Despite years of exposure to the climate science, I don’t believe we are headed for total societal collapse | Rebecca Huntley

Last Friday the Guardian published a story under the headline “World close to ‘irreversible’ climate breakdown”. This was not a quote from Greta Thunberg or Extinction Rebellion, but the central message from three United Nations agencies.

They found there was “no credible pathway to 1.5C in place” and current pledges for action, even if honoured, would result in global heating of around 2.5C – in other words, a catastrophic climate breakdown, with devastating consequences for societies around the globe.

I read the report, but admit I skimmed it and went on to read an op-ed about the recent federal budget and a story about a boy rescued from a stormwater drain. Not because I don’t care about climate change (on the contrary, it is an all-consuming personal and professional passion), but because since I became involved in the climate movement I have read countless reports like these.

I’m not immune to the message. I just know I can’t do the work I need to do unless I treat this information in a particular way. Namely like a floor-length taffeta dress I once bought for a formal event: it hangs in my wardrobe as a reminder, worn only occasionally, but I can’t relax or do actual work in it.

That requires the elasticated pants of functional denial.

I am often asked why other people outside the climate movement don’t react immediately with alarm and take to the streets when they read headlines like this. They may actually be immune to the message. They may not pay attention to the United Nations. But more likely their failure to respond is a very human response.

To feel fear, we must observe and register a threat, such as the sight of a predator. That will then activate our “fight or flight” response. Climate change seems to defy nearly all the evolutionary and cognitive triggers for urgent action.

Of course, the kinds of extreme weather events we have seen in Australia and around the world are as tangible a threat to us as a terrorist attack or a virus. But in order to see these floods and fires in the same vein you must make the connection – that this is climate change created by humans rather than just Mother Nature doing her thing.

Australia weekend

In other words, our reptile brains have not evolved as quickly as our ability to develop the kinds of technology that can alter, in under 200 years, environments across a planet that have taken millennia to develop.

The good news is that the research I have conducted shows that in the last few years more of us are seeing these climate impacts as signs of impending catastrophe. Around one in three Australians are alarmed about climate change and would describe it as a “crisis” requiring greater government attention than any other issue. And we can see how quickly the electoral politics can shift around climate when we compare the 2019 and 2022 federal elections.

But the research also shows that opinion still shifts slowly, perhaps 1% for every extreme weather event that occurs. Floods and fires alone will not turn us all into climate champions in the time we have left.

Call me wildly optimistic or semi-delusional, but despite years of exposure to the climate science, I don’t believe that we are headed for total societal collapse any time soon. I still have a faith in the ability of groups of dedicated humans to collaborate to shift the odds in our favour.

But I also have the faith in capital to move quickly and decisively. It’s already happening. Once the corporations that fund the politicians realise there is more money to be made in climate action than climate denial, we will all be amazed about how fast things can move.

And this leads me to my abiding worry right now above and beyond societal collapse: my concern is not that it’s “the end of the world as we know it”. It’s more like “the end of the world as we’d like it”.

We need to move quickly to speed up the solutions to climate action. More renewable infrastructure and – if we are to meet our domestic energy needs and replace coal and gas as an export – large-scale renewables like the proposed Sun cable and the Asian renewable hub. More, not less mining.

My concern is that in our necessary speed towards solutions we forget the views, values and needs of those who are going to be most impacted. The communities where those working in fossil fuels are concentrated. Those who are geographically, socially, economically or culturally at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing all the proposed benefits from this energy revolution.

Those communities that have been, and will be, hit time and again by extreme weather, drought and water shortages. And the First Nations communities fighting for a real say when it comes to renewables projects, after decades of fighting with fossil fuel companies.

My worry is not that the Australia of the future will be like Mad Max. More that it could be a more benevolent version of The Hunger Games.

Again – call me wildly optimistic or semi-delusional – voters and communities have the chance right now to shape the nature of this energy revolution we are already experiencing.

It’s not just about windfarms and green hydrogen, with social disadvantage worse than it was during our fossil fuel heyday. That means we must amplify the voices and choices of the people who are the most exposed to climate impacts and the ones most at risk if we just act quickly and forget about fairly.

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