Returning [again]

The Yarra River at Collingwood

The Yarra River at Collingwood

As part of the Weather Stations project, in September and October of 2014, I visited the cities of Berlin, Dublin, London, Warsaw, Gdansk and Hel, working with school and community groups. I learned a great deal. Some of the knowledge I came away with surprised me. It was most common for people to tell me, ‘of course, you have it much worse out there,’ (climate change); a reflection on the issue as a visible catastrophe. Everybody knew about the experience of bush fires in Australia (which we are again experiencing), drought, and the damage to the Great Barrier Reef, reflecting an understandable but severely limited engagement with the issue.

Historically speaking, bush fires in Australia have little to do with climate change and have been, and are, a natural environmental phenomenon. Certainly, with the planet getting warmer (and 2014 may be the warmest year on record), fires will occur with both greater frequency and ferocity. And while some in Australia accept the link between climate change and the increase in bush fire activity, at a psychological and intellectual level we respond to fire as a disaster to be fought, conquered and overcome – even in grief. Even when the immediate disaster is associated with the broader issue, the language used to describe our response is couched in militaristic language. We battle and defeat the enemy. Confronted by widespread flood, caused as much or more by irresponsible urban planning than changes in weather patterns, we are Queenslanders, as if the heroic label somehow grants special status to a group of people hardy enough to defeat all – until the next flood visits.

The negative impacts of climate change on the environment do not manifest themselves in sudden bursts of meteorological activity alone. Climate change is not simply a recent phenomenon or future event. Its impact is both gradual and profound. The effects of climate change on the planet should not be reduced to a sound bite or dramatic image, such as the devastation caused by a bush fire. Remembering back to the catastrophic Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009, the weather conditions leading up to the weekend of the fires were extreme. What most people do not know, or have forgotten, is that more people died in Victoria as a consequences of extreme heat before the fires than those who died in the fires themselves. Without doubt, the trauma and violence wreaked by the fires had an immediate and shocking impact on the lives of the people who experienced them. But, as most of us know little or nothing of the many hundreds of deaths that had nothing to do with the fires, but everything to do with the warming of the planet, we do not give enough thought to an issue that does not abate between fire seasons, being the impacts of climate change that are ever-present. While people in other parts of the globe watch images of fire in Australia on their TV screens and regard this country as a Global Warming Horror Story, they, like us, will have their lives changed, not by shock and awe, but stealth. For instance, the Arctic Circle is melting – melting too slowly to produce a 30 second YouTube clip of any consequence, but changing the planet in a way we have not known for thousands of years.

Yesterday I again walked the banks of my river – the Yarra, in Melbourne. I have written about the river several times now for the Weather Stations project; I have behaved as provincially, ‘non’ global, and perhaps small-minded as I can get. I’m not sure why as yet, but I think my understanding of the issue of climate change has to be found here, on the river. I’m reading as much as I can about the politics and science of climate change. I speak to as many people as I can about the issue. I came to this project as a writer and teacher. And yet, increasingly I have become interested in not the power of language, but its limitations. The planet is more powerful than any words or narrative that humans ascribe to it.

As I was about to leave the river yesterday, I walked by a favourite bend. At a particular moment, lasting no more than a second or two, I could smell the river the way I did over forty years ago. I could feel the memory of the river in my body. It was as much a physical as a psychological reaction. My next thought was that there were no words, not a single one available to me to describe the feeling.

I was content with that feeling.

Tony Birch

 

Late Summer Afternoon – Lukas Hoffman, Sophie-Scholl-Schule

Berlin, 20 September 2014

Berlin, 20 September 2014

LATE SUMMER AFTERNOON

I look up.
The ocean that we call sky is clear.
The burning light of the sun hurts my eyes.
Instinctively I turn my head in another direction.
What I see is the reflecting after-glow on the other side of the big mirror.
My brain tells me it’s a good day,
but it’s been a cold day.
The sun wants to tell me something,
now that I have been thinking about her.
But she doesn’t like what I have been thinking,
so she goes and her place takes a red and orange cloud.
This beautiful blue ocean turned into a dark unclear cover.
All that happened within a few minutes.

