Are there really reasons to be upbeat about humanity’s chances of tackling climate change?
“The last three years have been devastating … I see a deep-set despair in the eyes of climate scientists. The degree at which feedback loops are kicking in is so much faster than we thought, especially in the Arctic.
“Scientists are questioning their data sets and pinching themselves and going, ‘Not that bad? Not that quickly …?’
It is essential to grasp how deeply serious this is, says Porritt, if we are to embrace the positivity needed to square up to it.
“The conditionality of hope is that you need to understand the frailty of the backdrop,” he explains.
There is no sugar-coating the truth, and he doesn’t attempt to: “All of this is coming at one degree of temperature rise. At 2018, this is just about as bad as it could possibly be.”
If scientists are reeling from the changes they are recording, what does the public make of our chances?
The good news: 56% were reasonably optimistic. The bad news: 14% were “climate fatalists” who believe we are doomed. And the sad news? Globally, almost a quarter of young people fall in to this category. In some countries, it’s significantly more.
That so many young people feel nothing can be done is crushing. Fatalism becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: despair does not drive action. Is it false hope to suggest that there might be a different future ahead of us, one that changes, adapts and copes rather than some broiling Dystopia?
Porritt, who co-founded Forum for the Future, doesn’t think so. He has spent his career seeking solutions to complex global problems and is relentlessly forward looking in his vision and his optimism.
In 2011 he commenced writing a book, set in 2050, looking back at how humankind did not destroy the planet. The World We Made is narrated by a fictional character, college teacher Alex MacKay. It combines technological roadmap with time travel allure, global politics with reassuring homeliness. It is recognisable. It is a pleasant. It is also doable.
“It’s the kind of world we probably would want to live in,” says Porritt with the caveat, “It’s a good world, but it’s not a fantastic one … There’s still more to be done in 2050 to avoid runaway and irreversible climate change.”
Out of the 50 chapters, 40 are upbeat – “it helps to create a sense of what is possible” – and Porritt himself became even more enthralled with the possibilities as he researched the subject.
“I’m no techie but even I got quite excited by the technological aspects. When you think through the potential you have every entitlement to be much chirpier than you would do otherwise.”
Technology alone will not save us, Porritt cautions – “There are tonnes of crazies out there who will tell you that’s the deal” – but a zero carbon future is realisable if we combine our technological know-how with the requisite behaviour change.
Writing the book was “personally affirming … I’m absolutely persuaded that there are no technological and investment issues to stop it”. The buck stops, he says, with the failure of imagination on the part of politicians.
If this threatens to undermine his optimism at times, it’s because he sees the enormity of the trick the political classes are missing. “Most mainstream parties can’t being to fathom the sheer excitement of bringing people into a vision of a sustainable future.”
Perhaps Porritt was too hopeful when he wrote the book: five years after its publication in 2013, the timeline he conceived for Alex MacKay’s world is already out of whack. We’ve travelled on; it was not like that. Hindsight leaves a bitter taste.
But the book is a projection, not a prediction. It was designed to inspire, not to plot the progress of business as usual. The fact that even BAU would take a real-life plot twist caught us all out. Few foresaw the election of Donald Trump, the precariousness of Brexit or the rise of the populism linked to climate denial.
Still, the book is by no means a rosy vision: Alex’s father is killed in water riots and there are wars, famines, cyber terrorist attacks on nuclear reactors and inundations of capital cities along the way. The timeline has “Hurricane Wilma” devastating the USA in 2021; in the teeth of Hurricane Florence this does not feel far fetched.
Porritt is uncompromising about the need to face up to the environmental changes occurring: “No-one is entitled to avoid understanding that physical reality, otherwise your hopefulness is built on shifting sand – or melting ice.”
He is equally bullish about the power of hope and purpose-driven education to shift gears and create the necessary momentum. Things are happening, and they are good. He notes the market breakthrough of solar, accurately charted in the book, and the revolution on plastic waste that’s now driving innovation and investment.
Eating meat, he thinks, will be the next big inflexion point. “If David Attenborough fronted a BBC version of Cowspiracy then the movement that’s already happening would just explode.”
It is not enough though, he warns, to seek out the sweet spot on the axis of change where people are informed and sufficiently concerned to want to act and still feel motivated by the potential solutions to actually do it.
“You can’t be an advocate for a solutions based agenda unless you are prepared to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in to the politics of it.”
The place to start, Porritt says, is locally: cities have the power and agility to determine their futures but wherever we live, we can influence our surroundings.
The message of how we created change in The World We Made is, above all, a simple one. “It’s about how we all work together in our lives.”
Kate Lock, Communications Officer, Priestley International Centre for Climate
Image: Illustration from The World We Made (Phaidon)