North Star

Dear David Attenborough: The bears are at the door

Skinny polar bear on the ice outside Svalbard
Shutterstockmariemattsson
Skinny polar bear on the ice outside Svalbard, Norway.

Funny scene from a movie whose name I have long since forgotten: The Saturn V rocket is about to lift off, taking three astronauts to the moon. The NASA announcer does the 10-nine-eight countdown and says, "Blast off!" Nothing happens. The massive crowd gathered to watch the rocket shouts at the rocket with one voice, "Blast off!" Nothing happens. Then finally Walter Cronkite — the most popular evening news anchor of his era, considered "the most trusted man in America" — says in his most stentorian voice, "Blast off!"

On Cronkite’s command, the engines light up and the rocket lifts gracefully into space.

I was reminded of that scene when I read that David Attenborough, the most trusted man in nature broadcasting, said in a recent interview that "the moment of crisis has come" with regard to climate change.

I beg to differ, Sir David, although I understand why your statement was immediately tweeted around the planet. You held yourself back from such pronouncements for a long time, which means that now, when even you have overcome your reluctance to point out problems, they seem to have extra weight.

But I have two concerns about Attenborough’s statement, welcome though it may be by all of us hoping for faster action on climate. First, the climate crisis that humanity is facing is not a moment. It is a process that has been building up for decades and will unfold for decades. There is no single threshold that we have just crossed, or will cross. Dozens of thresholds are being passed all the time, different aspects of a century-long crisis, and they are accumulating relentlessly.

Perhaps the sense of crisis has reached more people now, thanks to voices such as Attenborough’s and Greta Thunberg’s. But even this fast-growing sense-of-crisis minority is far from a critical mass calling for transformative action. In Paris last year, the critical mass actually was protesting against actions being taken on climate change. (The city of Barcelona’s recent declaration of climate emergency could prove to be an actual critical mass, in a very special and beautiful city, but only time will tell.)

Second, the crisis is not yet here. It is still, for most of us, there. To the extent that Australia’s bush fires were enflamed by global warming — and they almost certainly were — they happened "down under," to a specific piece of that continent. The rising sea levels are taking their first victims, but they are as far away from the BBC studios as they can be, on small islands in the South Pacific. The disappearing sea ice in the Arctic directly affects Inuit and other indigenous hunters, as well as iconic polar bears. People in these places really are in crisis. 

But not London, nor most of the rest of the developed world. At least not much, and not yet.

Of course, the appearance of this more widely shared sense of crisis is meaningful. Companies are genuinely worried about their value chains and business models. Financial houses are seriously concerned about risk and even more interested in the new investment opportunities that have been revealed in the need to build out global infrastructure and industry very differently. Investors are talking about crisis in new ways — and their voices carry nearly Attenborough-levels of weight. But they are not yet in crisis.

Where the Crisis of the Century is most being felt is, of course, among the poorest of the poor. Around 25 million people are already displaced by climate-related events each year. Drought, natural disaster, loss of agricultural land and conflicts made worse by displacement are driving even more into refugee status. These "side effects" of a warmer planet are already claiming thousands of people’s lives and will take many more in the coming decades. And almost all of those people will be poor.

Over 30 years ago, when I was editing a magazine on sustainability, I engaged in a friendly debate with a fellow magazine staffer who worried that humans were not wired up, neurologically, to respond to long, slow, abstract threats such as climate change. Our brains had evolved to respond to immediate problems, such as a bear showing up at the family cave. My colleague was quite pessimistic. Given the built-in short-term perspective given to us by evolution, our goose probably was cooked.

Back then, I also begged to differ — in my first published essay, "The Bear at the Door." Education, different indicators, nightly news reports, tax incentives: link enough of these together, I said, and we could condition ourselves to react appropriately. We could learn to perceive the threat of climate change as real, despite its seeming so far in the future and abstract, just as we had conditioned ourselves to respond to stock market indices and other numbers. Indicators made these large abstractions real to us.

Today, I’m not so sure. Decades of squiggly lines on graphs and scientific reports on risk have not yet turned the tide. Even fire and flood are not enough to convince large numbers of people that the climate crisis is real. And now I see regular news reports of actual bears — displaced polar bears, hungry and searching for food, which is increasingly hard to find in a fast-warming Arctic — showing up at actual doors. Still the world is not reacting quickly enough, when it reacts at all.

On the bright side, there are signs that my optimism from 30 years ago was not totally misplaced. Sweden has climate change integrated into our regular news-and-weather reports on television. Even our most popular hamburger chain shows you exactly how many grams of carbon dioxide your meal choice contributes to the atmosphere, and provides tasty vegetarian alternatives as first choice on an otherwise meat-heavy menu. Plus it compensates for all its emissions.

Clearly I was wrong, back in the summer of 1989, to believe that timely information on the threat of climate change would be sufficient to turn the global tide in time to avoid a crisis. Attenborough is right. Impacts worthy of a sense of crisis are already here. The bears are crowding at our doors. 

But at least the sense of crisis is growing, along with the actual crisis. And crisis does seem to get us humans moving. In some ways, we are already too late. But there is still a chance in other ways — some very important other ways — we will be just in time.