Thursday 31 December 2009

The Decade of Do

The noughties saw a major global attitude shift on climate change. Will the next decade herald the turning point for action?

At the turn of the millenium I was a carefree(-ish) student, whose thoughts on climate change were – like many people's – limited to occasional, brief ponderings on how it would be lovely to have warmer weather. Fast forward ten years and I now believe it to be the most significant and most urgent threat to human wellbeing, with the subject rarely far from my mind. I am not alone. In the last ten years humanity has gone from generally ignoring the problem of climate change to believing their governments should be doing more to tackle it. I'm currently on a six month trip through Russia and Asia, talking to real people about climate change. The vast majority of people I speak to know it will be a huge problem for their country but haven't yet converted this knowledge into action.

The noughties were all about awareness raising on climate change. Helped along by devastating natural disasters like the Southeast Asian Tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, environmental campaigns pushed this most urgent of environmental problems into the consciousness of most of the world's 6.7 billion people. The major efforts of the decade, like 2007's Live Earth concert, focussed on getting people to accept that there is a problem. But this is just the first step of the twelve step plan for society to wean itself from its suicidal fossil fuel addiction.

Politics, as usual, followed suit and we heard much grand rhetoric proclaiming the urgent need for action but saw very little in the way of follow through. Long before December's Copenhagen climate change summit it became painfully clear that the meeting was to belong very much to the old decade of talk and not what I hope will be the coming 'Decade of Do'.

To have any hope of success, environmentalists must use the next ten years to achieve that most tricky of alchemies – converting attitude into behaviour. Movements like Age of Stupid director Franny Armstrong's 10:10 campaign to get the UK to reduce its emissions by 10 per cent during 2010 offer us a glimpse of the future. The Do Lectures, a sort of cooler younger brother of the influential TED talks, which started last year to inspire millions of people to make good things happen fast, is another sign of things to come.

If we want the next decade to be defined by action on climate change, rather than being lost to more talk, we must start with ourselves. Every action counts because with them we create and change the social norms that shape the behaviour of society on the macro scale but we need to accept that big change needs big actions as well as little ones. It requires us to take more personal responsibility for our behaviour. It demands that we drag ourselves out of the collective mindset of the selfish teenager and into adulthood, where we consider the wellbeing of others as well as our own when making decisions. It means we have to stop making excuses for ourselves. Do you really need to take that flight? Is eating meat every day really that important to you? Can you afford that solar heating system by making a saving elsewhere? There are no excuses any more. We all know what we are supposed to be doing now … all that's left is to do it.

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Yan Li - Beijing, China

Almost all of the people Climate Stories talks to are lay people with no particular interest in or knowledge about climate change. However, Yan Li, who has been working as a climate change campaigner for Greenpeace China for two years has some very important things to say about what climate change really means for China.

Yan Li says that China will be one of the countries worst affected by climate change. It's already triggered droughts in the North but flash floods and typhoons in the South. These extreme weather events are set to get much worse. Most projections now foretell a bleak water situation for China. No water means no development so it's the hottest issue.

Most people in Beijing don't realise it yet but their water supply is severely under threat right now. The reservoir that keeps the capital in fresh water is now at a quarter of its usual capacity. It used to be open to the public to visit but now people are kept away so they can't see how bad the situation has become. There's a huge contrast between the situation in the big cities in China and rural life. Yan Li illustrates this with the example of the wealthy city of Guangzhou where the people have everything they want and the surrounding countryside, where the people have no water and are very worried about their futures.

Heavy rain of 100-200mm an hour of rain is common in some of the Southern parts of the country but Xinjiang has had no rain, especially in the Gobi region. Yan met some people there who had no need for a roof on their house because it never rained. In some areas though climate change is improving people's lives. It has brought rain to previously arid areas, so more food can now be grown. Ultimately though, everyone will be worse off as the productivity of China's land declines overall.

Yan Li was disappointed when China's target to produce 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2010 was downgraded to non-fossil fuel sources. However she tells me there are other more encouraging signs that China's leaders are taking the issue seriously. Greenpeace are pushing for the environmental cost of coal to be included in coal pricing by way of a carbon tax and the government are currently holding an online debate about it.

The government are also investing in the development of the as yet mythical carbon capture and storage technology, as well as carbon labelling but Yan Li isn't convinced how effective either will be. There is apparently evidence that people here are prepared to pay more for environmental products though.

Greenpeace are currently planning a 'virtual march' through China to raise awareness of climate change. At the moment though Chinese people don't understand what civil society or campaigns really mean for them. The first NGO, an environmental education charity called Friends of Nature, was established in China only in 1994 and there are many restrictions on such organisations here. It's a big dream for her that one day there will be a big movement of people in China on environmental issues.