Lukas Hoffman, Sophie-Scholl-Schule, Berlin

Weather Report – on leaving Melbourne for Europe

031430

The skies over the city are clear this morning. But I’m not fooled, and, sadly, I’m predicting stormy weather ahead. Despite the fact that Australia’s highly respected national science body, the CSIRO, crunched the numbers (again) last week, and concluded that the effects of climate change that we are living with now are largely ‘man-made’ – coming in at conclusive 99% probability – and that these changes are having a major and negative impact on our life and the environment now, the climate sceptics and economic opportunists (those with a selective fishbowl mentality) hold sway with the Commonwealth government. With the abolition of the carbon tax, the country has no serious emissions trading scheme. The federal government is also threatening to withdraw support to companies and consumers wishing to meet Renewable Energy Targets. We continue to invest in, and rely on dirty energy sources such as brown coal. In most cities across Australia, the public transport system is either an antiquated shambles, or the reinvestments are again in dirty energy sources such as diesel. And yet we are spending billions of dollars burrowing under cities – a tunnel here, a tunnel there – in an effort to get out of a traffic jam. What we’re really doing is simply putting the roadblock underground. I’m not sure who this helps and how? But maybe it’s a bit like sticking your head in the sand when faced with the obvious?

The say it will be a cool night tonight, followed by a ‘perfect day’ tomorrow. Can you believe that? I’m not so sure. I’ll leave you with an image of our top weatherman and see you in Europe. Australia’s chief forecaster doesn’t have a spinning bow-tie. But he’s a showman and a half when it comes to shifting our focus to entertainment.

A Man For All Seasons - particularly the hot ones.

A Man For All Seasons – particularly the hot ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tony Birch

The Irish Don’t Wear Anoraks

He walked into the lobby of the Dublin hotel like it was a saloon in the Wild West. His eyes, the grey of an Irish sky, swept the room. There were nearly a dozen people in the large, sculpted concrete lobby, but his gaze immediately settled on a woman with short brown hair, the square-shouldered, narrow figure of a swimmer and the face of someone who lived a healthy outdoors lifestyle, but who didn’t tan well. She was dressed in jeans and a blood-red waterproof jacket.

The man nodded to himself and walked over, casting a glare around in a manner which suggested that, at any moment, someone might ask him to step outside for a gunfight, and he was born ready for it, goddammit. He was tall, with a powerful build, tight cut dark hair and a handlebar moustache attached to a broad, chiselled face. His left eye sported a mottled purple bruise that spread over the side of his face. There was an unlit cigar gripped between his teeth. He was wearing cowboy boots, jeans and a black Cordura jacket, the type bikers wore, with the armour sections for protecting your spine, elbows and shoulders.

‘Doctor Mayer?’ he asked the woman in a flat Dublin drawl.

‘Yes. I’m Hilde, hello,’ she said, picking up her laptop case and smiling as she stood up to shake his hand.

Her English was fluent, with the clipped consonants of a faint German accent. His grip on her hand was overly firm, but felt like it could go a lot firmer. He took his cigar from his mouth.

‘Jack Brennan,’ he replied. ‘Met Éireann.’

He declared the name of the country’s national weather service as if it was the Royal Marines or the Navy Seals. Perhaps it was to be expected, given what she’d heard about Met Éireann, but she was still somewhat taken aback. Meteorology attracted a few gung-ho types, but they normally found their way to the US to chase tornadoes or flew airplanes into hurricanes or sought out other forms of freakishly violent weather. Ireland’s weather had grown more turbulent over the last few decades, but Met Éireann’s reputation as a nest of adrenaline junkies had always mystified her.

‘Do you mind me asking . . . were you mugged?’ she asked, gesturing to his black eye.

‘Ha, no! Just caught flat-footed!’ he laughed. ‘I was in the cage . . . y’ know, UFC? Mixed martial arts? I was sparrin’ last night and got smacked with a bleedin’ good one.

‘Oh,’ Hilde said quietly. ‘It looks like it hurts.’

‘Stings like holy Jaysus when I touch it,’ Jack said, grinning around the cigar as he led her towards the door. ‘Anyway, I’m your lift to HQ. Hope you like bikes!’

He wasn’t kidding.  Anorak-3-HarleyIt was a big Harley, black and chrome and wide as a horse, parked diagonally to take up a full parking space. Jack swung his leg over it and kick-started the engine, which coughed out a deep, guttural growl. He pulled on an open face helmet – worn, apparently, so he could smoke his cigar as he rode, for he’d lit up as soon as they walked out the door of the hotel. Donning a pair of shades, he handed her a full face helmet, an expression in his eyes that suggested this would be a telling moment. She hesitated for just a moment, than accepted it, putting down her laptop case so that she could use both hands to put the bulky helmet on.

‘I didn’t recognize you there,’ he said as Hilde did the clasp on the helmet strap and then slung her case over her shoulder. ‘The picture we have of you showed you with long hair and glasses an’ all, y’know? If it wasn’t for the anorak, I’d have walked right past you.’

‘The anorak?’ she asked.

‘The waterproof jacket,’ he barked over the revving engine as they took off across the car park. ‘You were the only one in the lobby who looked like a tourist. The Irish don’t wear anoraks.’

She glanced down reflexively at her red jacket.

