• Ian McClellan

Week 40: I will go back to school.

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

A lot of what I have learned recently about the planet, I have learned from children’s TV and videos. I have learned about recycling from Storybots, have explored the world again through Our Planet, and like any parent I am constantly answering questions through online videos and You Tube channels.

Every time, I feel the same stab of embarrassment. I thought I knew about all this stuff, but it turns out that in lots of ways, I don't know anything at all.

I don’t remember learning about the philosophy of reduction and reuse, in other words the other two arrows on the recycling symbol. I just thought that putting three arrows on the symbol made it a nice design. I don’t remember anyone telling me that urbanisation and industrial agriculture had a direct and dramatic impact on species that I loved. Species that used to call forests or other natural habitats their home. The creatures who suddenly found themselves treading concrete, clinging to guttering, and being forced to find their food in bins.

I’m not in any way blaming our educational systems for this lack of knowledge, I just don’t think that I was listening or watching. I don’t think I sensed the urgency, or saw the world in the same way as the generation of younger children who are growing up in our world. Perhaps it is because we were not as connected by technology as we are now and so I couldn’t feel what was going on elsewhere as keenly as we can now. Extreme weather, floods, industrial deforestation – happened via grainy pictures on the TV, newspaper articles or photographs in the National Geographic magazine. They seemed far away, and someone else’s problem.

This is not an excuse, just a theory. It might be right or wrong, the important thing is that now we see.

Now we see, and I can see how far behind I have been in my knowledge of the planet. Now we can more easily see, feel, speak and learn from those who are experiencing the impacts of our habits on the planet. Now I can go back to basics, thanks to our children learning about the planet is a new way, and the resources that exist now online.

This week I am trying to school myself on one of the biggest issues our planet faces right now, and one that I don't think I know enough about – global warming, or climate change.

It's a big topic, and whenever it comes up I get lost in scientific definitions, or trying to interpret what grams and tonnes of carbon dioxide are, or what zero or net-zero means. Climate change is also one of the areas that attracts a lot of division and is hard to research without getting into lots of detail or into lots of emotional positions on the subject. The good thing about going back to basics and learning again from scratch, is that we have the excuse to look past this complicated data. We can forget about blame or the weaponisation of information. We can just focus on facts, and what we can do to slowly and persistently change our human behaviours to help the planet.

If any of what I have said so far makes sense to you, I recommend checking out the National Geographic Kids website, or NASA’s Climate Kids sites. These are good places to learn from the very basic level what climate change is, and how it works. I don’t think anyone could deny the heritage and credentials of these two sources to give impartial and factual information about climate change that we can trust.

If you are not like me, and you know all this stuff, then please skip over the next few paragraphs and accept my apologies. This is what I have learned.

The first thing that is explained, is that climate change is not the same as weather. Weather is just what is happening wherever you are, right now. For example, whether it is raining or sunny right now, is the weather.

This distinction between weather and climate, removes the temptation to believe that just because what is happening today or this year is different to what environmental activists might be telling you about climate change, it does not mean climate change isn’t real.

Climate change is about longer term trends, and the average changes in conditions over many years. And right now, the long term trend is that the world is heating up, and heating up much more quickly than we would expect. The climate is always changing, but the speed this is happening to us is important. It is also relative to where you are, and so although it might not be experience the kind of extreme conditions where we are and that we see elsewhere, is does not mean it isn’t getting warmer or that we won't be impacted by things happening elsewhere on the planet.

I also now understand more about greenhouse gases, which is big news for my non-scientific mind. I always knew that the sun warmed the planet, and that some of this heat escaped back into space, but that some of it stayed in our atmosphere thanks to certain gases and acted as a kind of blanket for the earth. A blanket that kept the delicate balance of heat in the atmosphere, by making sure that just enough warmth from the sun did not escape back into space. A natural process that kept everything as it should be, and allows us to exist.

The leap I have made, is the next bit. It is the difference between the natural process of keeping heat in our atmosphere, and how it is impacted by things that humans do. I've never been able to fully get my head around the cause and effect of the increase of greenhouse gases until I read about it in really simple steps.

What I now understand is that human activities such as burning fuels to power factories and cars, or the gases produced through commoditised agriculture or decaying landfills, are released into the atmosphere and increased the levels of greenhouse gases. This is somehow helped by trees and oceans, as they naturally absorb carbon dioxide to keep this balance of heat. This is why deforestation is a big issue as it means we are removing one of the ways the planet regulates this heat. But what is also an additional problem, is that although plants remove carbon dioxide through photosynthesis when they are alive, when they are destroyed and decay, they release their stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

This means we are not just the creating an unnaturally high level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere through our human activities - and therefore making this metaphorical 'blanket' thicker - but we are also destroying the ways that the planet regulates this heat in the first place by absorbing greenhouse gases, and on top of that adding more carbon dioxide by this destruction as well. The result is even more heat in our atmosphere, and more upset to the delicate temperature balance and the fragile and interconnected web of science that allows us all to be here.

These actions, that are human actions - cause higher temperatures, and the unpredictable weather patterns that we are experiencing. It causes drought where we grow some of the things we eat, triggers wildfires or intense storms that destroy land and habitats, and causes temperatures to rise in really cold places - which then melts ice and raises sea levels. We are allowed to be here by nature, and although we can understand this through science, we can't explain this away as some kind of natural cycle. I think sometimes we act as if because we are humans, we can control everything. But we didn't invent the climate, it has been a gift to us all and is one of the reasons that our planet is inhabitable, and that we can't very easily live on Mars.

