The Challenge of Climate Change & How to Create a Positive Response

The world we live in is radically changing. Every day in the press and on TV we hear about climate change, renewable energy, green building yet the information we hear is still often shallow, product driven and missing the point. The world seems to have woken up to the fact that we are in crisis but is struggling to see all the jigsaw pieces, let alone the picture. So let’s start with the difficult stuff, the climate change facts and predictions, and then let’s envision a different future, a future in which much of the whole picture is seen and even where the pieces of the puzzle should ideally fit. When we have vision, we naturally are able to act with greater coherence.

Climate Change

The scientific evidence of human-made climate change is mounting. Last month the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge identified that ‘dramatic warming’ caused by human activity of the eastern side of the Antarctic peninsula, where the 3,250 sq km expanse of ice used to be, as being the unarguable cause of the collapse of the ice shelf. The research has also linked the collapse to the hole in the ozone layer that opens up over the Antarctic every spring. This whole, according to NASA is now 10.8m square miles – bigger than ever – and evidently, depleted ozone equals more climate chaos.

So what else is happening in the world and how does it affect us? We are using three times as much water globally as we were in 1950. It is no wonder that the corporates are beginning to privatise the water supply in many countries. Research also shows that babies without access to piped water are three times more liable to die than babies who have adequate sanitation. Yet clean water in India and Africa is often more expensive than water supplied in New York and London. The temperature of the air at ground level in the UK has been warming slowly and steadily since 1880. The 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1980. July 2006 is the hottest month since records began.

We are on course for a global crisis of unprecedented destruction. If the rest of the West Antarctic icesheet collapses, sea levels could rise more than 16 feet. Both London and Bangladesh will be drowned. Meanwhile, American scientists now predict that the likelihood of the Gulf Stream ‘pump’ switching off due to excessive melt water in the Arctic is greater than 50%. And the glaciers in the Himalayas that ensure the annual flow for the river systems of the Indian subcontinent and SE Asia? Retreating. Without the irrigation they provide, one billion people will be displaced. Then there are the matters of CO2 dissolving in the oceans, acidifying the seas and making them virtually uninhabitable; a 1ºC rise in temperature making tropical rainforests unviable; and a 1-2ºC rise making trout disappear from the Rockies. Even if we stopped all emissions now there is still likely to be a 0.6ºC rise because the effects of climate change happen over decades, not years. The grimmest prediction is that there will be a 90% die off of the global human population. Am I quoting from Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth sources? No. This data is extracted from a UK Government Briefing Report.*

What will our future look like?

By 2080, the annual temperature averaged across the UK may rise by 2ºC (LE: Low Estimate) and 3.5ºC (HE: High Estimate). Winters will become wetter, rain and snow may increase by 30% with greater risk of flooding, and summers will become drier with risk of drought. Summer rain may decrease by 50% and average soil moisture content may decrease by 40% in the HE scenario. Sea levels are guaranteed to rise between 26 (LE) and 86 (HE) cm (10-34in) above the current level in SE England, for example, and extreme sea levels will be experienced more frequently. Scientists predict that if we continue to overfish our oceans marine food webs will collapse within three to four decades.

What does this mean to our grandchildren or great grandchildren? Vineyards in Canada and Scotland? A Mediterranean climate in New Jersey and Lincolnshire? Sunny holidays? In part, yes. It also means a massive increase in desertification, crop failure, famine and refugees. It means huge economic and agricultural disruption. Cool temperate climate dwellers may be less disrupted (though inundated with climate change refugees), but no one in the global community will be unscathed.

Staying Engaged

It is human nature to read all these statistics and switch off: the situation seems so insurmountable, the problems so great. Can we really do anything to adapt, let alone mitigate this change? Without global political will, what can we do as individuals? What are the realistic and practical solutions?

But already there are solutions being tested out by individuals, companies and governments all over the world and despite all the bad news, good news also filters through. But let’s ask:

Is It Economically Possible To Change the World?

Annual world military expenditure is $780 billion. To eradicate famine and implement sustainable agriculture would cost $17 billion per year for ten years – just 32% of what the US spends on candy every year. To implement renewable energy? Another $17 billion per year for ten years – 13% of current subsidies to electricity prices in the developing world or 2.2% of the world’s annual military budget. To reverse deforestation? If we planted 150 million hectares in the next decade, it would cost $6 billion a year. Add another billion for rainforest protection and financial incentives and that is just 0.9% of the world’s total annual military expenditure. Can we do it? We already have a model… Just $300 million eradicated smallpox by 1978. This interests me because our problems aren’t about money – they are about mindsets. It is tempting to wring our collective hands in shame and feel utterly overwhelmed by the scale of the pending disaster and the sheer madness of our current levels of consumption, but we can’t afford to. We cannot avert change but it does offer us an unparalled opportunity to transform our relationship with planet Earth and therefore ourselves.

