Joseph Barnes is a climate scientist focusing on sustainable development, responsible consumption, corporate responsibility, and the power of art and photojournalism in the fight against climate change. He graduated with a degree in Environmental Science from the University of Plymouth and a Master's degree in Climate Change and Sustainability from Brunel University.
What is climate change and why do I keep hearing about it? Does it matter to me? What can I do about it personally? It gets hard to see through all the noise and get down to the facts. When we’re talking about facts, we’re referring to the results of a massive, global scale of research undertaken over several decades by hundreds of thousands of scientists from all nations. These results are on display to all, they are constantly being peer-reviewed, and this is what they are telling us:
Currently, humanity is still using the atmosphere as a free-for-all dumping space for all our polluting and toxic emissions. These mainly derive from our transport, our industry, and our energy production, but at current rates of growth and consumption, we require an estimated 1.7 planet Earths to satisfy the demand.
The human population is growing, fast. The average temperature across the planet is rising. As it does, more land is becoming uninhabitable for humans and wildlife alike. While all this is happening, new diseases are emerging and becoming harder to treat. We often find our cures in nature, but green plants are being destroyed at a much faster rate than we are replacing them, particularly in biodiverse regions such as rainforests. Rare plants and animals are frequently used to find treatments: the United Nations estimates the extinction rate at about 150 species every day.
Since 2002, an average of 400 billion tonnes of Antarctic and Greenland ice melts every single year. As the ice and permafrost melts across the northern hemisphere, further dangers are exposed – new passages for shipping, fossil fuel exploration, and the destabilisation of methane deposits. Once set in motion, the release of billions of tonnes of methane gas and changes in the Earth’s heat balance are like a run-away train, with increasingly smaller chances of us catching up and stopping it the longer we wait to act.
The oceans regulate the planet’s temperature. They absorb atmospheric heat and bring down carbon dioxide levels, but they have suffered as a result of our unsustainable emissions; additional carbon alters the composition of our seas, increasing ocean acidity. The combination of heat and acidification results in mass coral bleaching, as we have seen in the dying Great Barrier Reef. As a result, coral reefs are at threat – some million species of animal depend on these systems and over 1 billion humans depend on these food webs for their primary source of protein.
So on the forecast this year are severe heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, giant hail, flooding, new categories of hurricanes and super storms, species extinction. It’s difficult to relate to the perils of climate change when they are being played out far from the temperate British Isles, but the consequences are arriving on our doorstep. Quite literally, in fact – from thousands of climate refugees, both human and wildlife, to lower quality and more expensive food imports as a result of failing agricultural systems across the globe.
It is easy to fall into the illusion that the Earth is such a large and complex system, that the individual can never hope to change things. The super-rich are splashing out on misinformation campaigns, lobbying governments, manufacturing doubt. At every step, the meat, dairy, tobacco, pharmaceutical and, most importantly, fossil fuel industries are spending millions to slow down sustainable progress. Their aim is to make your action feel toothless, and keep us on course for business as usual.
Renewable energies, such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric power are fast becoming economically viable, providing us with real and stable alternatives
But hope is not lost. Solutions are becoming economically viable; renewable energies, efficient homes, electric vehicles, meat alternatives, biodegradable materials and urban farming, to name but a few. We have also made huge strides in sustainable manufacturing, using green chemistry and reducing waste, developing a circular economy based on ecological economics.
There are many different fronts in the war against climate change. While we stand idle, staring at our phone screens, distracting us are suggestions of megasized-supertechnical-geo-engineering solutions, and even the concept of fleeing Earth for another planet. Although it might be comforting to believe we can suck all the CO2 out of the atmosphere with giant machines and launch vast reflective mirrors into orbit, there will be no silver bullets to this predicament. We already have all the answers and solutions we need, we need only embrace them.
It’s a trap believing we don’t need to change, because someone else will fix it for us. The realisation is hard to face – it’s us, the citizen, who has the ability and therefore the responsibility to do what we can to progress.
To do this, we, as a people, must pile on the pressure to every person in every position of power, that this is the defining issue of our time. Leaders can change, but first society must change, from household to household and community to community. If it is clear that the people want the transition to clean energy, that we want clean air, clean water, and a world where our children can visit the places they see on screens, then we will see change.
Ask for regulations on carbon emissions. Demand the removal of subsidies for fossil fuels. Support better and cheaper public transport and safe cycling. Demand better flood defences. Grow and protect trees and other plants. Be aware of what you purchase and consume responsibly.
For generations now, us scientists have been displaying the truth through facts and figures, the results of our research. But when ideas are spread through the arts, inspired creativity has the ability to transcend all boundaries of language, culture, and politics.
The generation who are set to take over, our generation, have the chance to saturate all spheres of influence with their passions. On whatever path you take, support one another in our efforts, and do not give in to the temptation of isolationism in the face of adverse challenges arising with the changing climate.
This doesn’t have to be a chore or a sacrifice to us. We have before us a daunting and beautiful opportunity to work with each other across all parts of society, business, and cultures, to deliver solutions which will protect our environment: benefitting our personal, physical, and mental health, and indeed that of all humanity.