In terms of what we can do about it, this is where our carbon footprint comes in, although I think this is perhaps not named correctly. I think it should probably be called something more dramatic, such as our carbon hand-grenade or our carbon hammer. This is because the size of our carbon footprint individually, makes a destructive impact into the collective gases that have collected in our atmosphere, and are warming up our planet in a way that is not sustainable. It will make land unproductive for agriculture, or totally uninhabitable, or frankly underwater. This will affect all of us, whether or not it’s raining outside right now.

Thinking about what we can start doing about it - we had some ideas as a happy accident, on our way to Edinburgh for a weekend away. We took the car, and we don't have an electric car. After this home schooling, this got me thinking about our carbon footprint.

The happy accident was that on the way to Edinburgh, and especially as you work your way up the beautiful Northumbrian coast or through the rugged landscapes around the city, you pass different ways that we create electricity. You pass coastal power stations, which sit hulking on the otherwise gentle slope to the clifftops. You pass close to huge wind turbines, doing their stately front crawl into the breeze. We had the time and the chance to be curious about what we were looking at, and through this had the chance to talk about how electricity is made. We could talk about electricity that is made by the wind or by water is renewable, and that in our house we buy our electricity from a company that uses only renewable types of electricity. We could talk about how other types of electricity is made by burning really old stuff out of the ground, and that this is not renewable. And we could take about climate change.

However, I couldn't justify the car and the exhaust fumes, and this made me feel bad. But it also meant that by the time we arrived in Edinburgh, we had instead hatched a plan that could be our first step and a new habit to reducing our carbon footprint further. Our trip was always going to be an urban adventure, and a way of learning new things about planetwise habits, in another place. We were always going to see how we could eat entirely with local provenance, or to learn new things about recycling from how it is done somewhere other than where we live.

But now, we were going to do as much of it as we could, on foot. We decided that we would downgrade our travel wherever we could. If we'd usually drive there, we'd take the bus. If it was a few bus stops away, then we would walk. And walk we did. It was awesome - in the weekend, we managed to measure ourselves taking over 40,000 steps.

We also saw so much more than we would usually. We were able to escape into alleyways, race up hills. We saw statues and monuments that we wouldn't have seen before, and were able to learn the rich history of the city from the inside. We took regular ice cream and coffee breaks to people-watch, we stopped to jump off things for no other reason than the joy of it, we sang songs and played i-spy. It made the days someone slower, but more full of fun. We lose a part of our lives with Leo next week, as he goes to school for the first time, with many others. As a parent this is a big moment, but is also just the next normal. This adventure, was a fitting end to our time together over the last 4-years of his life, but through making this small planetwise change, it also has given us a new way that we can enjoy things and makes us excited for the weekends ahead. At the end of each day we were exhausted, exhilarated, and all went to bed at the same time.

It has also made me look more into how personally we can reduce our carbon impact more widely than this. Our cars contribute to this footprint but are not the only thing. I have seen online ways that businesses can reduce their carbon impact, and there are many articles that give solutions or lists of things to do. But I think we need a new and more dramatic way to come together and help each other. We can all go through lists of carbon savings tips and do what we can, but at the same time much of what you are asked to do is difficult or expensive to do straight away, and I don't think we have time as a human race to wait until everyone can afford through money or time to make the biggest changes that we have been asked. For example, we can all and should all plant trees, but then the trees need to grow. But we all can to do small things, big things, anything, now. We just need ideas, and the power of collective connections to create a movement in the direction of real, persistent, change.

I think also we all have a collective will, we are all just looking for a way. I think I have found this way, and have contributed to a crowdfunding campaign from a group of volunteers, who are working on an app, that looks like it can provide just what a family like ours need. It is called The Climate App, and reading about it made me very excited. It is not funded yet, and so the team behind it need help. You can view the crowdfunding video and contribute here.

What I love about this concept, is that the aim is to create an online community, that is backed up by science, but is reliant on people coming together and sharing ideas. It is not based on giving dramatic solutions, or an app that looks too confusing for an average person to use. The vision instead is for a community to be created, that helps each other.

Imagine if we could do this, and use technology to make reducing our carbon footprint positive and fun, rather than feeling guilt each time we turn on our car engine, or feeling overwhelmed by the scale of immediate changes we need to make. Imagine enabling each action you make to inspire others, celebrating each other's achievements and create a huge multiplier effect and a positive, persistent cycle of actions. It feels to me like this is what we need. To not be frightened, or to blame, but at the same time to be urgent. We cannot wait for governments or organisations to change, we have to do it together. If we can use technology to can swap ideas with each other, we can continue to create a collective pressure. We can channel negative energy into finding solutions, and remember how lucky we are now to have so much information and so many connections at our fingertips.

This feels like how we make systemic change. Together, and through connection. Embracing learning as a two-way process, and the ideas of others are gifts not currency. To be thirsty for knowledge, but to share this knowledge as universal and for everyone, not to be protected or used in a way that creates division or fear. This is how we teach our children to learn.

The final statistic and thing I learned this week, is more adult. It is the impact of the current coronavirus pandemic on emissions. The reason this impact is important, is because in lots of ways it is becoming somehow a fact that coronavirus is the planet forcing a break from our normal lives. That the various restrictive or lockdown measures, has somehow created a forced pause and a way for our planet to heal. This is a romantic notion, and the pictures of clear skies are great. But the facts and the reality is much different. There is disagreement on exactly the impact of this awful virus on emissions, but recently that has been put at an 8% reduction. The World is apparently at a standstill, and we don't use our cars for half a year, and emissions are 92% the same.

It shows that we can't rely on lists, or on anger. It shows that one pause in activities, is not enough. It needs to come from within, it needs us all to go back to basics, and learn how we do things, a small and persistent step at a time. As humans, this is something we are really good at, if we have the tools and use our technology for good. And if we do it without ego, together.

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