With water linking climate change with food security, poverty, health and development, Yan Li believes climate change should be a much bigger issue in the minds of every Chinese person. The time to think small is over.

Bookmark and Share

Saturday 28 November 2009

Yinning - Beijing, China

Yining, 22, is a post-graduate student at the Beijing's international university, studying to teach Mandarin to foreigners. She is a Beijinger born and bred but lived in Denmark as an exchange student for a while. She thinks that Europeans generally care more about issues affecting the wider human race and tells me Chinese people only care about money, damaging our environment in the process. It's not all bad though. She's encouraged by recent signs that people in China are starting to buy more environmentally friendly products.

Yinning & Emma

Yinning says people here don't talk about climate change that much but that it has been influencing people though, especially recently. The weather has got really weird and it gets warm and cold at strange times. Beijing also now suffers from sandstorms coming in from the Gobi desert. She thinks this is partly because there aren't enough trees in the countryside any more.

The Great Wall at Simitar, near Beijing

In Yining's eyes, it's everyone's job to fix climate change but people in the city don't see its already devastating effects so people in the countryside are more aware of the issue. In the South of China you can see people suffering from the lack of rain but in the city everyone always has enough food. She has heard that the powers that be have taken food from rural areas by force in order to feed people in Beijing.

Mornings in the parks in Beijing are filled with wondrous things

Yining thinks the Chinese government should do more to regulate for the environment. She has seen adverts about saving water and energy but the country's leaders are mostly too concerned about GDP. They are talking about sustainable development but haven't yet implemented many policies and those that have been are not enforced.

Hutongs are too small for cars but perfect for vertical vegetable growing

According to Yinning the big city governments care more about the environment. In Beijing there are restrictions on what sort of fuel you can use but not in the countryside. She then goes on to make the very valid point that no matter how efficient the cars are, the overall number of them is ultimately more significant. She wishes the restrictions were placed on the numbers of cars instead.

A young Chinese family at one of the Beijing 350 events

Yinning's heard about the imminent world summit on climate change Copenhagen but can't relate it to her daily life. That's the business of the government, not ordinary people. She agrees that Chinese government have more power here so things can change quicker but it's difficult for people lke her to influence them. They don't listen to their people.

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Eric - Beijing, China

As we step off the train from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia we're immediately dazzled by the realisation that the city in front of us is not the Beijing that lives in our heads. China's capital has almost completed its transformation from a sprawling city of traditional ricketty wooden buildings in labarynthine 'hutong' alleyways to concrete and steel mega-city of epic proportions that makes London and New York look like toy towns.

Beijing old and new

My first interviewee in China is Eric, a 20 year computer science student in Beijing. He's originally from a village outside Qingdao, the city famous for producing TsingTao beer, but has been in the big city for three years now. He's anticipating that China will be warmer, which won't be a good thing for his country and especially not for his adopted city; Beijing in the summer is mind-meltingly hot. Eric believes that air and water pollution are more of an issue here than climate change though and I can see why. Though we are visiting at supposedly the time of year when Beijing air is the clearest, the ever-present thick haze tricks me into thinking my glasses always need cleaning.

Eric & Emma

Eric drops the unsurprising but nonetheless depressing news that Chinese people are not worried about climate change. He maintains that China's priority is the economy. His friends are too busy with studying to worry too much about climate change. A poor student from the countryside must study from 5am until 8pm in order to get into a university.

A guard at the Forbidden Palace

The government should be responsible for addressing climate change, according to Eric. They should control the number of cars and encourage people to use public transport and bicycles. When asked about renewables he says solar might be good but he is concerned that China has built too many hydro-electric dams, which are now causing ecological damage.

Beijing's smog can at least make for a lovely picture

The interview ends on a much more positive note than it begins though. Eric tells me most emphatically that he thinks we must change our ways for the future. That we need to reduce pollution and make things cleaner. He uses public transport although he admits he's too poor to have a choice about this and the lights in his dormitory and in his family home are low energy too.

It might also be that Eric is unnecessarily pessimistic about his fellow citizens. Bearing in mind that a recent study showed that 62% of Chinese people wanted their government to take more action on climate change. Whether their government will heed their request is another matter but the will, it appears, is there.

Bookmark and Share

Sunday 22 November 2009

A Mongolian Climate Story

Mongolia is facing a bleak future. Already an arid land struggling to support a population that remains largely subsistence, climate change threatens to further dessicate it, wringing out the last precious drops of life-giving moisture. Everyone here describes the same story of less rain year on year, rivers and lakes drying up and their fears about the continuing viability of their traditional nomadic lifestyle. They may live simple lives but Mongolians are far from ignorant about the origins of their plight. Their radios and satellite televisions, powered by solar panels, have given them science's explanation for what ails them.