‘But it rains here all the time!’ she shouted over his shoulder, leaning with him as he swung round a corner.

‘Exactly!’ he called back.

They hardly spoke for most of the ride, because of the noise. The cigar smoke in her face smudged out the traffic fumes they rolled through. Jack drove a bit too fast, but he handled the bike well. If he expected her to be unnerved, he’d be disappointed. Hilde had owned a bike when she was in college. It was an old Honda, nothing close to the size of this beast, but she was quite comfortable as a pillion passenger, though there were some white-knuckle moments as Jack negotiated the chaotic Dublin traffic. The ground was wet from rain and Hilde’s expert eye read the cumulus clouds developing into cumulonimbus and knew there was more rain to come. She wondered what Jack had meant when he said the Irish didn’t wear anoraks.

‘The river’s flooded the quays again,’ Jack informed her, swerving round an SUV. ‘It’s causin’ havoc in town. I’ll have to swing round a different way.’

Hilde’s hands tightened around his waist as he gunned the engine and they roared down a side street, the gravelly engine echoing off the buildings either side of them. Hilde’s boss back in Deutscher Wetterdienst – Germany’s national meteorological service – had told her that a stint with Met Éireann would do good things for her career. It was said that if you could work there, you could work anywhere. She still didn’t understand why that should be. Ireland was defined by a climate that was milder than almost anywhere else in Europe. It wasn’t like they suffered many extreme heat-waves or freezing winters, though the instances of both of these had increased over the years. What was it about this place that made her colleagues regard it with such awe?

Anorak-1-BuildingThe building that housed Met Éireann’s headquarters was located in Glasnevin, an area of north Dublin. It was a striking structure, unlike any other Hilde had seen in the city, its bunker-like, sloping sides and the array of dishes on the roof giving it an appearance that was a cross between something from East Berlin and something from the film, Blade Runner. Jack swooped into the car park, and once again took up a full space with his bike, parking next to a mousy-haired man with ginger goatee and a sinewy, freckled face who stood leaning back against the side of a dark blue Subaru WRX that jutted with fins and air intakes.

‘Baz, me ol’ flower!’ Jack greeted him as he killed the Harley’s engine. ‘Yer back! And with a new motor. That the STI, yeah?’

‘Yeah, picked it up just before I headed off to Germany,’ Baz said, gripping Jack’s outstretched hand. He had a somewhat reedy Cork accent and an intense manner. ‘Took this monster out to the Nürburgring while I was in Cologne. Feckin’ belted around it, so I did! Nearly three hundred and fifty brake-horsepower under that hood, boy. Goes like shit off a shovel! Stiff old chassis on her though. Great for the autobahn, but you’ll bruise yer arse if you run into any potholes on the smaller routes.’ He gestured to Hilde. ‘Who’s this now?’

‘Speakin’ of Germany . . .’ Jack took the cigar from his mouth and made a mock bow, ‘this is Doctor Hilde Mayer, visiting us from Deutscher Wetterdienst. We can call her Hilde, she says. Hilde, this is Doctor Barry McGovern, works with me in GAnorak-5-Subarueneral Forecasting – on the front line. Hilde will be joinin’ the Marine Unit. She’s hopin’ to get some divin’ in while she’s here. Maybe you could show her some good spots.’

Hilde glanced at Jack. She hadn’t mentioned she was a diver, but her PADI qualifications were on her CV. Was this guy trying to put her on the spot? Was this another challenge? Good God, she’d only made it as far as the car park . . .

‘That’s grand,’ Baz said, shaking Hilde’s hand. ‘I know a couple of places you’ve a good chance of seeing whale sharks. Glad to have you aboard.’

But Hilde saw it again, the same note of challenge that she’d picked up off Jack. They were welcoming enough, but they wanted to see how she’d do.

‘Germany – you’ve got the continental climate,’ Jack commented. ‘You’ve got seasons, right?’

‘Of course,’ Hilde replied.

‘Must be nice,’ Jack sniffed.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Oh Jesus, I nearly forgot!’ Baz exclaimed. He opened the door of his car and took out a bottle of whiskey and some glasses, putting the glasses on the roof of the car.

‘What’s goin’ on?’ Jack asked.

Just as he posed the question, a woman came speeding in on a bicycle, a high-performance racing bike, of course, thought Hilde. The woman pulled up, breathing hard. She was dark-skinned, probably of Asian descent, a long Roman nose among otherwise delicate features. She had a fierce, but excited look in her deep brown eyes. She looked formidably fit, dressed in skin-tight cycling shorts and top and wearing a streamlined helmet that she unclipped and yanked off as she waved to them.

‘Am I in time?’ she asked, standing her bike by bracing a pedal on the kerb.

‘Barely,’ Baz snorted. ‘What took you?’

