Dear Climate Change,
I am so sorry.
It has been far too long again and you really deserve better. You are patient and kind and I continually let you down. Do please excuse me, it’s just that – yes, busy. I’m never totally sure what we’re all so busy doing, but too busy, alas, for the things in life that really matter.
I’ve really missed you over these last few weeks. There was a general election here and you were painfully conspicuous by your absence. I know it’s not your fault, and the UK may not be so very important to your fate, but I kept wondering what it would take for somebody to do you the courtesy to just mention your name once in a while. Whenever did you become an open secret? Fear not, the situation might yet improve. On the one hand the blue team won, so there is no red or green in the picture which doesn’t bode well for you, but on the other hand Amber is in charge- so let’s wait.
And I need you to know that I felt very close to you in India (I’m sorry about the flight, but my in-laws do like to see their grandson). It’s so easy to forget you have a global personality. We all need reminding, oh, every two days or so, that we will never deal with you properly unless we can bring the developing countries on board. And my, how they are developing, galloping even, with 7.5% annual growth in India.
But to be honest that’s why I fear for you. On this visit I was shocked by various things, not least how they often fail to manage their waste in big cities, which gathers noxiously in urban pockets, perused by ambling cows before being unceremoniously burnt, releasing who knows what into the air we breathe. And - perhaps worse - there were headlines in the national papers about some of your closest, biggest and longstanding friends, Greenpeace. The press made them sound like terrorists and saboteurs (they will destroy Indian tea it seems) who had no business meddling in Government business – like they were, I don’t know, Scottish or something. My impression is that the Modi government is rather fond of the country’s coal as one of the main engines of their spectacular development. He clearly wishes his 1.2 billion people to think of him as a nature-loving environmental hero, but I do wonder if he’s capable of walking the talk. Just as well China and USA are moving in the right direction, and we all have Paris to look forward to, where balloons and cake await you.
Back in London our report, The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change came out, or at least went online. I hope you don’t mind being seven. I felt you needed that multiplicity to bring out your most intriguing qualities. Trinny and Suzzana would approve, I think. You never suited green, and you outgrew those environmental labels when you were still a teenager.
Shortly afterwards I chaired an event with seven climate change leaders including two of the high priests in the UK: Professors Nick Stern and Chris Rapley. It was great to have such breadth and depth of perspective and I’m sure that’s the way we need to go, but people are rightly impatient about what they should do with you, and you don’t make it easy (a Josh Ritter song comes to mind).
Perhaps that will change now the Guardian are your friend. I’m very impressed with this Rusbridger fellow, choosing to make you- yes you!- his legacy project. Their tag line is “keep it in the ground”, where ‘it’ is fossil fuel’. I would like to think he got this idea from A New Agenda on Climate Change but I risk flattering myself – forgive me.
Oh, important. That consistently insightful Professor I mentioned in my last letter, Mike Hulme, wrote a challenging piece suggesting divestment is not the way forward! Who would want people to continue to invest in weapons against you? His argument stems from decades considering climate action and inaction and contains many subtleties, but on this occasion I feel he has over-finessed. He’s right that we shouldn’t place all our hopes for you in divestment, that it’s a short-term campaigning strategy not a long-term policy, and perhaps it does divert some attention from other approaches that may help you. But I feel he underestimates its enormous value in focussing minds, and keeping climate change – a uniquely fissiparous and evasive problem – salient in the public mind.
Almost done now. I spoke at a gathering called TechRaking, sponsored by Google and organised by a media thinktank from California. These people really wanted to help others to reach you and they are fighting the good fight to get there. My take home message for them was that we need to shift from thinking of climate change as part of the plot towards seeing it as part of the setting. People instinctively think of you as a problem that will go away and then try to make a story out of that, but you are part of us now – part of the family, bless, and you’re here to stay – so the need to attend to you should be a given in all our best stories and best policies.
Finally, to keep you hopeful I saved the best until last.
John Ashton's speech at the 4th European Energy Forum in Paris on March 13 is an open letter to the Global CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, Ben van Beurden and it’s superlative. It amounts to character analysis of your main enemy- the fossil fuel industry - and you can sense the deep and broad substantive understanding of how political and economic realities shape energy options. It is delivered in a characteristically diplomatic way (John Ashton was Special Representative for Climate Change for the UK government between 2006-2012) but I don't mean neutral or punch-pulling. By diplomatic I mean the letter is framed with a full recognition that 'the other side' has interests, perspectives, needs and constraints that need to be acknowledged before indicating where their broader and truer interests might lie. At a prose/dramatic level, there are traces of Kafka's Letter to my Father, and intimations of that moment in another planetary crisis - the cold war – where the Soviets were called upon to deny having missiles in Cuba in front of the UN General Assembly, just before pictures of the missiles are shown. I went looking for the film version of that in Thirteen Days to show you, but by goodness, here is a clip of the real thing from 1962.
There is hope, so chin up. Until I can write again, I need you to stay strong for us, and keep things in perspective. The world is beginning to know you are there, and many are learning to love you.
Yours with due warmth,
People are making the obvious comparison between the pandemic and the world’s biggest crisis – climate change. But how we make that link will shape our response.