Everyone and everywhere is now on the climate frontline.
While seeing might be believing, until you’ve actually experienced a climate disaster, it’s still difficult to really comprehend – even for climate activists.
Former academic Rupert Read’s recent brush with a devastating storm has made him even more determined to dedicate his life to rousing the climate majority.
As severe flash flooding in New York City becomes the latest climate disaster to make headline news, it’s not so much a case of ‘where next?’ as ‘when next?’ because, as more people are beginning to realise, no one and nowhere is immune.
As I saw pictures of the rain pouring into the New York underground train system (the ‘subway’), I thought of the wonderful old song about movement-building: “People get ready, there’s a train a comin’…”. Coming soon, to or near you: a climate disaster; and the movement required to make us resilient against them…
For decades, the climate crisis is something I have talked and written about, day in and day out but it is only after getting caught in a recent terrifying thunderstorm, afraid for our lives, that it really brought home what I’ve been fighting against all these years in existential, horrifying detail.
We are almost used to seeing news of devastating floods, dangerous heatwaves and deadly wildfires, supercharged by climate change, every time we turn on the TV or look at the news on our phones – but it’s mostly ‘somewhere else’. Until now.
It might be New York now but before that it was Spain, Greece, the Netherlands – and, in my case, France.
I’m just home from the holiday of a lifetime with my wife, travelling around Europe by train, visiting many of the great galleries, historical sites and soaking up the atmosphere of Vienna, Venice and finally France.
It’s a far cry from what I would normally be doing in September, which would be lesson planning, welcoming new students to the University of East Anglia and catching up with those who returned after the summer break.
However, after 26 years, I quit my academic job as a philosophy lecturer and, now back in the UK, I’m ready to dedicate myself to building the Climate Majority Project – and I’m even more sure I made the right decision…
Over the course of a fortnight or so, it had felt like we had been accidentally dodging climate disasters. We had gone in a magic circle, within the ring of these disasters. Then our luck ran out.
We were staying in central France in an area we know well and had paid a visit to a favourite local cafe-bar.
It was hot and humid as we sat outside with a few friends. As part of our conversation, they warned us that there was a possibility of a really extreme thunderstorm in our area that afternoon.
We carried on enjoying a drink – we are from the UK, after all, we are used to changeable weather…
Then, in the distance, we heard thunder. It’s was not like anything I had ever heard before because it was simply continuous. Constant, rolling, growing thunder.
It then started to rain, albeit very gently at first.
“We’ll be ok”, I told my wife, with a reassuring smile, as we sheltered under umbrellas.
When it started getting harder and then harder again we, foolishly, as it turns out, decided to make a break for it.
We got wet on the short dash to the hire car but we mainly found the whole thing merely amusing.
On the drive home, a silver of fear started to work its way into my mind.
I was not too bothered by the poor visibility; it was a straight simple road with virtually no traffic. It was when the rain changed to hail – and not like any hail I have experienced before – that the sliver started to grow.
It slammed into the windscreen, in bigger and bigger chunks.
My wife started to get really scared.
It felt like we were in a movie; this was my most up close and personal encounter ever, yet, with a swift mini climate disaster in the making.
When the visibility dropped to near-zero, I pulled over but, as soon as I could, I got going again as I did not want to be in the car if the hail starts to actually shatter the windscreen, as I saw on some scary video-footage from Spain recently.
The noise was unearthly, our sense of vulnerability quite extreme.
My wife was sitting beside me; yet, sometimes, when she shouted, I still couldn’t hear her over the din.
While I drove reasonably slowly through the edge of our village, visibility was so bad and I was so distracted by the terrible drilling of the hail onto our roof and windows that I still almost hit the chicane.
Eventually, we made it home and raced inside.
Outside, while the hailstones were not quite the size of golf balls, they were the size of large coins, or larger, and roughly spherical like giant/‘gob’ marbles, but also jagged and rough.
As the storm started to pass, a chink-opening of blue sky up into the heavens appeared, an extraordinary vista, as if one was looking up, up to God.
And then, inevitably, my thoughts turned to the fact that we hadn’t managed to dodge Europe’s September of harsh climate-impacts, this new abnormal, after all.
Of course, we were very lucky. Many people have experienced much, much worse. Thousands have been killed in Libya alone after catastrophic floods.
But our experience brought home the fact that everyone and everywhere is now on the climate frontline.
Holidays, business…everything is going to be increasingly defined by this new abnormal.
When you experience something like this, it is different from all the theory and hearsay.
When you have been right there, trying to figure out whether to pull over or to drive, trying to estimate the likelihood that these hailstones would actually shatter the windscreen, it’s different.
This is our lives.
We need to all focus on the one question that will matter, that your children/nephews/nieces will ask: What did you do, once you knew?
This is coming for us all. And there is not one of us, not a one of us, who is truly ready.