‘Feck off,’ she snapped back. She started doing some leg stretches . ‘I just did thirty-two kay and I’ll be doing the same home again. Like I do every day, petrol-head. Some of us don’t want to sit on our arses in traffic, breathing fumes for half our lives.’

She looked over at Hilde.

‘What’s with the anorak?’

‘She’s German,’ Jack told her.

‘Oh.’

‘Doctor Hilde Mayer. Deutscher Wetterdienst,’ Jack said. ‘Call her Hilde. Hilde, this is Doctor Suria O’Neill. Climatology and Observations. Hilde’s joining Marine.’

‘Well, haven’t you come on the right morning?’ Suria cackled to Hilde.

‘Is someone gonna tell me what’s goin’ on?’ Jack demanded.

Therapy Tom’s on his way in,’ Suria said, her face child-like in its delight.

‘Shit, you’re kidding! Is it that time already?’

‘Therapy Tom?’ Hilde asked.

Baz was pouring whiskey into each of the four glasses.

‘Perpetual stress case,’ Jack replied as he accepted a glass. ‘He’s been on the job over ten years, but he has a breakdown two or three times a year. Can’t hack it – pressure’s too much for him. He’s been out for three months after the last one. Last few times, he hardly made it back into the building before he had his next panic attack.’

‘That’s horrible,’ Hilde gasped.

‘Terrible, yeah,’ Baz said. ‘Anyway, whenever he comes back now, we place bets on how far into the building he gets before he does a runner. However far that is, we’ll toast him for his effort. Take a glass.’

‘I . . . I can’t,’ Hilde blurted out, shocked at what was happening.

‘You have to do the toast,’ Suria insisted. ‘You’d only be disrespecting him otherwise. He keeps coming back. We have to salute that.’

‘Here he comes!’ Jack announced, pointing to a silver Toyota Avensis that was rolling into the car park. ‘Twenty quid says he doesn’t get out of the car!’

‘I’ll back him making it as far as the door,’ Suria said. ‘One hand on the handle.’

‘Opening the door?’ Baz pressed her.

‘No, I don’t think so,’ she responded, her hard eyes on the subject of their bets as if she was judging the form on a racehorse. ‘No, just putting the hand on the handle, I think.’

‘Have some bloody faith, people!’ Baz exclaimed. ‘Three months he’s been gone. Plenty of time to get those nerves sorted. A fortune spent on the shrink. Look at him gettin’ out there. Sure, his hands are hardly shakin’ at all. Have you ever seen a sheen of sweat like that on a more noble brow? I’ll see him through the door, but not up the stairs and I’ll be right – you watch now!’

Tom had the door of the car open now, and was rubbing his face.

‘That’s as far as he’s goin’ to get,’ Jack assured them, still confident he could win. ‘Look at those eyes. If he stared any harder he could cut glass.’

Tom’s arrival had been spotted by others in the Met Éireann HQ and windows were opening in the sloping sides of the slab of a building. There were cheers and shouts of encouragement to Therapy Tom as money changed hands. He had the car of his door open and lifted his right hand in a hesitant wave. Stepping out, he stood up and slammed the door shut with a resolute motion, as if his decision was made.

‘Ah, shite,’ Jack sighed, grimacing.

‘Good on you, Tom!’ Suria bellowed. ‘Great to have you back, man! How’re you feeling?’

‘Great! I’m feeling great!’ Tom called over to her as he made his way across the tarmac surface towards the door. ‘It’s . . . it’s great to be back.’

‘Great!’ Jack smirked.

‘Keep going, baby, you can do it!’ Suria egged him on.

‘Go on ya good thing, ya!’ Baz yelled.

Tom waved again, then lifted his hand to the people shouting from the building above. The level of noise rose as he got closer to the door. His pace slowed and the crowd, sensing the climax was close, roared in support. Hilde watched in horrified fascination as Tom made it the last few steps and reached out and . . . stopped.

‘Go on, Tom!’ Suria cried out. ‘You can do it! Take the handle, Tom! Grab it, man!’

He paused there, as if frozen for a few seconds, the emotional turmoil visible on his face, sweat running down from his hairline and dripping from his chin. Then a look of sheer terror came over him and he spun round and bolted back towards his car.

‘Ah Jesus, Tom!’ Suria gasped in exasperation.

The Toyota’s engine over-revved and Tom backed out of the space with screeching tyres. As he took off out of the car park, everyone waved goodbye.

Baz held up his glass of whiskey.

‘To Tom,’ he said.

They all drank and even Hilde drank with them, disturbed by what she’d seen.

‘I don’t understand,’ she said softly. ‘What did that to him?’

Jack’s smile faded into a more tender expression and he put his empty glass down on the roof of the car. Baz poured another measure.

