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Out of time?

Updated Thursday, 9th October 2008

It's not too late, we can all make changes and lower our carbon footprint.

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Is it too late to do anything about climate change? Absolutely not – our actions now will make a big difference in the next decades! Is it too late to save the Greenland ice sheet from melting very significantly? Perhaps – we don’t know. We do know that it is going to get significantly warmer before it starts to stabilize and even cool again, but our knowledge about ice sheet dynamics is too poor to predict even roughly right now what is going to happen. Indeed, even if we had a crystal ball and knew definitely what future regional temperatures where going to be 200 years from now, we still wouldn’t be able to predict the future accurately.

Polar scientists want to know more about the physics of basal lubrication, so they can build better ice sheet models to investigate the potential impacts of different amounts of global and regional warming that may occur in the next 1-200 years. It would be handy to have a better handle on the regional warming we might expect – but that’s another very complex story that integrated climate models are trying to address.

There’s no doubt among scientists that observed regional climatic change and impacts in the Arctic are very significant: the region is warming twice as fast as the global average; summer sea ice, vegetation zones, and animal species diversity and ranges, are all changing rapidly consistent with significant regional warming; and indigenous communities are feeling and facing major economic and cultural changes.

Iceberg [image by Nathan Gallagher © copyright Nathan Gallagher] Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Nathan Gallagher

The Arctic is both a beautiful and isolated place. Travellers enjoying its unique beauty experience many different psychological responses: from the spiritual to vulnerable - from “oh my god, it’s so beautiful, there must be a god”, to “give me a hug, we need to stick together” and lots more in between. Imagining the dramatic change and loss of our current Arctic comes as a shock. Hope and despair are part of the same psychological chain reaction of emotions that can happen when we are confronted with bad news such as the loss of something or someone that we treasure.

Environmentalists have made the link between the knowledge that our behaviours, lifestyles, activities, are causing rapid climate change and psychological theories of how we react and cope in such situations. One such theory is Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ grief cycle that proceeds from bad news (such as losing the Arctic ice sheet). Faced with bad news we begin an emotional journey that may consist of some or all of the following stages:

  1. Shock at hearing the bad news.
  2. Denial to avoid the inevitable.
  3. Anger as the outpouring of bottled-up emotion.
  4. Bargaining such as seeking in vain for a way out.
  5. Depression with the realization of the inevitable.
  6. Testing more realistic solutions.
  7. Acceptance and finally finding the way forward.

How can we walk the line between hope and despair? One answer is that we need both emotions to move forward and it is quite normal to cycle through these and others in the course of coming to terms with the actions that we can do individually and collectively that will make a difference.

The Arctic is on the front line of global climate change impacts. That’s why this expedition and many like it happen. They are designed to focus the world’s attention on rapid climate change. The region is a harbinger of what is to come – a place to go to see something of the future – so we shouldn’t be too surprised if we come away shocked at its vulnerability as well as charmed by its beauty. Just as global warming is amplified considerably in the polar regions (warming at twice the average rate) our hope must be that through expeditions such as this we can amplify individual, community and governmental actions across the world on behalf of future generations. 

So it may be too late to prevent massive melting of the Greenland ice sheet. Is that any reason to give up? No, quite the opposite. Whatever actions we take today will not have immediate effects but will have significant effects in the future.

As well as teaching and communicating, one way in which I make sure I stay positive is that I volunteer for the Cambridge Carbon Footprint (CCF), usually talking to the public in homes, shopping malls or company offices to people and groups interested in making changes to lower their carbon footprints. CCF has what I think is a neat and positive “to do” list that should be a tonic for anyone feeling despair around the extent to which what an individual can do matters or indeed the extent to which is might be too late to avoid significant disruption and ecological, economic and social impacts. Here it is:

  • Be informed
    • Know your carbon footprint
    • Find out about climate change
    • Understand the issues - Don't Panic!
  • Communicate
    • Talk to your friends and colleagues about the issue
    •  Join with others - support each other in making changes
    • Ask your employer, councillor, MP what they are doing to help
  • Act now!
    • Start today. Do the simple things first.
    • Be smart. Buy wisely. Keep the environment in mind.
    • Think ahead. Plan for next year's improvements

For detailed advice, look at our website or, if you're in the Cambridge area, the leaflets on the stall.





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