point, but if the scientists are right – as they seem to have been so far – the climate has already begun to change. Perhaps it is time for us to do so too.