In April, psychology lecturer Dr Elia Valentini joined scientists from around the world in a symbolic hunger strike, highlighting the need for radical action to tackle climate change. Below he explains why it was necessary to take this step.

In one of my classes I teach masters students how the brain builds perception from basic sensory information. When I introduce the visual system, I like to show a famous Claude Monet painting. The painting represents a countryside scene with a few human figures, a house afar in the background and a very large meadow. Half of this meadow is covered with red poppies (from which the title of the painting – Coquelicots, 1873 [1]). I ask the students to close their eyes and imagine this painting without colours. I then show the greyscale version of it and tell the story of a man (Jonathan) who selectively lost colour vision due to a car accident. A story narrated by Oliver Sacks in his book, “An Anthropologist on Mars”[2].

When I think about the dramatic experience Jonathan endured when he lost his ability to see the colour red (or even to remember what red looked like), I fear that could be a poignant metaphor or what human beings may experience when looking at the world in 50 years’ time. We may not be able to appreciate the colourful richness of nature around us anymore and be left with a handful of grey poppies.

No kidding, we are facing the greatest existential threat of our times: a tragic worsening of global warming and extreme weather, destruction of ecosystems and extinction of species. Accruing evidence is pointing towards a difficult truth for us all: A 2050 target for our societies to achieve net-zero carbon emissions compared to 1990 levels is deceptive at best [3]. Globally, at current rates of emissions, we will have entirely used up the remaining carbon budget between five to eight years from now [4]. The wealthy nations did not achieve their emission reduction targets and the developing countries just followed suit. So, let’s be honest: forget about 1.5°C. Even with the most optimistic targets (relying on pledges) we are already heading beyond 2°C [5]. To let you appreciate better the scale of the problem I will mention a recent work published in Nature Climate Change [6]. This work shows that even under the strict Covid-19 measures emissions decreased by one tenth of what would be needed at the global level to meet the Paris climate goals. The conservative estimates made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been shattered: the latest generation of climate models suggest 1.5°C of warming is likely by 2030 or earlier. Bottom line, we need to limit warming to 1.5°C (if we still can) or we are on a trajectory to 3 or even 4 degrees – which scientists say will cause catastrophic changes and threaten civilisations across the world [7].

Alas, many are still unaware of the size and extent of the problem. Some people don’t even bother questioning as they don’t know, don’t want to think about it, or believe it will be others’ misfortune (and not their own). But ever before have we had a clearer picture of how interdependent we are and how little the idea of a profit- and competition-laden individualistic model of society fits the bill for a safe future for all of us and the generations to come.

Therefore, I decided to join Scientist Rebellion and go on a symbolic hunger strike during the Global Scientists Rebellion on March 25th [8]. Scientist Rebellion is a collective of educators and researchers that are acting to bring the scientific consensus to the spotlight. The method is grounded in radical but non-violent actions to send a stronger message: This is an emergency and leading institutions must act accordingly. We believe that scientists should act like this is an emergency, else we cannot expect the public to do so. I am determined to pursue this path until we’ll see many more colleagues joining us and politicians take seriously their oath to the people.

As a psychologist I am conscious of the risk of communicating “gloom and doom” scenarios: they activate people’s defences, some of which can be inaction and withdrawal [9]. This is why I’d like you to imagine a different painting. A painting of hope where our children will be able to enjoy the poppies in all their wonder. This future will require all our collective efforts and cannot be left to individual changes in behaviour. If we are serious about guaranteeing a decent future to our families and those who will come after us, we must change our societies at large.

Yes, like it or not, worse time will come. And as Jonathan adapted to his new tragic condition by becoming a “night person”, living at night when colour vision is less relevant, we will have to adapt to the darkness of the climate and ecological collapse [10].

But it is not over until it’s over. The solutions are simple and are at hand. As a friend reminded me: simplicity is the main condition of moral beauty [11]. To mitigate the destructive effects we have already locked in, we must radically stop extracting fossil fuels, get rid of the illogical idea of growth [12], enact the ecocide law [13], redistribute wealth [14], and finance a green new deal for a just transition [15]. That will be a painting worth staring at! A painting of reason, justice, compassion, hope and well-being in all its endless colour palette.

Will you help?

 

References

  1. Musée d’Orsay: Claude Monet Poppy Field. https://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/works-in-focus/painting/commentaire_id/poppy-field-8951.html?cHash=1e5e9216e3. Accessed 29 Apr 2021
  2. (2021) An Anthropologist on Mars. Wikipedia
  3. Dyke J, Watson R, Knorr W Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap. In: The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/climate-scientists-concept-of-net-zero-is-a-dangerous-trap-157368. Accessed 23 Apr 2021
  4. Part 6: Enough is enough… How are our governments letting us down? In: Extinction Rebellion UK. https://extinctionrebellion.uk/the-truth/the-emergency/part-6/. Accessed 6 May 2021
  5. Global Update: Climate Summit Momentum | Climate Action Tracker. https://climateactiontracker.org/publications/global-update-climate-summit-momentum/. Accessed 6 May 2021
  6. Le Quéré C, Peters GP, Friedlingstein P, et al (2021) Fossil CO2 emissions in the post-COVID-19 era. Nat Clim Chang 11:197–199. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-021-01001-0
  7. HOME | Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration. In: Breakthrough. https://www.breakthroughonline.org.au. Accessed 23 Apr 2021
  8. Global Scientist Rebellion – Scientist Rebellion. https://scientistrebellion.com/global-scientist-rebellion/. Accessed 29 Apr 2021
  9. Stoknes PE How to transform apocalypse fatigue into action on global warming
  10. Martin UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline “Unprecedented”; Species Extinction Rates “Accelerating.” In: United Nations Sustainable Development. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report. Accessed 29 Apr 2021
  11. Tolstoy L, Chertkov VG (Vladimir G (1917) The diaries of Leo Tolstoy. New York : Dutton ; London : Dent
  12. What’s wrong with the economy? In: Economic Policy Institute. https://www.epi.org/publication/pm110/. Accessed 30 Apr 2021
  13. Stop Ecocide. In: Stop Ecocide. https://www.stopecocide.earth. Accessed 29 Apr 2021
  14. Redistribution of income and wealth | Government at a Glance 2019 | OECD iLibrary. https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/79321fa3-en/index.html?itemId=/content/component/79321fa3-en. Accessed 29 Apr 2021
  15. A response to Pollin and Chomsky: We need a Green New Deal without growth. In: Jason Hickel. https://www.jasonhickel.org/blog/2020/10/19/we-need-a-green-new-deal-without-growth. Accessed 29 Apr 2021

 

Teaser photo credit: By Eric Hill from Boston, MA, USA – Poppies in the Sunset on Lake GenevaUploaded by PDTillman, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6910646