‘You’re thinking how can things here be so mad, right?’ Jack asked. ‘I mean, it’s Ireland, yeah? It’s not like we get the really nutty weather here is it? No hurricanes or tornadoes. No tidal waves or serious drought. But we’ve been hit hard by climate change here. The floods have been especially bad, destroying businesses and crops. The economy’s taken some serious hits. The country’s broke. Every time we have to deal with something new, we haven’t got the resources to cope with it. Sure, our weather’s less violent compared to other places, but it’s so changeable, it’s hard to prepare for the extremes of weather we do get. A bit of a heat-wave and we have water shortages and our old and weak start dying of heatstroke. A bit of snow and the whole bloody country grinds to a halt and our old and weak start freezing. And that’s true in a lot of places, but it’s worse here ‘cos of our particular bloody weather.’Anorak-6-Sea

‘You were wondering why the Irish don’t wear waterproofs, anoraks,’ Jack said. ‘Because we do get loads of rain. But it’s not how much we get, it’s that we can get rain at any time. So if we were to dress for the weather, we’d have to wear anoraks every day and who wants to do that, right? And we’d also have to dress for the cold. And the really humid type of heat we get. But it’s the same for the bigger picture. We’re perpetually dealing with change and the floods are hitting us hardest. We don’t actually get much more rain than we used to, we just get it in more torrential downpours than before. And the combination of rainfall and rising sea levels is overwhelming our cities and our farms.’

‘We hardly have seasons any more,’ Suria added. ‘The weather’s just getting more and more chaotic and it makes it hard for anyone to do the kind of planning that helps us cope with flooding and other disasters. It’s all too little, too late. And because past floods have already cost us so much, we don’t have the money any more to deal with the disasters that are becoming more common. A lot of people can’t get their homes insured any more. A single flood can leave them homeless, financially ruined. So now everyone really pays attention to the weather forecast, because the country’s so overstretched, we’re constantly walking that edge of disaster and even something small can tip us over.’

‘We have a saying in Ireland: “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute”.’ Baz continued. ‘Our job is to try and make sense of the chaos, to predict the tiniest changes in the weather that could trigger calamity further down the line. And here, for us, those changes are so small, so variable, it could drive you nuts. It’s like trying to nail down a flea with a needle. We stare at those satellite pictures, the reports and computer models like we’re bloody air traffic controllers working in a blizzard. If we misjudge our predictions by a few degrees here, or a few centimetres of rain there, lives could be wrecked.

‘The longer the world keeps heating up, the more extreme our weather is getting, the more broke the country gets and the fewer resources we have to deal with it, the more vulnerable we become to the weather. It’s a vicious circle. And when our people are trying to plan how best to use what little we have left . . . they look to the weather forecast.’

‘And every time we get it wrong, we get crucified for it,’ Jack said. ‘That’s why we let off so much steam when we finish work. It’s why Tom’s forever in feckin’ therapy. But to be honest, we love it. How could you not? It’s a beautiful thing, to stare into the chaos and try to understand it. And we are really bloody good at it. So, Hilde . . . welcome to the Oul’ Sod.’

Baz had refilled their glasses and they each held them up as he gestured for a toast.

‘Here’s to the chaos!’ he said brightly.

‘Here’s to the chaos!’ they cried and then they drank.

The mood was more sombre as they all headed towards the door, but Hilde was struck by these strung out meteorologists and their intensity. She empathized with them more than she expected to. She turned to see that Jack was still standing in the car park, gazing up at the sky. The temperature had dropped slightly. There were those heavy, brooding cumulonimbus hanging over everything. He gave a faint smile, spread his arms out to the sides and lowered his eyes to meet hers.

‘Let it rain!’ he said gently.

And it did.

An Irrational Appeal to Your Power

There are times when, in order to succeed, we must suspend rational thought.

I say this in response to a word that has come up a lot with people I’ve talked to about climate change: ‘Powerless’. Now, this is not a Nike ad – I am not a lifestyle guru. But I need to explain why we should remove the word ‘powerless’ from any further discussion about climate change.

Okay, so we live within limits. For a start, even those of us living in democratic societies are not actually free to do whatever we want . . . and in truth, the vast majority of us wouldn’t want complete freedom and what comes with it. We are not free to live as we like because, as social creatures, we have chosen to accept responsibility by placing constraints on our behaviour. We live our lives according to sets of values and rules of escalating severity. Social skills, traditions, notions of respectability, maintenance of reputation, honour, the rule of law and ultimately, physical capability. We accept these restraints because they protect us from extremes of behaviour and channel our efforts into maintaining and improving society.

