By Elise Buckle
Our relationship with nature has been broken in so many ways. It is time to reconnect with nature and with ourselves, with our authentic identities and values as human beings. In addition to rebuilding our partnership with nature, we need to build new partnerships that cut across all borders and institutional boundaries to regenerate life on Earth.
You may have heard the fable about “the boiling frog”. It’s a simple experiment in two steps: Take a frog and place it in a pot of hot water. The frog will react immediately and jump out of the pot. Take another frog, place it in a pot of lukewarm water. This will feel like a nice warm bath but, then put it on a hot stove and heat it very gradually. The water will reach boiling point but, unfortunately, the frog will not perceive the danger and it will be cooked alive.
As I woke up on that day, 31st of December 2019 at 4 am, in the small town of Ulladulla, a beautiful corner of New South Wales, Australia, I wondered if we had reached that point of no return, a tipping point. The sky was dark, the air smoky, and the flames bloody orange. What climate scientists had been predicting for years was becoming a reality.
That day marked the end of a fiery decade for the planet, and hopefully the start of a new era with the emergence of an ecological civilization. Can nature come back to life after so much destruction? Is there space for recovery, rebirth, regeneration in the aftermath of the large-scale inferno of mega-fires?
2020 is also the start of my 40th year of life on Earth. A time to look back and rethink the next steps. In my entire life, I had never experienced such a deep feeling of fear and emergency.
I had lived some intense challenges and risky situations: working as a humanitarian volunteer near the Afghan border in Tajikistan when I was 21; climbing difficult rocky peaks with my future husband; facing adversity when giving birth to our daughter, or crying out a mix of joy and pain on the finish line of the Jungfrau Marathon in freezing conditions. I had seen despair and poverty in the eyes of lonely women living in the forgotten suburbs of San Fabio de Alican in Chile, but, I had never seen anything like that. It felt like the apocalyptic end of the world.
It felt like the entire world was committing climate suicide, starting with Australia where people were either feeling too lethargic to get out of their comfortable sunbaths (including ourselves as holidaymakers), or feeling the heat of fires to the point that they had to take refuge on the beach.
Luckily on that day, some of our best friends who live in Canberra (and escaped the flames in Sydney), sent us a map of the expanding fire hazards advising us to leave as soon as possible.
In an effort to stay calm and rational, we packed our bags, put the sleepy kids in the car and left before sunrise. The weather forecast was predicting intense heat and strong winds, the perfect ingredients to heat up the stove on a stock of wood fuel perfectly prepared by three years of droughts. Three hours later the roads were closed in both directions, North and South, leaving the people of Ulladulla, in an isolated enclave, to shortages of food, water and fuel, power cuts, a lot of despair, and finally the unavoidable escape to the ocean.
“What were you doing there on New Year’s Eve?” you may ask. Being born and raised in France, I met my husband Matthew in Canada on an exchange programme between the University of British Columbia and Sciences Po, Paris. My sister-in-law, Aija, met her husband Danny, they got married in New South Wales, Australia and had three children. They are therefore cousins of our two children: Lucas and Leïla. Despite my reluctance to get on an aeroplane that would be emitting so much carbon (even if compensating by investing in reforestation projects), we decided to stick to our plans and hold our family reunion in Newcastle, Australia, as my mother-in-law was also joining us for the occasion.
In a way, our family is a pure product of globalization from the 2000s, the “happy decade” when everything was still possible. At that time, we could still change the world. Can we still do that today?
As I was watching the flames greedily absorb the beautiful Australian bush, I asked myself if this was real, and it was.
I had started studying and working on climate change about 20 years ago. At that time, I found the discovery challenging but also fascinating. In addition, there was no Greta Thunberg to tell the younger school students about the reality of climate science. My studies and work changed my perspective on humanitarian action, which I had been passionate about. It became clear that we could only achieve poverty reduction and sustainable development if addressing the root causes of natural disasters. Putting stitches on open wounds would not be enough. After witnessing the impacts of drought and soil erosion on agriculture and food systems in Tajikistan, I went back to studying the environment at the London School of Economics. I wanted to learn about how we could rebuild the bridge between development and the environment.
