Here's Some Transcripts of Talks That I've Written
We Have A Dream For Our Planet
St Martin-In-The-Fields, Trafalgar Square
October 25th 2021
When I first started to learn what’s going on on our planet, I didn’t have a dream - I had nightmares.
What was there to dream about when for 40 years our international governments had ignored the alarm calls raised by the scientific community?
What was there to dream about when the truth was hidden from us, known only to climate scientists and a small elite minority who, although powerful, did nothing - at least nothing close to what was needed to avoid untold suffering and death?
My nightmares began in 2019, after attending an Extinction Rebellion protest. I had gone to support my partner Kimwei who was playing in the samba band, and I felt pretty uncomfortable about what I saw there. People holding banners with slogans warning of “mass extinction”, “ecosystem breakdown”, “civilisation collapse”. People crying, chaining themselves to railings, demanding governments take action, before it was too late.
I felt embarrassed, and a desire to distance myself. Surely this was all a little melodramatic? Surely these prophecies of doom were the delusions of disturbed or hysterical minds, of those who knew little of the real scientific facts. Surely if it was THAT bad we would all know about it? It would be on the front page of every newspaper? Top of the bill on every news report? Surely if it was that bad, at least I would know about it? As a science author, broadcaster and public speaker, I’m regularly called upon to give talks and interviews about important scientific topics. Obviously I knew about climate change, but no one seemed to think it was such a big deal. And anyway, surely if it was that bad, the government would be doing something about it? How naive I was.
With a cold sense of dread in my soul, and a desperate desire to prove them wrong, I decided to investigate. My degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University, PhD in molecular biology, and decade of experience as a science author and broadcaster, had taught me how to research information and get to the truth. The more I read, the more horrified and terrified I became.
And so the nightmares began. Nightmares that arose from the shock of finding out something truly terrible - that not only was it really that bad, it was a whole lot worse.
Nightmares from finding out that we as a society are capable of walking, with wilful ignorance, to our own destruction. That the atrocity of global denial had already taken place. Nightmares about what was already happening to our planet. And nightmares about the horrors of what’s to come, of our future if we continue down the same path - extreme weather, loss of habitats, lack of basic resources, mass migration, civil unrest.
You’re probably hoping at this point that I’ve come here today to tell you the story of how I found my way through these nightmares to my own personal epiphany - how I moved from having nightmares to finding my dreams. And to inspire you to do the same. But that’s not what happened. When I learned of the severity of the Planetary Crisis, the reason I had nightmares was because I was alone. Alone, we will always have nightmares. But together, we can have a dream - a dream of an alternative future for our planet.
I don’t have to tell you what this dream looks like, sounds like, smells like, tastes like or feels like, because you already know. Think of the best memory you’ve ever had, think of all your best memories, all the times you’ve felt happiest. Think of all the moments you are looking forward to. Chances are, these moments are all when you’ve felt love, joy, when you’ve felt connection - to nature, or to those most important to you - perhaps they’re moments when you’ve watched someone, some creature or something you love, grow and flourish. Imagine a world in which all these moments remain possible, are available to everyone. A world in which nothing threatens them. This is the world we dream of. In the end we all want the same thing. This is our dream for the planet.
So the question is, how do we get there?
For me, my first step into feeling less alone, into moving away from my nightmares and towards this dream for our future, was to join Extinction Rebellion. Extinction Rebellion, is an environmental protest movement, with three central demands - three core principles.
Number 1 - To Tell The Truth about what’s really going on, and thereby declare a climate emergency
Number 2 - To Act Now - to not delay on action for climate justice
Number 3 - To go Beyond Politics and create a new way of doing things
The Extinction Rebellion principles come in that order for a reason - Tell The Truth being first - because the first step to solving any problem is to know exactly what it is. The government is supposed to tell us, the public, the truth. Yet the truth has been withheld from us.
So let me, now, tell you the truth that I discovered.
The truth is that humanity is facing a crisis unprecedented in its history. A crisis that, unless immediately addressed, threatens to catapult us towards the destruction of all we hold dear, our planet’s ecosystems and the future of generations to come. This crisis has been caused by human activities and we have to stop making it worse or we will face catastrophe that we cannot think our way out of, invent our way out of or buy our way out of. In one way or another, it will affect every one of us and everything we love.
The truth is that the science is clear, the breakdown of our climate has begun. Over the past 150 years, the burning of fossil fuels, livestock farming, intensive agriculture and deforestation have resulted in greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere SO FAST that the nice warm blanket that normally surrounds our planet is getting dangerously thick, trapping too much heat radiating from the surface of the earth.
The truth is that, as a direct result of these human actions, our planet is now hotter than it has been in over 100,000 years. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution the average temperature on our planet has now increased by a little over 1 degree. 1 degree might not sound like much, but the amount of energy that is required to heat something as enormous as our planet by just 1 degree is the equivalent to 5 atomic bombs going off in our atmosphere every second.