And our society, despite frequent claims to the contrary, is improving. Progress is, at times, excruciatingly slow and sometimes events occur that seem to pull us so far back that you think your heart would break with the injustice of it, but mankind is dragging itself forward. As a race, we should not allow ourselves to be deluded by nostalgia for a better time that never was.

Ask yourself where and at what point in history you would rather live. Pick a time when things were more just, more fair, more enlightened. A time when government was more democratic, when there was more equality, when you had a better chance in most countries of a fair trial, a decent meal, access to life-saving medical expertise or relatively painless dental treatment. The cost of this progress to our planet and many of its people has been almost unfathomable and we are still capable of horrific acts, but our tolerance of such things is far less than it used to be. Our awareness is greater than it has ever been before. Our empathy has a far wider reach. On the whole, our world is a better place (for humans at least) than it has ever been.

While the constraints our society places upon us may limit many of the things we could or would do, they also enable us to do far more together than we could do individually. Money TalksBut this structure has also resulted in our granting a great deal of importance to political, religious and business leaders and, in doing so, we have given them a large degree of influence over our lives.

We are prone to thinking in terms of those who have power, and those who have none. Given the way power is distributed, this is a very rational way to think. It is easy to believe that those in ‘authority’ make all the important decisions – and that those who have neither power nor money in abundance are excluded from those decisions. It is a very reasonable assumption to make.

As the other writers and I on the Weather Stations project seek out the knowledge, opinions and viewpoints of the experts, the word ‘powerless’ keeps arising in our conversations. Because this is seen as the greatest obstacle to making the changes that will help us overcome the challenges that face us as our climate transforms our world. It’s not the lack of power, but the inertia this belief instills.

Where our weather, our environment is concerned, most people believe themselves to be powerless. It is too big, too much to take, too overwhelming. Higher tides drown coastlines, storms uproot giant trees, dry heat triggers bush-fires and rain-swollen rivers flood farmland. And it would be a mistake to consider this attitude to be an ignorant position. Many of the people who know the hard facts of our situation, who have fought  for years against the causes of climate change, are oppressed by this belief. Powerless-1You know an environmental campaigner has descended into despair when they start looking to nuclear power in the hope of reducing the amount of carbon we’re spewing into our atmosphere.

Something else that kept coming up in our discussions was the idea of ‘being positive’. I think this very phrase is problematic. ‘Being positive’ can suggest that you’re merely looking on the bright side, putting a brave face on it . . . turning that frown upside-down. Those who have a good understanding of the facts, but have little hope, regard the phrase as a superficial attitude to a crippling problem. Many of those who have little comprehension of the facts, but feel even more powerless as a result, have even less regard for the notion.

As far as our response to our changing environment is concerned, ‘being positive’ is not a facile attitude. It’s the only one we can have. Either we take action to meet this challenge or we accept our fate. And given that we’re looking at events that will inevitably lead to mankind having less land to farm, less food and therefore experiencing more conflict; given that some pretty sober, intelligent and well informed people are now talking about the possible collapse of our civilization within the lifetimes of our children, then accepting our fate isn’t really an option, is it?

Any rational person would be right to feel overwhelmed by the scale of this problem . . . Which is why I need to make an argument against rational thought.

The progress of our society has, from the outset, been driven by people who defied reasonable expectations of failure. Humans have a proven history of attempting things that reason suggested could not succeed . . . and confounding this belief by succeeding.

This kind of irrational ambition is something I – along with almost every other professional artist – have a bit of experience in.

If you want to make a living as a writer in Ireland, statistics would suggest that you have more chance of winning the lottery. And if you want to devote your life to an art form, it takes a lot of time and effort to develop the skills you need – diverting you from investing in other careers that offer far more chance of success, and certainly security. PowerlessnessAnd yes, your chances of becoming a full-time writer are very slim . . . but the statistics are a bit misleading.

For a start, you have to count all the people who tried, but didn’t try hard enough; who failed to put in the work, or develop their technique, or their thought processes. All the people who didn’t try enough different approaches, who took too narrow a view. All the people who simply didn’t persist long enough. If you can crack all of that, you’ve substantially increased your odds, though there’s still a good deal of luck involved.

It is extraordinarily difficult to become a professional artist of any kind, but people still go for it all the time . . . and every now and then, someone actually makes it through. But nobody who took a completely rational view of it would ever try in the first place, because in terms of time, money and emotional trauma, the risks don’t make sense. And imagine a world without people who have the passion to defy those odds.

It is the very definition of truly historic achievement that some succeed where others think it impossible. Whether it’s in exploration, science or medicine, in sport or the arts, engineering or humanitarian work or social justice, ignoring good sense is part of what makes us what we are.

The apathy, this lack of belief that we can rise to the challenge of climate change, is not a fact, it is an attitude. And attitudes can be changed.