As I was advising the green Members of the European Parliament this brought me to my first UNFCCC COP in Montreal in 2005. One thing I remember clearly was visiting the ice-breaker with my friend Agnès Sinaï, a climate journalist and writer. We were given the opportunity, as COP delegates to observe the graphs which showed the evolution of the melting ice in the Arctic. At that time, we were convinced that the Kyoto Protocol was going to save us with a legally binding agreement and quantified emission targets for all industrialized countries.
Kyoto failed. Copenhagen failed. But then there was Paris, in “The City of Light”. The success of COP21 brought so much hope to the world, demonstrating the capacity of all nations to come together in a model of shared leadership and solidarity to tackle the “defining issue of our times”. Humanity and light in a time of horror and terror, as if millions of candles had been lit to brighten the sky for future generations.
I sometimes compare the Paris Agreement to a giant sailing boat, travelling towards the safe horizon of carbon neutrality by 2050, with all of us on board. The US President may have decided to jump ship, in a self-jeopardizing act of selfishness, but the boat is still there, going through episodes of storms and sun. Because there is no plan B for humanity. There is only plan A, also for all of the other living species on Earth which we have taken with us onboard this Noah’s Ark of Paris.
Today, in 2020, is the boat sailing fast enough to safely reach it’s destination, staying below 2 or even 1.5°C?
Global warming has been creating its own feedback loops. The oceans are becoming warmer and more acidic, reducing their capacity to absorb carbon. Forests are drier and burn more easily, particularly in Australia, Brazil, Canada, California and the Arctic. In Siberia, the permafrost is melting and releasing vast quantities of methane, another powerful greenhouse gas that will speed up global temperatures. In parallel, human beings have never been so numerous, on the planet, and so greedy in oil, gas and coal consumption. Global emissions keep increasing, reaching top-roof levels.
In Australia alone, as of January 2020, more than 5.5 million hectares have already been burnt and this is only the start of the summer; thousands of people have lost their homes; several firefighters and volunteers have been killed; one-third of the koala population has been decimated. An estimated one billion animals have lost their lives and at this scale, we can start talking about ecocide. The fires are also adding the equivalent of half of the total volume of greenhouse gases normally emitted by the country in a year, reducing its capacity to naturally absorb carbon in forests for next year and accelerating the 6th mass extinction crisis with the loss of critical endemic species and ecosystems.
In other parts of the world, the most vulnerable people are being exposed to intense floods, for example in Indonesia, hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons. Some countries such as the Marshall Islands in the Pacific may disappear from the map within one or two generations due to the rising sea level. And the list gets longer.
Just by reading the news, we are at risk of losing ourselves into an ocean of despair.
Mother Nature has become very angry with us it would seem: taking its revenge for decades of abuse, oil drilling and exploitation. If we want nature to take care of us, we must take care of nature.
So, what next? We still have a choice between action and inaction, between despair and hope. Common wisdom teaches us that there is a space between a stimulus and a response. Humans and frogs can decide to stay in the warm water and wait until it gets worse or they can get out of the water, reduce the heat of the stove and warn other frogs that they’d better prepare for increasing temperatures. Humans and frogs can even imagine a better future together. A future of solidarity, a place where the most advantaged frogs help the other ones, a place where we could plant trees around a pool of freshwater, where other animals could join too.
But we need to act fast. There is no time for complacency. No time for endless negotiations on footnotes of article 6 of the Paris Agreement. No time for finger-pointing on historical responsibilities. No time for bargaining on finance or technology transfer. Because in the end we are all in the same boat and there is no escape. Number one priority is to reduce our global emissions, everywhere and every single day. Number two priority is to get ourselves prepared and organized for more and more disasters in order to save as many lives as possible.
As Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot, both expressed so clearly in a video message that was released on the eve of the UN Climate Action Summit in New York: the solutions are right there, in front of us. And we know that they work.
