Forget the Rest — How Will the Climate Crisis Affect ME, a Man of Privilege?
I don’t like to brag, but life dealt me a pretty good hand. I can pay my rent and my grocery bills. I have the means to travel, to see friends, to eat out, to have a Netflix subscription. I have good health. I have a supportive family. I am only ever hungry or thirsty due to my own poor forward planning. Even writing these things makes me feel a tad uncomfortable, but it is important to see such things clearly — especially when it comes to the climate crisis.
Almost everyone I interact with is in a broadly relatable position to myself. This makes it easy to succumb to a dangerously myopic worldview, when in fact we are some of the most well-off people on the planet. I don’t quite make it into the richest 1%, but I’m certainly comfortably within the richest 2%, as are most of my friends, family and colleagues. The wealth gap is also significant. It’s no secret that the world is ripe with inequality and it is growing; but that’s not what this article is about. I am likely among those least vulnerable to climate change (a position which I believe carries with it a deep responsibility), but I am by no means immune. Breaking the illusion of invincibility could be critical to facing the future head-on.
The danger of ‘otherness’
Climate change is something that happens to other people. Right? It’s only recently that climate change has even been framed as a humanitarian problem at all; before that, the dominant image was polar bears perched on melting ice caps. In the last couple of years, that’s changed a little. Now people might think about floods in Bangladesh, or droughts across much of Africa. Yet, for most of us in the Western world, this view is still imbibed with a sense of ‘other’. Sure, we feel sad for those people, but they’re not us. Our collective empathy only takes us so far.
Is this idea of ‘otherness’ holding back action on climate change? Making it about us rather than them seems selfish, seeing as we are likely to experience far less suffering than most of the global population. But perhaps making it personal — properly personal — is what we need to get people to sit up and take notice. So this article is specifically about me, and how climate change is likely to affect me. And, by extension, it’s about you, too. Buckle up.
The lucky ones
I have recently finished reading The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. It’s about climate change projections, and begins: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” It doesn’t get any sunnier. I had been warned about this book, principally because it’s a one-way ticket to scientifically justified existential dread, but I actually found it extremely useful in contextualising what we can expect to happen over the next few decades. It’s like the difference between going into an exam knowing only that it’ll be difficult, as opposed to entering with some idea of what the questions will be. Context is useful.
The UK, where I live, is predicted to be among the countries least affected by climate change. Much of this is because our geography works in our favour. We are used to dramatic temperature fluctuations; we call them seasons. Our farms, our cities and our way of life can deal with hot summers and cold winters. Equatorial countries, and the living things that inhabit them, are the opposite: they are used to a much narrower band of natural variation, and so will be hit harder. We are also one of the world’s wealthiest nations, so can afford to chuck far more resources into protecting ourselves from climate change than most others. So we can sit back and relax, right?
The Changing Seasons
The Met Office Hadley Centre Climate Programme offers an unerringly detailed set of projections that give us an idea of what the UK will be faced with in the future. Their main conclusion is that we will experience “hotter, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters”. This doesn’t sound so catastrophic at first — until we start examining it in detail.
Milder winters could help with our central heating bills, but they bring a cohort of problems too. Intensified winter rainfall is likely to increase the frequency of flooding across much of the UK. The government-funded Environment Agency (EA), hardly the most alarmist organisation out there, says in no uncertain terms that “intense bouts of flooding are set to become more frequent” — and in fact this trend has already begun. To exacerbate this, England’s floodplains have seen massive property development in recent years, and now 5 million homes in England alone are at risk of flooding. This is no triviality. Ever-increasing loss of life, livelihood and property is anticipated without dramatic preparations. Sewers will flood and overflow, transport links will be severed. The London Underground, which I currently use regularly, has reported that eighty-five of its sites are vulnerable to flooding, including major stations like King’s Cross. If climate change-induced floods haven’t already affected you or people you know, they soon will.
And then, once winter is over, here comes the sun. I remember the heat wave of 2018. It was when I first moved to London after returning from travelling through the north-eastern United States (where it was also unseasonably warm). Hoping to find some green space I visited Wimbledon Common, and found it yellow and parched. Aside from my woodland ramble not being what I’d hoped for, the heat wave also caused widespread drought, crop failures and wildfires. All these disasters are set to become stronger and more frequent.
On top of all that, there’s also fresh water to think about. We take water for granted here in the rainy UK, but chances are that attitude will change within the next couple of decades. The Environment Agency — which, let’s remember, has traditionally been conservatively minded — says that England will be facing water shortages within 25 years. That’s pretty soon. I won’t even be fifty by then.
Sea Level Rise: So Long, East Anglia
A new map by Climate Central predicts that, well before I reach retirement age, a mighty chunk of the east of England will be underwater. This includes the house where I grew up, and where my parents still live — which, incidentally, is currently a 2-hour drive from the coast. It also includes both my primary school and secondary school, the nature reserve where we walk the dogs, and virtually everything else familiar from my childhood. The Environment Agency gives a slightly less drastic outlook (albeit buried in technical jargon), but an EA-produced map I saw at a recent climate conference looked disconcertingly similar to the Climate Central projections. That map has not been released to the public.
As a little thought experiment aside from these sentimental musings, what could this actually mean? When the sea does begin its inland creep in earnest, presumably house prices in the area will plummet, insurance premiums will escalate, and ultimately many inhabitants of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire could be left homeless and penniless. How would the UK react to a domestically sourced migrant crisis?
We are not an island
Although the UK is adopting an increasingly isolationist attitude, we continue to live in a globalised world. We will all feel the effects of dramatic climate change on other countries in some form, not just through news articles.
Let’s begin with the shopping list. Chocolate could be gone by 2050. Coffee could become much scarcer and taste worse too. There could even be a global beer shortage, bad news for the UK’s beloved pubs. Then there’s the people to think about, even though many might prefer not to. We can expect millions upon millions of climate refugees globally, and seeing as the UK is likely to suffer so much less from climate change than most countries, many will inevitably seek our shores. How will we respond to this? Build barricades, or share our already strained resources? Either path will bring division and struggle.
And then, of course, we have friends and family around the world. For instance, many of us know people directly affected by the catastrophic Australia fires. I certainly do, and it affects me too, on a more personal level than any news report ever could. What proportion of your Facebook friends do you think will be forced from their homes in the next twenty years?
There’s plenty to think about here, but what is the point in all these prophecies of doom? I believe they’re useful for two broad reasons. Firstly, it means that climate change is no longer at arm’s length. It’s here with us and here to stay, and hopefully that will finally make us pay attention. Secondly, it lets us prepare — not only by building flood defences, breeding drought resistant crops, or revising our insurance policies, but by thinking seriously about how we plan to respond as a society. Climate change will divide us more than ever before into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Will we jealously guard our resources, or will climate change be the catalyst we need to confront inequality once and for all? That, of course, depends on us. Time to prepare.