Wednesday, 23 September 2009

"Why Don't They DO Something"

Image copyright Steve Bell, 1993

I sat down in front of streaming coverage of yesterday afternoon's UN session on climate change in the vague hope that I might be witnessing a turning point in humankind's response to what is now overwhelmingly agreed to be a problem of our own making - dangerous anthropogenic climate change. I was hoping for one of those Berlin-wall-falling or Mandela-being-released moments I had witnessed in my early 20s. A procession of world leaders declaring that they were deadly serious about stopping runaway and dangerous climate change and setting out their intentions and targets in advance of final talks in Copenhagen later this year. I had hoped to witness a UN epiphany and, with one eye on Twitter feeds from the UN floor and from commentators around the world, I watched as Barack Obama stepped up to the podium.

What followed was a river of rhetoric but with little substance. Obama looked tired. Bored even. The gravity of the failure-to-act scenarios he painted was delivered with the integrity and passion of a near-to-retirement science teacher explaining the basics of the periodic table (that was my personal experience of O level chemistry anyway). Perhaps it was the cold green marble backdrop that gave the delivery such a deathly tone. The cold mortuary slab onto which, according to many observers, Obama was laying any hope of a binding Copenhagen agreement including the US.

My mind wandered as he continued. One thing that I find slightly frustrating and perhaps counterproductive in attempts by many world leaders to stir up passion and action on climate change is their failure to talk openly about the thing that really motivates most of humankind to act.
References to "saving our planet" and "saving the earth" unfortunately leave many people feeling disengaged and distanced. Some people will only ever engage with issues that they face directly each day and that obviously affect them personally. They will fail to see how "saving the planet" really has any relevance to their lives.

As humans, we often feel that we define the planet we live on but, hard as it might be to entertain this idea, planet earth will be just fine in the long run without us. Something that dawned on the Apollo astronauts as they looked at back at a shrinking earth on their way to the moon. We may well end up wiping ourselves out like a self-consuming bacterial colony. We may well end up dragging entire ecosystems and species with us as we plough through and gorge on the resources that are in our care. Species and habitats are already being, and will continue to be, destroyed in the bow wave of unchecked human activity and many more would certainly be lost in our wake.

What does make people stop and think? I live in hope that human nature will, very soon, lead people to be shocked, affected and motivated to change their long-established behaviour when faced with evidence of what is already happening to other humans as a result of climate change and what could easily happen to them too. The challenge for me as a photojournalist and for all other media professionals is to make people think about the impact their lives are having on the people of Bangladesh, the Maldives, most of sub-Saharan Africa. . .the list goes on, and feel empowered and motivated to change.

As Obama brings his speech to a close, what he, and others leaders like him, are really describing is the struggle not to protect the planet, but to protect the future of humankind.

Don't get me wrong. I'm certainly not one of those people who thinks only of human survival. I believe passionately that we have a duty to look after the world we have inherited and to think about, understand and care about the impact we are having on the planet. But, I'm also realistic enough to recognise that this isn't what drives everyone. Many observers have recognised that bombarding people with messages of doom and destruction can leave us feeling powerless to act and to switch off, become defensive or even hostile.

As Obama's warnings of "morally inexcusable" inaction drew to a close without any indication of how he intends to get his climate bill through Senate, I realised that the challenge remains. How DO you persuade people to change their own behaviour and not sit back and pass all personal and moral responsibility to their Governments?

As I made a cup of tea after Obama's speech, I chuckled at the old 1993 Steve Bell postcard stuck to my fridge. A family are slumped on and around a sofa bathed in the light of a glowing TV set. They look as though they've been there so long that they have become part of the sofa. We can't see what's on the screen but we can assume it's something bad happening in the world. "Why don't they do something?" utters one of the family.
We all have to do something. Soon.

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