Why my Fears about Climate Change made me Cross the Line that Separates Academia from Activism
James Dyke discusses his personal tipping point.
Everybody seems to be talking about climate change again. This time, a great deal of the coverage has been sympathetic to the idea that we are facing an emergency that demands drastic action.
Extinction Rebellion’s protests caused some outrage, but also some surprising support. Swedish campaigner Greta Thunburg has been widely admired, David Attenborough has been spreading the word with urgency, and primetime programming has led to serious discussions about climate change across living rooms, offices and social media.
So is this the fabled tipping point in public opinion which will see widespread support for radical changes? That is a question that can only be answered in hindsight.
Yet despite the significant surge in interest and concern, most people are probably unaware of what climate change really means: that it’s not just about nudging our emissions a bit lower or taking incremental action generally. This is a challenge that is perhaps unprecedented in all of human history.
Crossing the line
Given that I teach climate change to university students, I can (and do) talk for hours about the importance of global temperature change, or ecological impacts.
But these are academic concerns in the sense that they are almost completely separated from what climate change means to me, my family, friends and pretty much everything else I care about. It’s taken me some time to realise that I was in a sort of denial about climate change. I was able to compartmentalise it.
Reflecting on this led me to take a step over the line that separates academia from activism. I have colleagues and friends who are strict observers of this separation of states. Some of them have deeply principled concerns that advocating for particular climate related policies could undermine their professional objectivity.
Others have little desire to be the subject of the online abuse which often comes with sticking your head above the parapet and into the public debate.
I had these same reservations. But over time they have been gradually worn down by the steady drum beat of bad news and insufficient action. My personal tipping point was an otherwise unremarkable lecture to one of my undergraduate classes.
I was discussing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over time, and pointed out that this has been increasing ever since they were born. On each one of their birthdays, there was more CO₂ in the atmosphere than on the same day the previous year. Every additional birthday cake candle celebrated another one, two, or even three per cent annual increase.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrarion Carbon Tracker.
As I spoke, I looked into the faces of a generation that had been completely failed by their predecessors. It is a failure which came despite two decades of the science being perfectly clear that increasing CO₂ concentrations would produce further warming, and that dangerous changes to the global climate were lurking.
That was when I realised that the positive professional and personal changes I had managed to make were hopelessly inadequate. Yes, I avoided flying where possible, and yes, I had largely eliminated meat and dairy from my diet.
I cycle rather than drive. I had switched to a green energy supplier. All that was good. All that was important. But I keenly felt the need to do more.
So I decided to make a documentary about climate change – about what drives it and what we can do individually, and together, to ensure a stable natural world for our children and future generations.
Why a film? It was a chat with a good friend, film maker Paul Maple of Global Documentary, about our shared frustrations over the lack of climate change programmes being broadcast which led to plans to make our own.
I had no idea what would be involved, and Paul didn’t tell me – perhaps from fear of scaring me off. That was over three years, a thousand miles of travel around the UK, terabytes of data, and countless coffee-fuelled hours in the editing suite, ago.
All of that work has now been rendered down to the 39 minutes of The Race Is On: Secrets and Solutions of Climate Change. In making the film, we were extremely fortunate to be able to interview leading figures in climate change science, economics and activism. I wouldn’t be able to name them all here without also naming the 67 people who contributed to the crowdfunding of the project and so help turn our initial sketchy plans into reality.
A film for a future
Early on, we agreed that a film, no matter how slick, could only be one part of an engagement strategy. So we planned community screenings, in which the film would be followed by panel discussions and town hall style meetings. We also produced a companion website containing information on practical steps we can all take to reduce our climate impacts.
The journey from academic to film maker activist is not something I can unreservedly recommend. I’ve had to park aspects of my professional and personal life, given how all consuming the project was. And now I seem to have taken up a new role as distributor and promoter, as the film will have no value unless people watch it.
But while I hope that this will be more than offset by generating positive impact, it’s also true that on a personal level it’s been worth it. I’ve met some incredible people, been allowed to go places and do things that otherwise would have been out of bounds (it’s amazing what you can get away with when accompanied by a film crew), and learnt new skills that have helped both my teaching and research.
The film project has been a labour of love. At times, a stress test, and finally a ragged race to deadlines – so something like a microcosm of the civilisation-scale climate challenge we all now face.
James Dyke is a Senior Lecturer in Global Systems, University of Exeter.
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