Welcome to the web version of Need to Know: Science and Insight, a newsletter on what we all need to know about climate impacts, energy transitions, the decline of nature’s support systems, living safely during a pandemic. It comes with a personal story and some useful ideas, all in 10 to 12 minute read in your inbox once or twice a week.
Yes, I will explain the term ‘coconutarianism’ but in the context of climate change, our hunger for explanations and how the pandemic has a silver lining that might help us get on track. But first a true story about a Russian drinking in a bar.
How I met a Russian climate challenge
So I'm in this grotty little bar in Warsaw, Poland talking to this Russian journalist I'd just met. "This global warming is just too complicated for people to know if it’s real or not," Yuri (not his real name) shouted over the Saturday night roar of voices.
"You don't think climate change is happening?" I asked quite surprised since we were both in Warsaw to cover the annual United Nations climate change treaty negotiations.
"No one has been able to give me a good explanation to prove its real," Yuri said shrugging his shoulders, not wanting to marked as a climate-denying troll amongst thousands of climate activists.
I took a long sip of my beer and said: "It's actually very simple. I can explain it to you in one minute."
At first he thought I was joking and when I repeated "in one minute" I got the journalist's 'go ahead, try and convince me' look.
"150 years ago scientists proved that CO2 traps heat from the sun. And that's been confirmed over and over. It's as solid as our knowledge that the Earth is round. We also know without a doubt that burning fossil fuels emits CO2.
Measurements, not models or theories, measurements show that there is now 42% more CO2 in the atmosphere than 150 years ago -- before massive use of fossil fuels.
That's 42% more heat-trapping CO2 in the atmosphere today. It would be beyond astonishing if that did not heat up the planet and screw up our climate.
Yuri, who'd been watching me closely, shifted his gaze to look out the window onto a bustling Nowy Swiat street. Finally he said: "I guess that makes sense...No one's ever explained it that way," he said trying to be polite I suspect.
I doubt Yuri changed his views that night but hoped maybe it gave him something to think about...
Here’s my Climate Change Explained in 165 Words graphic based on that story. Feel free to copy and share.
Belief and the last Coconutarian
The fundamental basis of climate change is easy enough understand but it can be difficult for some people to believe it’s happening or how serious the threat it poses. Belief can be far more powerful than understanding or knowledge or evidence. Accepting this in families and friends can be a difficult need-to-know.
In the 1920’s an assistant pharmacist named August Englehardt living in Bavaria championed a nature-based lifestyle beyond vegetarianism and veganism. Englehardt believed for various reasons that people should live solely on what he considered the most sacred of plants: the coconut. This lifestyle didn’t work out too well as Setfano Mancuso documents in his delightful book “The Incredible Journey of Plants”.
Living completely off coconuts in Bavaria was a non-starter, so Englehardt bought and moved to a coconut plantation on an island in what is part of Papua New Guinea today. Energetically promoting his ideas and providing free passage from Germany to the island, Englehardt soon had a small colony of coconutarians. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before the colonists started dying of malnutrition and infections. Alone, Englehardt persisted in his belief until he too succumbed to malnutrition.
Englehardt’s colonists were never more than 30 people. And, given a free trip to the tropics away from Germany’s often dreary weather, proves that a large majority of people don’t believe everything they hear. Of course, unlike today, in the 1920s only a few people would have been exposed to coconutarian beliefs.
Hunger for convenient and comfortable explanations
“Why?” is my three-year-old granddaughter’s favourite word. Mine too. As humans we’re always seeking explanations for what’s happening around us. Why things are the way there are? Why our life is the way it is? Sometimes we figure it out on our own but more often we accept someone else’s convenient and comfortable explanation. This is especially true when our lives feel chaotic and out of our control.
"We have never been as fragile as we are, we never needed as much humility, unity and solidarity as now," said UN chief Antonio Guterres the other day reflecting on the situation humanity finds itself in.
World powers must pull together and retool their economies for a green future or humanity is "doomed" Guterres said in an interview with members of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of journalists and news outlets committed to increased climate coverage. (FYI I’m a member)
“Doomed” is an unfortunate word choice by the Secretary-General. There’s a growing number of people who are climate doomers, who believe it’s too late to stop catastrophic climate change so why bother doing anything. And yet in the first few months of the pandemic global CO2 emissions declined substantially with various sector shut downs. That decline was more than what the pathway to 1.5C required. (Global temperature rise of no more than 1.5C is what all countries have agreed to aim for.)
A year ago few people would have thought this possible, never mind actually happen.
Since lock-downs have largely ended, emissions have increased. By year’s end global emissions will likely be only a little less than 2019, and well off the pathway to 1.5C. However a need-to-know from this unprecedented year is that we now have concrete evidence carbon emissions can be drastically cut if we choose to do it.
That choice needs to be retooling economies for a green future rather than slipping into a global economic collapse.
We’ve long known about the need to cut carbon emissions. In the interview Guterres recited for the umpteenth time what rich countries that emit more than 70% of world’s carbon need to do:
pollution and not people should be taxed
nations need to end fossil fuel subsidies,
launch massive investments in renewables
commit to carbon neutrality -- net zero emissions -- by 2050
‘Business as usual is not an option’ is a phase I’ve heard and cited too many times in the last two decades. Now we’ve experienced it for the first time. It wasn’t/isn’t a great experience but we can learn much from it. And now that we’re experienced it, believing huge reductions in carbon emissions can be made, and made quickly, is easier than ever before.
Belief works best when it’s in partnership with evidence. It may take time, sometimes quite long, before evidence reveals a belief to be false or inappropriate given the circumstances. Englehardt ignored the ample evidence of his own eyes that living off coconuts was unhealthy. It’s equally evident our modern civilization is also unhealthy for the planet that sustains us. And since that means our current ways of living are unhealthy for us, a non-coconutarian would shift to a healthier diet. I don’t want things to go back to normal. Neither does the head of the UN:
"I don't want to go back to a world where biodiversity is being put into question, to a world where fossil fuels receive more subsidies than renewables, or to a world in which we see inequalities making societies with less and less cohesion and creating instability, creating anger, creating frustration,” Guterres said.
"I think we need to have a different world, a different normal and we have an opportunity to do so.”
What can we do to help bring about these changes?
For starters let’s stop giving coconutarians leadership positions in business and in government. There’s a surprising number who have very unhealthy beliefs and strenuously ignore or deny any evidence that challenges those beliefs.
That’s last need-to-know for this issue. Until next time, stay safe.