Consciousness Shift

A friend recently asked me if I was optimistic about the future, given the state of the world. I am because I believe that we are experiencing incremental shifts in consciousness that are small but significant. Psychologists compare human consciousness to icebergs. We have at most 10% of our group consciousness rising above the surface of the water. The rest is hidden. They also believe that it only takes 17% of a group to influence the opinion of the remaining 83%. In other words, the critical mass of a group is far lower than the majority. I believe that critical mass is being reached with Genetically Modified crops in the UK and this will eventually force a more democratic and considered agricultural policy from government. Critical mass is still lagging behind on climate change. But when we reach 17% of people who understand the total necessity of living more sustainably and reject our current destructive paradigms, then the shift will come very fast and government will be able to introduce legislation that tackles the issues like energy efficiency in industry and aviation taxes. The idea that we can go on as we are economically – that industrial growth can carry on undisturbed whilst we tinker with emissions – is ludicrous.

Furthermore, it is obvious that people already want change. The renewable energy fund to help householders install solar panels and wind generators ran out half way through 2006 because it was totally oversubscribed. This budget was a fraction of the billions new nuclear power stations will cost to build, commission, decommission and ‘dispose’ of the waste yet domestic household renewables could contribute to 40% of our energy needs as a nation as we are now. Just walk into your local B&Q store. You can now buy a solar water panel and a wind turbine off the shelf. They wouldn’t be there if there was no public demand. Imagine if a larger percentage of the population were engaged in change and had done permaculture design courses and there was funding diverted from a nuclear build programme. The percentage would be far higher than 40%!

When the BBC first screened ‘It Isn’t Easy Being Green’ in 2006 on BBC2, the TV production company estimated that 1.5 million people would watch it but over 3.5 million people tuned in. The company was astounded. Imagine if someone made a seriously informative series about eco-renovation, permaculture, and renewable energy? Imagine if it also had the wisdom and understanding to include information about projects like Transition Town Totnes, a grassroots ecological, relocalisation scheme that could revolutionise the economy of this Devon town and can be (and is) being replicated anywhere? (See for further details.) Imagine if our mainstream media started seeking out positive examples of solution based thinking to tackle climate change on a domestic, local and national level so that the UK, like Sweden, could become world leaders in sustainability rather than world fighters in oil wars?

Creating Personal Change

It is clear that before we can change our behaviour to live a greener, low carbon lifestyle, we need to effect a change of consciousness in our own lives? Simply, we need to really engage with the world and care about its fate. Given that most of us are busy coping with living in this stressful and complex world it can feel impossible to do more but ironically it is that very change in consciousness that can enhance our lives and make them less stressful. The more ‘adult’ we come, the less we allow time to reconnect with nature but psychologists will remind us that the very act of connection can have profound effects. Being in nature, walking, climbing, swimming, relaxing can improve the health of our hearts, our cardio-vascular system, lower our blood pressure and improve the function of all our major organs. Reconnecting with nature is the simplest prescription you can give yourself in the world. Ask yourself:

When was the last time you lay on the earth and watched the clouds passing by?

When did you last take a walk off the beaten path?

When did you last swim in wild water? Or sit by a stream with your feet in the current?

Do you make time to walk barefoot on the earth?

When was the last time you climbed up a hillside and looked out over a part of your bioregion?

Do you ever go out on a clear night and marvel at the stars?

By being with nature and experiencing its beauty, we inevitably value it more and feel empower and motivated to preserve what we have. It is the first step to greening our lives.

Imagining Another Future

History reveals that when humanity is faced with new challenges that cannot be solved with old thinking, new capacities at mental and biological levels will evolve. We are now living in a point in history when changing life conditions are of such magnitude that a new worldview with a transformative vision is beginning to emerge.
Nancy Roof, co-founder, United Nations Values Caucus

Whilst studying Peak Oil and watching the world’s news, I have been imagining a different future: one in which most city trees are edible species; where the majority of rural and urban land is given to growing food and fuel; where areas of wilderness are honoured and protected; where human and animal waste is converted into fertile soil; where small-scale horticulture and agriculture is no longer the work of a marginalised peasantry but part of a movement for intelligent self-reliance; where every town and village has a portfolio of individual and community renewable energy systems and a local economy; where every settlement is retrofitted for energy conservation; where every new build meets stringent ecological standards; where every community resource is designed in relation to meeting the needs of its people; where every resource possible is renewed before it is considered for recycling. This to me is not a wintery world of scarcity and energy poverty, it is a world of diversity, self-reliance, real wealth and satisfying creativity. In short, it is ‘mainstream’ permaculture. So the last strategies is the most important:

Get Involved: Permaculture Your Life!

PERMACULTURE is a word that was originally coined in the mid seventies by two Australians, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, to describe the design system pioneered as a response to what they, and many others globally, saw as serious challenges to the survival of all of us. Originally derived from the words ‘PERMAnent agriCULTURE’, permaculture has gone beyond its roots in looking at strategies to create sustainable food growing methods to become a worldwide movement encompassing all aspects of how we as human beings can live harmoniously in relation to our Earth and its finite resources – A PERManent CULTURE.