And I don’t accept that it’s just the powerful people who are in the position to take action. Even those who are driven by greed and self-preservation can, despite sometimes enormous power, be forced to change their path. They may be determined that we burn every last crumb of coal, or drop of oil or breath of gas (and there’s every chance we’ll do just that), but when you get right down to it, these people are small-minded giants who will go with the tide in order to follow the flow of money and protect their positions. Because tides do turn, and I have faith in these giants’ dedication to self-preservation.

Ireland has its fair share of corrupt, greedy and small-minded leaders – though like any country, we do have some people in power who look at the bigger picture too. And the writing of new laws to make change concrete has as much to do with what the majority of people will refuse to tolerate any longer, as it has with the demands of the powerful.

Let’s take a look at some of the fundamental changes that have happened in Ireland, just within my lifetime:

We no longer tolerate beating children in schools, or drink driving, or secondhand smoke. Religion has a steadily decreasing influence over our politics. Where the environment is concerned, we have made huge improvements to the levels of pollution in our rivers, around our coastline and in the quality of our air. Powerless-3-Black Banks Wind FarmWe dealt with the plastic bags that littered our country. We cut our use of CFCs because of the damage to the ozone layer. Solar power is becoming a practical option for home-owners (this in a country not known for its levels of sunlight) and we are setting standards for wind-power, with nearly 20% of our electricity now coming from wind, with occasional levels capable of supplying 50%. The target for 2020 is to be able to produce 40% of our electricity with wind farms.

All this in a country that, despite a lot of economic growth, is not wealthy by the standards of many of its neighbours. And each of these things has been achieved often because of changes in legislation, not because one person in power decided it was necessary, but because ordinary people who cared enough campaigned for it until attitudes changed, the public began demanding it and the law-makers judged the time was right and carried it through to the legislation that finally provided the tipping point.

Each time, because of a change in public attitudes, the new law became desirable, then necessary, then inevitable. We need to, we can, we will do the same to tackle the changes in our environment, because we have no real choice in the matter. This has to get done.

Even the world of business is coming round, with investors looking increasingly towards renewable sources of energy because fossil fuels are seen for what they are: a dead end. They are a resource we are completely certain will run out, while the alternatives are, effectively, limitless. The prices of oil, gas and coal have nowhere to go but up. It is absolutely clear to those who are crunching the long-term numbers that we have to end our reliance on these dwindling resources, because scarcity will lead to conflict, conflict makes for an unstable market and markets don’t like instability. It gets in the way of making money.

But beyond all of this, there is one utterly compelling and persuasive fact that makes me believe that we can meet the challenge of climate change, that we can reduce the damage we’re doing and adapt to the changes past damage has caused. There is a reason we should stop referring to ourselves as ‘powerless’, a reason we should have hope and be forthright and energetic in the action we take. A reason why we should promote a positive attitude among ordinary people, and even an expectation of success. And is it this:

Human beings are so powerful that we fundamentally changed the weather on our world . . . and we did it by accident.

Imagine what we could do if we actually put our minds to it.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Deep Down, Do I Really Care?’

 

You do have to ask yourself.

There’s no question that the issue of climate change is important . . . right? Everyone who knows anything about this stuff tells us it’s important. There are eminent, articulate scientists all over the world, going blue in the face trying to impress upon us just how cataclysmic the changes in our weather could be.

Yet, there’s still that question, that grotesque beast of a question, scratching at the undersides of the floorboards in your brain, grunting at you to let it out into the light. Yes, you’ve been informed. You’ve accepted the facts. You’ve been convinced. You’re a reasonable, rational human being who cares what happens to the world and the people who live in it. You have no doubt about it. But still, those claws keep scraping at the wood.

That question.

‘Deep down, do I really care?’

Because, let’s face it; if human beings were spurred into action by something as straightforward as facts, we’d have solved most of society’s problems a long time ago.

The changes that we have inflicted upon our world occupy many of society’s greatest minds, so you might think things are getting really desperate when the experts start looking to storytellers for help. Writers of fiction. ThinkerSure, we use facts all the time. To make up stories. We weave contrived lies for the purposes of entertainment. Not a good qualification if you’re being asked to engage people in a very complicated, scientific problem.

None of the five Weather Stations writers is a scientist. Even if we were, climate change is a vast, intangible and mind-bogglingly complex subject that very few have a comprehensive knowledge of. It is a baffling world of degrees, percentages and long-range predictions based on minute measurements across an array of variants. So what’s the point of dragging five storytellers into this?

It’s not my job to appeal to the rational mind. It’s my job to lie down, press my eye to a gap in the boards and address my words to that beast of a question under the floor.

Do you really care?’ I whisper to it. ‘Perhaps . . . if you’ll let me, I can show you why I do.’