One solution is to invest in low carbon grey infrastructures: renewable sources of energy, energy savings, energy efficiency; circular economy, recycling; low carbon transport, cities and housing. Another solution is to invest in green infrastructures, or what has been called the often forgotten “Nature-Based Solutions”: Ocean and coastal restoration, wetlands, mangroves, forests, peatlands and other carbon-rich ecosystems which provide multiple co-benefits for biodiversity, people and livelihoods. Mangroves, for example, provide multiple functions and services: they sequester carbon, protect coastal areas from the impacts of storms, act as sponges in case of floods and are homes to many species of fish, which provide an essential source of protein for communities and families.
The initial step is to protect what is left from the greedy expansion of human societies. Native rainforests, in particular, are the most efficient carbon sequestration systems. They also provide a natural habitat for millions of species, including some plants that may hold the secret to cure cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Biodiversity is our best life insurance, not only for human health but also for adaptation as some species may have a better chance to migrate or adapt to radically new climate conditions.
Gabon and Indonesia are examples of countries that have already managed to reverse the trends of deforestation, so it can be done. The Yasuni National Park in Ecuador has mobilized people across borders to save the forest from oil drilling, in a country where nature protection is part of its Constitution. The fight is far from being over and native people are facing some increasing challenges to stop the progress of harmful oil exploitation. The thousands of species and carbon tones don’t seem to count much in the balance, compared to the billions being invested by oil companies and Chinese banks.
Costa Rica is probably one of the most inspiring examples of climate leadership, demonstrating that another way is possible. As described by Monica Araya, it is a “small country with big ideas”, led by one of the youngest Presidents in the world. After the civil war, the nation had already taken the very brave decision to phase out the army and invest in social welfare, health and education instead. As a result of a highly educated population, the country is one of the leading exporters of specialized medical devices, as well as cocoa products. In 2019, the President announced that he would now phase out fossil fuels and he committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. The energy grid is already 100% renewable and the next challenge will be to decarbonize the transport system by developing a strong network of trains and electric buses. The forests are recovering and expanding, also supporting the attractivity of the country for eco-tourism. If Costa Rica can make it happen, why not other countries?
Ursula Von Der Leyen, the new President of the EU Commission is determined to make Europe the first-ever continent to become carbon neutral by 2050. The European Green Deal that was recently adopted in Brussels is planning massive investments in low carbon infrastructures, nature-based solutions, circular economy and sustainable food systems.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the US Democrats are also pushing for the adoption of a “Green New Deal”, an initiative being championed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and for the plantation of billions of trees across the country, with a new bill being pushed by American Forests and many others.
At the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, many Heads of States announced bold action to support reforestation in Ethiopia, Pakistan and many other countries. In total, more than 20 countries committed to conservation, reforestation and restoration of ecosystems including the planting of over 17 billion trees Many more are also committed to the Nature-Based Solutions manifesto, joining a broad coalition led by China and New Zealand.
Never before in history has nature been so high on the agenda of political leaders. Nature was invited to be at the table in so many events and in so many slogans and marches that has mobilized millions of people and youth protesting on the street and calling for system change.
For many years, I believed that we could reform and change the system from within, in a peaceful and smooth transition. But, the major crisis that is unfolding in Australia may demonstrate the opposite. It could be a turning point in the history of climate politics if people seize the moment to mobilize, take collective action and urge their government to either step down or step up for climate action.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is one of the very few remaining climate deniers who belong to another century, focused on the narrow short-sighted view that saving the coal industry may matter more than saving the planet.
Investing in renewable energy, retraining workers with new skills and creating green jobs would be far more beneficial for the economy as well as for the most vulnerable people who are currently suffering from the impacts of the devastating forest fires.
When the leader of the Labour Party announced that he would build the largest coal mine ever, it would have been disorientating for Australian voters who care about the environment and about the future of their children.
In this case, the old existing political system may be unable to cope with the emergency situation triggered by climate change. At the moment, not one leader seems to be ready to step up and announce the emergency response that is needed to tackle the issue. There is definitely a growing level of public awareness and mobilization in the population being affected by the fires. We will only know in the coming months or years if the on-going fire crisis turns Australia into a new climate champion.
The world is craving champions. We all look around for climate leaders. They can be counted on one hand. “How can you dare? “ Greta asks. “How can you dare?” the yellow jackets and other populist leaders on the street of Quito, San José, Santiago de Chile or Beirut ask.
