It’s all about the climate (44.2021)

The 26th UN Committee on Climate Change (COP26) is going on in Glasgow right now. The planet is at a crisis point, and we all need this meeting to deliver something tangible in terms of pledges on reduction of emissions, re-greening the planet, commitments to invest in green energy and cut funding to polluting energies like coal. The last thing we need is a lot of empty promises. (The planet has quite enough hot air already, thank you.) Promises yes, but they need to be delivered on. Greta Thunberg has accused COP26 of being a “two week festival of business as usual and blah, blah, blah”. I hope she’s wrong.

I’m not sure how I feel about the possibility to keep global warming below the crisis temperature rise of 1.5 degrees. How can short term politicians (electoral cycles are 3-5 years?) deliver long-term solutions. Not to mention that most of the heads of state are ‘grey men’ who will – let’s face it – be dead before the worst effects of climate change take effect.

Opening day of COP26: Photograph: Alberto Pezzali/AFP/Getty Images

At a conference at work a few years ago on climate finance, one of the speakers talked about the financial risks associated with climate change. He cited Manhattan as a case in point. Manhattan has some of the most expensive real estate in the world, but it’s built on reclaimed land, and highly at risk from rising water levels, floods, storms. (Of all the things we’ve seen destroy NYC in movies (monsters, aliens, meteors, tidal waves, zombies), the thing that actually could endanger it is some much more mundane and far less dramatic – rising water levels.) Wall Street is also a major financial centre. By providing finance to industries that contribute to climate change, Wall Street could in fact be cutting its own throat. In general the speaker warned banks – and most people in the audience were bankers – to be aware of the climate risks in your client portfolios.

Climate changes means more extreme weather conditions – flooding, storms. Do they have clients with significant land holdings that are in storm channels or likely to be flooded? Clients with manufacturing facilities in countries that are in at-risk due to rising water levels? (Fast fashion and Bangladesh sweat shops for example.) The aim of a bank is to lend money and have that money repaid. How will climate change impact bank clients in repaying their loans?

This week I saw an article about a waterfront park in Manhattan’s Lower East Side being rebuilt as a barrier against rising water levels. NYC is aware they are in danger and they are starting to invest. Climate change mitigation doesn’t come cheap. This redevelopment will cost $1.45 billion. That’s good, you might think, but the Lower East Side has very little in the way of green space. The people who live there will lose their green space for 5 years while the park is rebuilt. The Lower East Side is also the lower income end of the city. Residents are worried that the park reconstruction is going to contribute to gentrification and see them forced out. “Too often, they say, the city has promised one thing, only to run out of money and hand land over for high-priced luxury residential housing whose developers, in turn, contribute handsomely to political coffers.

But if Manhattan is at risk of flooding, will there still be a demand for “high-priced luxury residential housing”? Would you build high rise buildings on a flood plain?

Rising sea levels could affect any seaside town, any city by a river, any low level land. I looked at the Climate Central website, which shows projections of how flood zones will expand, and can see in my home town in less than 10 years, the airport and the port will be in the flood zone. Airports and ports are hugely expensive pieces of infrastructure to have at risk. And this is just one city in one country in the world.

With all this grim news, is it unsurprising that climate anxiety is on the rise? Yes, this is a real thing. Do you ever suffer from climate related guilt when you do something that’s not green? I know I feel guilty when I buy vegetables wrapped in plastic, or when I buy a coffee and forget to take my keepcup with me, or when I get takeaway and it comes in a plastic container. This is low level anxiety about things I can control. But what about bigger concerns? Things I can’t control – like deforestation, which is one of the good things that has come out of COP so far, a pledge to reduce deforestation by 2030. But that is nine years away – nine more years to keep deforesting at the current rate with a football pitch piece of forest disappearing every two seconds. I can’t even process how many trees are dying every day. (Yes, The Overstory is still preying on my mind.)

(But on the subject of deforestation, not all forest news is bad – the Great Green Wall aims to plant 8000km of trees across Africa in an attempt to restore land and prevent further land degradation.)

Picture from Great Green Wall website

But there are ways to manage climate anxiety. Remember that as an individual you can’t fix climate change on your own. Maybe switch off the news for a while. Focus on actions you can do as an individual. Can you change your consumption patterns to reduce food waste or consume more locally produced food? (I never understood how lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped to the UK and sold in my local butcher shop can be cheaper than British lamb that was raised here and transported from across the country.) Could you change your consumption patterns for clothing and other goods – buy more thoughtfully, recycle, reuse, repair?

On the subject of planets being plundered for profit, I went to see the movie Dune this week. Impressions – good and bad. Visually it’s spectacular – the brutalist space ships, the fortress-palace on Arrakis, the dragonfly-inspired helicopters. The music varies between discordant electronica and Arabic-inspired vocals, depending on the scene. It’s also very loud – at some points my seat was shaking. But here’s the bad – sometimes the sound was so loud I couldn’t hear the dialogue, which really annoys me. And I couldn’t feel any warmth towards the main character, Paul Atreides, (played by Timothée Chalamet). I don’t know if he was written that way in the book, but if you can’t like or hate the character the plot is built around, then you’ve lost me. Yes, Jason Momoa was in the film, but why did he appear in the early scenes with a beard (Sexy Man) and in later scenes without a beard (Just Some Bloke)? His face without a beard is just not as appealing.

Ultimately Dune was a lot like a tragic opera, with grandiose scenes, music, and death, death and more death. It’s like a sci-fi version of King Lear. Don’t get too attached to any of the characters, they’ll probably be dead by the end of the film.

I might have come of out Dune feeling a little lost. Why did I go see it? But we all have times in our lives when we all feel a little lost and don’t know why we’re here. In fact some people even go on retreats of pilgrimages to ‘find themselves.’ In Turkey recently, one man took this a little too literally. Beyhan Mutlu wandered off into the forest after drinking with friends. His family were concerned when he didn’t come home and they couldn’t get in touch with him and so they contacted the police and a search party was organised. As the search party made its way through the forest, Beyhan saw them and decided to join in. (He sounds like a helpful, kind man at least.) He was with the search party for a little while, helping look for himself, but without any clue what was going on. (I have to wonder just how drunk he was?) As the search party made its way along, someone called his name, and he answered, “I’m here.”

Wherever you find yourself this week, I hope it’s where you’ve been looking.

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