Then I start prising up the nails that hold those floorboards down.

Science is founded upon logic and the elegant purity of posing a question and finding the tangible answer that best withstands the challenges of rational investigation. In science, there is such thing as the best answer to a question. Or, at least, the best answer so far . . .

In storytelling, we have questions like ‘What is happening?’; ‘Why is it happening?’; ‘Who am I?’; ‘Where have I come from?’; ‘What is the difference between us?’; ‘What effect is this place having on me?’; ‘What will happen next?’. And most importantly, that most head-wrecking question for any writer of fiction: ‘Why should you, the reader, care about any of this stuff I’m just making up?’

None of these questions have a single tangible answer that will guarantee satisfaction. Their most satisfying answers change from story to story, moment to moment, character to character and from reader to reader. But once writers have learned to ask these questions in the right way, in the right tone, with the right inflection, at the right speed and in the right order – if we can then deliver the answers with sufficient skill, we can inspire sadness and happiness, excitement and fear.

If the reader will only consent to take our hand, we can lead them on a dance, and in the course of that dance, in that whirling momentum, we can steer them in new directions. If they invite us into their minds, we can seed new thoughts. We can show them the world through our eyes. We can manipulate emotions.

And it is emotion, far more than reason, that compels us to act. Facts may offer a compelling reason for doing something, but if you want to provoke people into action, you have to get personal.

At any given moment, each of us has a chaotic storm of thoughts in our heads. Composing those thoughts into something coherent that can be communicated is a skill every human being spends a lifetime learning. The WriterWe have limited means: speech, facial expressions, body language, writing and perhaps drawing. When a writer is telling a story, it’s not enough to just relate the events. You can’t take your audience’s attention for granted. They must be helped to understand the ideas you’re trying to plant in their minds.

A reader really is more like a dance partner than a film viewer. They have to take an active part in the telling of the story.

And to keep them in receiving mode, they must feel compelled to give a damn about the end result. I even have to bear you in mind, as you read this piece. In order to tell you my story, I must make you curious, make you wonder what happens next, and I have to make you care enough to find out. I must be deliberate about what I pass from my imagination to yours – and do so in a way that ensures you will continue to accept it.

We are bombarded every day with news of disasters and tragedies, tales of horrible injustice. But what is often lacking in the myriad of ‘shocking’ statistics about various issues we hear about, are the little details that can really engage the emotions. If you tell me that there are over eight hundred million people around the world who are starving, for instance, I can act shocked, but it is frankly impossible to empathize with eight hundred million people. I can appreciate it on an intellectual level, but at a gut level, I just don’t care. And it’s the gut level that really counts.

These people are a faceless multitude, and it takes a great deal of effort to give that number any kind of reality. It’s too big, too distant. The scale of it would overwhelm me if I had that kind of perspective. I have too many other problems closer to home to worry about. Most humans are not motivated by numbers. But tell them a story about just one engaging character, someone we can imagine liking if they were real, someone who is suffering from a clawing hunger that is causing their gums to recede so their teeth begin falling out, causing sores on their skin, causing their vision to fail, all as their body starts to essentially digest itself. Tell them that character’s story, and people might be more likely to sit up and take notice.

Now, instead of millions of starving people, let’s imagine you have to make people care about changes in the weather. Some places will get hotter, others will get colder. Or wetter. We’re not sure how much. The sea’s going to rise. A bit. We’re not sure how much. Apparently, things could get really bad.

It doesn’t really set the heart racing, does it? And yet it’s the biggest environmental crisis we’ve ever faced. It could be the biggest crisis of any kind, that we’ve ever faced.

This, to my mind, is why Weather Stations was set up, and why so many other writers around the world are getting engaged in this issue. Any storyteller must ignite his or her audience’s imaginations and create empathy, to make their audience care about their characters, to hold their attention.

And now that’s what we have to do with the facts that should do the job for us, but don’t.

We’re only human. For most of us, our motives, perceptions and concerns are largely selfish, extending beyond our immediate loved ones and environment only when we can spare our attention and our resources. We just can’t be expected to care about millions of people – imagine even trying to count to a million – or even worse, be expected to be care, deep down, about the world’s oceans, the land, the atmosphere. It’s too big an idea to get your head around.

All I undertake to do with any story is get my reader to take an interest – even in some small way – on a visceral level; to engage their emotions and through that, their imaginations and, perhaps, aim their attention in a given direction. When that ugly monster of a question bursts up through the floorboards and demands an answer, I’ll have one to give. I do care, because this is my problem. I’m making it my problem.

Other people have more valuable, more substantive roles to play in this enormous task we must set for ourselves. But finding the words and pictures that will seed new thoughts in people’s imaginations? That’s my bit.