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The climate generation: turning the tide on climate breakdown perceptions

With rising public awareness and understanding about climate crisis in recent months in the UK, James reflects on the factors that may have contributed to the change, and how his own outlook has been shaped.

In London, the issue of climate change has been brought to the fore by international movement, Extinction Rebellion © Alexander Savin

Mid-way through 2019 and it seems that there has been a genuine sea change – if not throughout the whole of the West, then at least within the UK – in society’s perception, understanding and acceptance of the reality of climate and environmental breakdown. So, why now? The shift appeared to start in October 2018 with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. Also contributing has been a series of other reports, such as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’ (IPBES) Land Degradation and Restoration (2018), the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Breakdown (2019), IPBES’s Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2019) and EAT-LANCET’s Food, Planet and Health (2019). In addition, we have had David Attenborough’s increasingly climate-focused nature documentaries, and finally, David Wallace-Well’s Uninhabitable Earth (2019) – an excellent compilation of all research on the climate catastrophe so far. And, one should not forget the effect that the recent Extinction Rebellion’s protests have had across the West – regardless of how weird, wonderful and potentially misguided some of their actions were – as well as the impact of speeches made by Greta Thunberg to high level decision-makers and politicians and the School Strike for Climate that she has lead.

The question arises of how much this shift in perception on climate breakdown is down to generation ‘Y’ (the ‘Millennials’) and ‘Z’ (those born between mid-90s to mid-2000s), and their use of social media and technology. It certainly seems like today’s younger (my) generations are more aware of and open-minded towards the climate crisis. Social media presents users with considerable amounts of content on climate breakdown, pollution (think plastic straws etc.) and environmental damage. It is also true that our world is more globalised than ever before, and no one could disagree that young people are more connected than previous generations, so this must be part of the story.

In my middle-class social network, to be ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ is, today, widely rather fashionable, but, despite the usual hypocrisies (such as flying round-trip from London to New York, which costs the Arctic 3m2 of ice or taking a cross-country flight in the US, which is equivalent to eight months driving), is this perception shift not the usual product of generations that are more ‘hippy’ in their youth, just like their greater inclinations against conservative politics? Also, how much of it is to do with the fact that we are now experiencing or witnessing the effects of climate breakdown that climate models predicted decades ago? This last point is probably quite a significant reason for changing perceptions, but like all these questions, it requires proper studies.

My WRENmedia family

On top of the need for greater evidence, the problem is that I exist in an echo chamber – as we all do. I am white, British, ‘middleclass’ and economically privileged. I have two degrees and have had the opportunity to interact and socialise with academics and ‘intellectuals’ from relatively similar backgrounds – even if they are from Canada, Europe, Japan, New Zealand or the US. However, I am not perhaps representative of my generation, nor indeed the general population of the UK, so whatever I see, say or do in this sphere probably exists within that echo chamber. A bit like Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’, one can only try and accurately perceive the ‘Realm of Forms’, the more objective reality outside one’s echo chamber. Even the algorithm in Facebook’s news feed presents me with media and ‘friends’ who align with my interests and online interactions.

On the other hand, having any kind of privilege and its resulting echo chamber does not necessarily mean having invalid views – for anyone. Furthermore, my irregular upbringing has perhaps presented me with an opportunity to see better beyond the chamber. From an early age, I have travelled abroad, following my mother and maternal grandfather around parts of the world, as they established and worked for WRENmedia. These experiences, and those of the travelling I have done since, have offered me a glimpse of the extremes – from the poverty of massive shanty towns in Kenya and South Africa or endless rough neighbourhoods in Los Angeles – to the beauty of hiking across mountains in Corsica, New Zealand or Norway. Along with my family’s appreciation and understanding of different parts of the world, this has provided me with a more open-minded and broader worldview than I otherwise might have had. In addition, my grandfather’s work and constant reading on climate and environmental studies, has resulted in many lengthy discussions on the topic as I grew up, and which continue today. Through my own reading, I have continued to expand my knowledge in the area; with books like Climate Wars, The Coming Famine, The Human Planet, Thank you for being Late, or Homo Deus, the above reports, or periodical articles like Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene (Steffen, W. et al. 2018) or Deep Adaption: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy (Bendell, J. 2018).

Following in my family’s footsteps for a brief time, I am currently working for WRENmedia, and this has confirmed much of what I already knew on climate science. But, the work has also better informed me on specific aspects, like climate mitigation and adaption efforts in Africa, the ins-and-outs of pastoralism and why going ‘meat-free’ is not a simple fix for climate and environmental breakdown. No matter what career(s) I may have, or how my generation – and those following – respond to climate breakdown, I will always have a worldview that has been very much influenced by WRENmedia and my family’s work within it.

James Thorp

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