Rising inequalities have been deepening the gap between leaders and people. In parallel to the climate crisis, a global social crisis is also developing. And there is an urgent need to restore the trust in democracies. Leaders need to rebuild a new partnership with nature, and a new partnership with people. It is almost like writing a social contract, a New Deal for People and Nature, which secures the future of generations to come while leaving no one behind. Because people and nature go together.
Global economic and social wellbeing are dependent on a healthy biosphere
Source: J. Lokrantz/Azote in Rockström & Sukhdev (2016) and Folke et al. (2016)
Our relationship with nature has been broken in so many ways. We have lost the connection. We have become too busy to care about nature. With 80% of the world population living in cities, we are getting used to spending more time with concrete than with green lush forests or meadows. The children who were born in large cities don’t know that the milk they drink every day for breakfast comes from a cow, or that fruit they eat as packaged snacks come from a tree. And in many families, as parents, we have even lost the connection to our own children. We worry about the next job, the next promotion, the salary raise to buy a bigger house or a bigger car and after a stressful day at work, there is no time left to play, laugh or read stories to our little ones.
Even in more and more emerging countries such as India, fathers migrate to larger cities to work as taxi drivers or other low-paid jobs that still pay better than being a farmer. They only see their families once a year or once every two years and there is even less time to visit the old grandmother or grandfather. Yet, most studies show that one of the greatest regrets that people mention when they are about to die is about not having spent enough time with their families, friends and children. They wish they hadn’t worked so hard.
Our civilization is becoming sick and over-fed with materialistic production and consumption while being undernourished and deprived of fundamental values such as love, friendship, inter-generational solidarity, spirituality and connection to nature.
Time has come to reboot our relationship with nature, and with our true nature as human beings. We are also part of nature. We are social animals who need to spend time with our beloved relatives and friends to feel good, as well as to survive and thrive. Climate change cannot be solved by one individual person. It is such a complex and systemic issue that we can only succeed if we work together.
In addition, to rebuilding a partnership with nature, we need to build new partnerships that cut across all borders and institutional boundaries. That means public-private partnerships, with governments and companies working together to accelerate the energy transition; partnerships with local cities, regions and sub-national governments; and partnerships among people and nations.
The same way German people had the courage to step up above the Berlin Wall, leading to the reunification of their nation and families, we all need to step up above the artificial walls that were built by some nationalistic leaders trying to separate ourselves from our brothers and sisters.
As human beings, we are all made of the same fabric. We breathe the same air. We fish and bathe in the same oceans, lakes and rivers. We eat similar food, even if we cook it differently. We give birth in the same moments of pain and relief. We love our children with the same passion and fever as our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers did before us. We are all descendants of “Lucy” and other prehistoric cousins. We all want the best for future generations, a safe shelter, good health, peace, happiness, and love. And we are sharing the same home, our beautiful planet Earth.
At any level and in your community, you can start building bridges with other people and other organizations. In fact, collective action may be our only authentic source of hope, a realistic form of hope which takes into account the challenges of where we are, but also the power of humanity if we all decide to act together and unite our forces.
Here are the top three tips that may help you navigate the complexity of human relationships when aiming for system change and positive impacts. Successful partnerships often emerge from the following patterns:
1. A sense of common purpose, shared responsibility and collective good.
This is an essential ingredient of success in nearly all partnerships. The Paris Agreement came to life in this very unique moment of alignment of stars, with all leaders sharing the same vision, from Barack Obama to Dilma Rousseff, Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Narendra Modi, and Xi Jinping. This collective spirit of shared leadership is being challenged today by Trump, Bolsonaro and Morrison, but it is still alive in many other nations.
During the COP23 Presidency, Ambassador Khan, who was then Chief Negotiator for Fiji, gave a new life to this spirit through the “Talanoa Dialogue”, a tradition from the Pacific based on building mutual trust and empathy through story-telling, with the intent of achieving consensus-based solutions for the collective good. It started in small villages of remote islands and ended in the most complex diplomatic process, bonding together people from different walks of life and various constituencies ranging from government, business, civil society and indigenous people.
2. All for one and one for all
This motto traditionally associated with the titular heroes of the novel The Three Musketeers written by Alexandre Dumas is also the one of Switzerland.