“Permaculture offers a radical approach to food production and urban
renewal, water, energy and pollution. It integrates ecology, landscape design,
organic gardening, architecture and agro-forestry in creating a rich and
sustainable way of living. It uses appropriate technology giving high yields for
low energy inputs, achieving a resource of great diversity and stability. The
design principles are equally applicable to urban and rural dwellers.”

Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual
Bill Mollison

Some Practical Pointers

* Grow food wherever you are – even if you only have a kitchen window sill.

There are also significant health benefits to growing home grown organic food. On average over 11 pesticides are sprayed on lettuces each year, more than any other vegetable crop. In one ten year study by the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF), pesticide applications had increased by 600%.

Growing food is not about trying to become self-sufficient either. It is much more about becoming more self-reliant and a small vegetable garden can be supplemented by a local organic vegetable box or the farmer’s market. The significant aspect of this is food miles. In early September 2005, home-grown seasonal fruit and vegetables like apples, onions, carrots and green beans were available throughout the country. But so too, in three central London supermarkets, were apples 4,700 miles from the USA, onions over 12,000 miles from Australia and New Zealand, carrots from South Africa (51,000 miles) and beans from Kenya (3,600miles). Clearly, flying food all over the world is unsustainable and we can do much by buying locally.

* Do a permaculture design course if you haven’t already – even just an introductory weekend will change the way you see the world and start the process of learning practical skills for a self-reliant life.

* Consider getting involved with community projects: allotments, community gardens, green centers, local charities, non-violent peaceful activism… engage in positive, life enhancing work.

* Do an audit of your lifestyle. How do you spend your carbon?

* Conserve first. Redesign later.

If you are a home owner think about investing in renewables and switching to green electricity:

* Save water. Put bricks in your loo!

* Use solar thermal. Heat your water with the sun. It is the most efficient way of using renewal energy.

* Shop ethically, locally – (when you can afford to). Consume less but more thoughtfully, especially at Christmas. Put your money where your ethics are.

* Reuse everything and recycle what you can’t. Join schemes like Freecycle and share your unwanted resources. Simplify your life. Consume the beauty of the Earth and all of its diverse species, especially people.

Use green detergents:

It is estimated that between 1% and 5%, of domestic waste can be classed as ‘hazardous waste’ which could, unless dealt with appropriately, cause problems in the water environment.

Phosphate based detergents in particular are banned in some countries because they add nutrients to the waste stream which can cause eutrophication (or algae growth) in receiving waters.

Chlorine products – bleaches – are another problematic waste stream. The problem is that these chlorine based products react with organic chemicals to produce chlorinated organics – the same group of chemicals as the weedkiller DDT, PCB’s and pesticides. They are not biodegradable, they persist in the environment and have a cumulative effect. They are not removed in the sewage treatment process.

The Chemical House checks out products at* Use buses, trains & car sharing

Car sharing is when two or more people share a car and travel together. Car sharing is a simple way to cut the costs of fuel and parking, cut congestion and pollution, and cut the stress of driving.

For example:

A free account, connecting you to like minded individuals, wishing to see a reduction in traffic in Hampshire as well as reducing travel costs.

They have 111,243 members registered with the national liftshare network and on average they each save £1,148 per year. What could you do with an extra £1,148?

* Practice meditation and review your values.

Remember that this work is lifelong and never about being easy:

Sufi master, Hazrat Inayat Khan, said: “It is a patient pursuit to bring water from the depth of the ground; one has to deal with much mud in digging before one reaches the water of life.”

I believe that the fork in the road that we are all currently standing at is an unprecedented choice in humanity’s history and one of profound opportunity. I also believe that this opportunity to make the right choice is the key to our evolution. Do we choose the left hand fork – the high emission, selfish, short term, ignorant path that necessarily shuts out the consciousness of the whole? Do we expect our political and business systems to only provide short term economic gain and ignore the High Estimate climate change scenario that will spell distaer to our world? Or do we make a quantum shift in our thinking? Do we use our ingenuity as a species to serve not only ourselves but the survival of the whole? And how do we turn a doom-laden scenario into a vision of a better world? I believe that this critically required change could be the start of a more intelligent, humane, biodiverse and healthy world and that we have already devised many of the strategies to make that leap. Somehow we have to find collectively the key to inspire each other to act and, perhaps more importantly, to feel empowered to act. And we have to do this, not in anger and desperation but with a balanced, dispassionate will. It isn’t too late to slow climate change significantly. But will we take the right path? We must.

© Maddy Harland, 2006


Maddy Harland is the editor of Permaculture Magazine – Solutions For Sustainable Living and a director of Permanent Publications, a publisher of solution-orientated books for a better world. Tel: 01730

Please see also

* Climate Change Scenarios for the United Kingdom by Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, the Hadley Centre (the Met Office) & Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, University of East Anglia, April 2002.

Other useful websites