History is littered with stories that echo the haunting Homeric myth of Cassandra, the Princess cursed by the Gods to be able to foretell the future but never to be believed. For every calamity you care to mention, there is a prophet among the suffering victims who told them what was coming to them all.
Climate change has now become an all-too grim illustration of the same phenomenon. The warnings have been coming over decades, not one Cassandra but many. Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth in 1972, Al Gore organised the first hearings in Congress on man-made global warming in 1981, The Rio Earth Summit adopted Agenda 21 committed to Sustainable Development in 1992.
Throughout this time, nothing was done. Those who warned the world what was coming were essentially ignored. Fine words, responsible intentions, voices of concern, all converted into a reality where the problem was not just getting worse. It was getting much worse. It might have been expected that World Leaders at the Rio Earth Summit would have changed that, especially as it was notable for an extraordinary intervention. Cassandra really did come back to life, in the form of a 12 year-old girl.
Climate change has now become an all-too grim illustration of the same phenomenon. The warnings have been coming over decades, not one Cassandra but many.
Severn Suzuki was a Canadian schoolgirl who, at the age of 9, founded the Environmental Children’s Organisation. Such was its success that, three years later, she was invited to address the Earth Summit, where she created a sensation. Here is a part of what she said:
“I’m only a child and I don’t have all the solutions, but I want you to realize, neither do you!
You don’t know how to fix the holes in our ozone layer.
You don’t know how to bring salmon back up a dead stream.
You don’t know how to bring back an animal now extinct.
And you can’t bring back forests that once grew where there is now desert.
If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!”
Severn Suzuki is now 43. The wildfires in her Canadian home this year have been worse than ever before. The world is seeing records for excessive heat being broken continually and repeatedly. 31 years ago, she warned the world. The world failed to act, in spite of the Summit’s rapturous reception of her speech, and even though she was honoured the following year in the United Nation’s Environment Programme Global 500 Roll of Honour.
This failure is responsible for producing a second, highly comparable, school age Cassandra. In some ways, Greta Thunberg is even more remarkable. She has sustained her campaign for longer in circumstances that have become more political and more toxic. She has faced overt opposition and continual attempts to discredit her. But she too was applauded to the rafters by the UN when she addressed them, in 2019, 27 years after Severn Suzuki addressed the same body to warn them about much the same thing.
“How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual’ and some technical solutions? With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8 1/2 years. There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is. You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.”
Four years later, and we are seeing the evidence of global warming at a scale never before experienced, excessive temperatures causing wildfires, destroying homes, lives and livelihoods. We are seeing a related consequence of rain and floods at a scale never before experienced. We are seeing the warnings of these two child Cassandras, 27 years apart but predicting the same catastrophic consequences of our actions, reaching some kind of fruition.
How then do we explain the reactions to it? In the same weeks as the news from Southern Europe reached terrifying proportions, as heat in Texas and other Southern states of the US hit unknown levels, as chronic flooding stuck Beijing for the first time in its history, the Prime Minister of the UK issued 100 new licences for North Sea Oil & Gas exploration and claimed this was a positive contribution to Net Zero. The Secretary of State for Levelling up, Housing and Communities (who was Minister for the Environment from 2017-19) spoke about the dangers of a “climate crusade” diverting resource from the needs of the economy.
We are seeing the evidence of global warming at a scale never before experienced, excessive temperatures causing wildfires, destroying homes, lives and livelihoods…
At first glance, these would seem to be a bad case of willful blindness. It is not as if these people argue about the reality of Climate Change. The science is now accepted. How then can such perverse policies be explained? Of course, there is a question of self-interest. The greater good of the planet is not necessarily aligned with the greater good of the British population. The extreme problems across the world have not apparently touched the UK this summer. These politicians are elected to represent the British population and argue that their policies are what their electorate want to see.
There is an essential precondition to allow this. It is the essential precondition for all the Cassandras throughout history. We do not believe them. Yes, we can all see climate change and global warming is happening. But we do not believe it will affect us. We do not even come close to believing it will destroy us.
Think of the original Cassandra. She spoke clearly, her words were understood, the Greeks had not gone until they were gone. But the Trojans not only ignored her warnings, they invited the problem in to the point where it could do the most certain and overwhelming damage.
Are we doing the same thing? 100 new licences for the North Sea? Refusing to extend the low emission zone further outside London? Delaying the funding of Net Zero measures? We would seem to be inviting the problem into our world, but this is a continuation. We have been inviting it in for decades, decades during which others have warned of the consequences. Gradually the problems have been getting worse and worse, but still we do not believe they are really dangerous.
This is reminiscent of the boiling frog experiment. If you drop a frog into boiling water, it will jump out immediately if it can. But if you slowly raise the temperature of the water from a much lower temperature, it will stay until it is boiled to death, because it will not notice the discomfort caused by the rising temperature. The gradual change hides the danger.
Are we the frogs? Temperatures have been gradually increasing in Southern Europe and North Africa. And Texas. And Kuwait. The population of all these places has not heavily declined. Now it’s reaching boiling point, what happens next?
We need to start by acknowledging what we have done. Say sorry to Cassandra. Abba, this time, not Homer.
“Sorry Cassandra, I didn’t believe
You really had the power
I only saw it as dreams you would weave
Until the final hour”
But let’s not wait until the final hour before we really start to do something about it, please!