After an initial time of storming and forming, most groups of individuals and organizations get to a stage where the collective purpose surpasses the potential internal divisions and individual fights for personal ego and power. In any group, there will be tensions arising. After a moment of “make it or break it”, people usually get to a stage where they can see that the collective value of the added parts is much greater than the individual parts taken separately. This is particularly true for movement building and any kind of public campaigns. People can feel quite powerless if they are alone. How can we solve such a complex issue as climate change if we are on our own?
By being part of a much bigger movement, we can see the impact of being more than a drop in the ocean. In this sense, the climate movement has a lot to learn from the trade union movements. Trade unionists may be seen as old-fashioned in their style of activism, but they definitely won some powerful battles against a few individuals who were much more powerful and rich than poor workers spending hours in mines or factories. We wouldn’t be enjoying some of our basic rights, including minimum wages, paid holiday, sick leave and parental leave if there hadn’t been these collective actions taking place for weeks and months in many countries around the world.
When working for UNI Global Union, the collective voices of many trade union leaders and organizations based in more than 20 countries made their way to the Headquarters of Société Générale and convinced the CEO to become the first French bank to sign a global agreement on human and labour rights covering more than 149,000 employees. I tend to think that if people unite in Australia, they could convince their government to step up climate ambition and action.
The diversity of the individual parts of a movement also make it richer and potentially more influential. When we supported China and New Zealand to build the Nature-Based Solutions coalition, we were sometimes struggling to find the coherence in the diversity of the 200+ proposals that had been submitted by governments, international organizations, business, civil society and academia. But behind the apparent fuzziness and messy complexity, there was a very rich and diverse ecosystem of stakeholders all demonstrating the value and power of nature, in every corner of the world, a good illustration of the Living System Approach developed by Dr David Nabarro and John Atkinson.
The UNFCCC COP26 hosted by the UK in Glasgow will also be a key moment for growing a movement of movements, bringing together the climate mobilization, the social justice movement and the nature movement.
3. Being true and authentic about the progress achieved and the challenges remaining.
Trying to hide failures or the lack of progress towards the collective goals will not make a partnership better. Authenticity and transparency are absolutely essential to keep the trust of all partners. In fact, many partnerships can become even more effective when the participants are honest about their challenges and manage to overcome them together. When coming together in Glasgow, parties to the Paris Agreement will need to recognize the shortcomings of their NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) and the harsh reality of rising global emissions. Science and nature are not forgiving and will not tolerate greenwashing or pure exercises of public communication. Authentic effort and collective action can build a sense of realistic hope for a better future.
Even if you don’t engage directly in partnership building, there are many small practical steps that you can take to restore your relationship with nature in your day to day lives. Here is an easy check-list:
- Talk to your family, friends and neighbours, to start the climate conversation by genuinely asking how they feel about the climate crisis. Show empathy, and listen to potentially new solutions; teach your kids and nephews, and you might be surprised by their questions and insights about system change;
- Reduce your carbon footprint everywhere you can; by using low-carbon modes of transport: walk, bike, avoid driving a car (or choose an electric car if you have to drive), avoid flying (or compensate your emissions if you really have to fly for family or health reasons); buy and consume responsibly, declutter your house, recycle, and reduce meat consumption;
- Prepare psychologically and physically for disasters to happen more frequently and closer to your home as well;
- Mobilize; get involved in politics, associations and community actions; vote.
- Listen to the Earth; take a moment to pause, take a break; spend time in nature rather than in the shops.
And remember this simple mantra:
Make good decisions.
Take bold actions.
The future is yours. The future is ours. Together we can!
Elise Buckle is a senior advisor to the UN on Sustainable Development Goals and partnership development for climate, people and nature, founder and director of Climate & Sustainability, 4SD system change mentor, and the proud mother of two children Lucas and Leïla.
Personal note: This article presents my opinion and experience in a time of natural turbulence and radical change; views are mine only and don’t represent a specific institution or scientific body of research. I am also interested in your views; please do share your ideas and opinions by writing to: firstname.lastname@example.org .
With great thanks to Christine Southam for her review, and to my husband and family for their patience with my life-long passion for people and the planet.