A once huge lake in central Mongolia reduced to a puddle

Mongolians, in common with most people it seems, like to say their government is not doing enough about climate change. They plant a few trees here and there but there's more talk than action. The reality is, as far as mitigation is concerned, there's little Mongolia is able to implement, especially in rural areas where lifestyles could barely be more low carbon. As is the case for the majority of the world, the extent of the powers the country possesses to deal with climate change are generally restricted to adaptation, in other words mopping up someone elses mess.

Climate change is drying up this Mongolian waterfall

The litter that is clearly a problem here does not betray a lack of respect for the environment, as you might assume. Mongolians, like all traditional societies, are not yet used to disposing of anything that doesn't become food for something else. On the contrary, looking after their environment is heavily embedded in Mongolian culture. Shamanic folklore terrifies Mongolian children with tales of the perils of disrespecting the natural world.

The solar panel is a common sight in Mongolia

Mongolia cannot afford the luxury of climate change denial because the evidence of climate change is plain for all to see here and now. Despite that Mongolians have not caused the problems that now threaten their ancient way of life, they don't seem angry or bitter, despite a little baiting. Mongolians seem to point blank refuse to badmouth other countries, aside from Chinese, for whom they bear a vitriolic historical grudge. It's both humbling and heartwarming to have discovered that the consensus emerging from this vulnerable country is that it's everyone's responsibility to tackle the problem of climate change.

Bookmark and Share

Friday 20 November 2009

Bor – Elsen Tasarkhai, Mongolia

Bor is in his late seventies, smokes a long pipe and keeps camels, horses, sheep and goats. Him and his hardworking wife, who tops up the stove in our gerr all night long with dried dung, live between a lake and a sand dune, which looks incredible to our Western eyes.

Bor at work

We wake up on the morning of the interview to an even stranger sight. There has been a snowstorm in the night and everything is covered in a thick blanket of snow. I'm told this is very unusual for this time of year. You might expect my Mongolian hosts to be pleased for the unseasonable gift of water but disgruntled mutterings tell me this is yet another unwelcome sign of instability in their previously more predictable ecosystem.

Bor in his ger

You see it's been getting drier in the last few years and now there's barely any rain. There used to be many trees around the sand dunes but there are hardly any left now. The sand encroaches ever further on the useful land and there are now more sand storms than ever. This is, of course, a problem because it makes the job of raising animals increasingly difficult.

Dusk before the snow

There's a lot of information about climate change on the news and Bor's well aware that it's linked to the problems he's just told me about. Climate change is a big problem for Mongolia because it is an agricultural country. These changes are bad for animals and plants alike.

The scene we woke up to

Bor thinks scientists need to work out what to do about the problem. He doesn't know who else can fix the problem but he says he's too old and laughs. Like the other Mongolians I've spoken to he thinks the Mongolian government talk about the problem but do nothing. He says some Korean's came here and planted some trees though.

Snowy camels

With a knowing smile, Bor tells me that of course he can imagine a life without fossil fuels because he still lives that life. He doesn't have a car. He's been riding horses for seventy years. He tells me he is trying to be optimistic for himself and future generations but that the time when he will go to sleep forever is very soon now.

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Dorjsuren, Orkhon, Mongolia

Dorjsuren, more commonly known as Ben (which means boy in Mongolian), is our guide for our three days of horse trekking around the magnificent eight lakes area. I wasn't planning on interviewing him but after watching my interview with Myagaa he so enthusiastically voluteered himself that I could hardly refuse.


As with all my previous Mongolian interviewees, the first thing Dorjsuren ,mentions is the lack of rain in recent years, especially the last five. What rain there is tends to fall in flash floods, which doesn't soak into the soil properly and therefore fails to nourish the plants that their animals feed on. Particularly dear to Dojsuren is the local waterfall that he grew up next to. It's a big attraction for tourists but these days it's dry all by two months of the year. We're extremely fortunate to be there while the waterfall is falling, albeit as a pale shadow of its former glory.

Dorjsuren with our pack horse

Climate change is a big problem throughout the country. This region is suffering from one of the many knock-on effects of global warming, increased pests. The trees, which protect the area from desertification, are being attacked by a two types of moth. They are thriving under the new warmer and drier conditions that climate change has brought.

Our trusty steeds

Like Myagaa, Dorjsuren thinks the government is all mouth and no trousers, talking plenty but doing little. He would like them to at least start with small problems, like helping his community fight the moths that attack their life-preserving trees.

Waterfall under threat from climate change

The future for Dorjsuren is unclear, although he can easily imagine a Mongolia without fossil fuels. He thinks his son will be ok but expects his grandson might have a very hard life because there will be so little water left when his time comes.

Bookmark and Share