It felt like the panic I experienced the night my first child woke up gasping for air and I didn’t know why (it was croup). That’s how I felt when I fully internalised the existential threat of the climate crisis. I’ve always known about climate change but, until quite recently, it was a background concern. There were too many other injustices.
As an aid-worker with Oxfam, I visited conflict zones where civilians were being indiscriminately killed, while, too often, Western countries turned a blind eye or in some cases fuelled the fighting. When I returned to the UK, I joined the fight to uphold the rights of refugees and migrants in the face of the hostile environment.
By contrast, discussions around climate change felt abstract, technical and distant from the daily struggles so many people faced.
Then I began to wake up. I took notice when the world’s top scientists warned that we only had twelve years, now eleven, to limit climate catastrophe for millions of people. I read articles and made a few more minor lifestyle changes but then, to be honest, I moved on. I filed away the anxiety. I shelved the information in the box in your brain marked: ‘Worrying but too big to really think about’.
It was when Extinction Rebellion first stopped traffic on Waterloo Bridge back in November 2018 followed by the wave of global youth strikes that I started to feel wide awake. This coincided with my kids coming home from primary school with anxious questions. Will the world explode because it’s so hot? Can we travel to another planet like in Star Wars? Can we bring back extinct animals?
I didn’t have the words to reassure them. I truly contemplated for the first time what it meant that that we were experiencing a mass extinction of species, caused by humans. That wonders of the natural world were being extinguished forever. That my children would only learn about them from books and toys, like dinosaurs.
Above all, I realised that any painstaking progress we were making to create a fairer society, and to uphold rights and human dignity, risked being reversed by climate breakdown.
I am the Jewish granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors. My professional work and my family history have taught me that our species always underestimates how rapidly a situation can deteriorate and how unmeasurably destructive we can be. In late 1930s Poland, my grandparents could never have contemplated the horror that lay ahead. Every Syrian person I’ve spoken to says that what has happened to their country was inconceivable just eight years ago.
Now the global scientific community is united in telling us that humanity is at a crossroads.
Poorer countries are already on the frontline of the climate crisis, even though they are the least well-equipped to deal with it and have done the least to contribute to historic carbon emissions. Mozambique has been battered by two deadly cyclones within weeks of each other, killing and displacing thousands of people in an unprecedented run of extreme weather.
As the climate breaks down, the most vulnerable communities will continue to bear the brunt. But ultimately, we will all be affected, no matter who we are or where we live.
But there is hope. The world is waking up, energised and inspired by the youth strikes and Extinction Rebellion. Alongside our compulsion to destroy is our ability to create and adapt. There is almost certainly worse to come but we can still avert total catastrophe.
We can do things as individuals. My family is working its way towards vegetarianism though I have to admit we’re not there yet. We’ve switched to a green energy supplier. We buy less, but we’re still constantly tripping up on plastic toys. We plan to fly less, but if the kids are going to see their grandparents, we need to get on a plane.
Our family can take these steps but many don’t have the headspace, time or resources to do so. This isn’t about personal purity. As a mother, I already feel guilty too much of the time, and I know most of my friends do too. In any case, micro-adjustments are nowhere near enough to save us.
What is needed is drastic action, led by governments and big business working with citizens, so that we can lead lives that don’t degrade the planet. This means keeping fossil fuels in the ground, switching to clean, renewable energy, mass reforestation, and, as Kate Raworth writes in Doughnut Economics, moving away from the endless pursuit of growth. As this radical transition takes hold, it must be twinned with the fight for social justice and equality, both within and between nations.
Our generation is the first to truly understand the magnitude of the climate crisis. This knowledge brings the responsibility to act, before it is too late. As adults, as parents, and as citizens, we must use our voice, vote and collective power to usher in the change that is needed to protect our life-giving planet and our children’s future.
I have found strength, solace and hope in organising with fellow mothers. Our first action as Mothers Rise Up is a climate march on 12 May, International Mother’s Day, in London and other cities across the UK and Europe.
And while we are a team of mothers that have come together inspired by our children, we call on everyone to join us in the fight for our threatened home.