The truth is, all this extra heat is causing hotter areas to get hotter and dryer, resulting in more extreme heatwaves, forest fires and droughts, and is causing more water to evaporate from the oceans, resulting in more intense rainfall, storms, monsoons and floods.
The truth is extreme weather events are already having devastating impacts on agriculture and destroying lives, homes and businesses, costing taxpayers billions of dollars and leaving millions of people in need of humanitarian aid.
The truth is that natural disasters have doubled over the past 10 years, and if we keep going as we are, the coming years will bring more and more wildfires, unpredictable super storms, flash flooding and scorching heatwaves. By the 2050s, 2 billion people will face 60 degree temperatures for more than one tenth of the year. Tropical cyclones are more likely to be hitting Western Europe. Deadly heat waves of the kind seen in 2019, when nearly 400 temperature records were broken across 29 countries, will be happening every summer. For those without the privilege of air-conditioning or indoor offices, this will be devastating. The UK alone is predicted to see a trebling of heat-related deaths.
The truth is, extreme weather is already affecting our ability to crop crops to feed ourselves. In the UK we’ve had severely reduced harvests in two of the last three years. Unless we change course now, by 2050 there will be many more mouths to feed yet crop yields will be down by an average of 10% globally and up to 50% in certain regions. Extreme weather will be three times more likely to hit multiple breadbasket regions at the same time, with catastrophic effects. We live in a globally interconnected society. Here in the UK, we import 50% of our food, 70-80% of our fruit and veg. Crop failures on one side of the world will inevitably lead to food shortages and price rises on the other, resulting in food riots and families struggling to put food on the table.
By 2040, 8% of the global population will see a severe reduction in water availability. London will be seeing serious shortages. By 2050, 5 billion people across the globe are likely to face shortages of food and clean water, particularly those in Africa and South Asia - who have done the least to contribute to this crisis. That’s 1 in every 2 people on the planet. In England, our thirst for water will be 1.1 billion litres greater than the water we actually have.
The truth is, all this extra heat is also causing ice to melt. Arctic sea ice is declining at a rate of nearly 13% per decade. By 2035 The Arctic could be ice-free in summer. If we allow the sea ice loss to continue, all the polar bears will soon be gone. Antarctica is losing 252 billion tonnes of ice every year. Melting glaciers threaten the water supplies of the 1.9 billion people living downstream, who depend on fresh water for domestic supplies, irrigation and industry. Over the past 40 years, the amount of ice we’ve lost from our planet amounts to around 300 double-decker-bus-sized chunks of ice every second.
The truth is, water from melting ice sheets is adding to our oceans, and sea levels are rising. To make matters worse, as water heats up, it expands and takes up more space, causing further rise. Scientists are terrified that parts of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet are already showing signs of an unstoppable and irreversible collapse. That could lock in several metres of sea level rise in the coming centuries, which would be absolutely catastrophic.
The truth is that rising seas have already claimed large coastal areas of the South Pacific, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Vietnam, and five of the Solomon Islands. By 2040, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Thailand are predicted to be threatened by annual floods, sparking mass migration. By 2050, the combination of rising seas and more intense storms will mean that in many low-lying megacities and small islands, the sort of extreme flooding events that previously happened only once a century could be happening every year. Some insurance companies are already warning that they will soon stop insuring basements in London, New York and Mumbai. Large parts of Thailand and Vietnam, one of the world’s largest rice exporters, could practically disappear. The UK will be one of the worst affected, with large parts of the English coastline and areas around its rivers, such as Sussex, Kent, Cambridgeshire and Central London, predicted to regularly fall below sea level.
The truth is that all this extra heat is causing infectious diseases to spread faster, and tropical diseases to spread to parts of the world where they’re not usually seen. There have already been cases of malaria, zika virus and dengue fever appearing in Europe. On our current path, by 2030, climate change-related illnesses are predicted to be killing an extra 250,000 people every year.
The truth is that all this extra heat is causing deadly ocean heatwaves and deoxygenation of our waters, leading to catastrophic loss of ocean life.
The truth is, it’s not just about climate change.
As a result of all the extra carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, our oceans are more acidic than they have been in the past 65 million years - dissolving the shells of sea creatures and damaging corals. By 2050, our coral reefs, one of the most important and diverse ecosystems on the planet that support up to one million other species and provide food, protection from storms and livelihoods for nearly one billion people, will be as good as gone.
The truth is we are running out of raw materials and using up our resources. One third of our fisheries are overfished and 90% are fully exploited. Our rivers are being poisoned and our seas are filling up with plastic. The air is so toxic that outside air pollution is killing nearly 5 million people every year and a staggering 9 out of 10 people on our planet breathe polluted air. In London alone, 24 people die every day due to air pollution. Unless we change course, by 2050, in much of the world masks will be needed daily - not to protect us from coronavirus but to protect our lungs from smog.
The truth is, due to a deadly combination of habitat destruction, pollution and climate change, biodiversity is being annihilated across the globe. Population sizes of thousands of species of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles have plummeted by nearly 70% since the 1970s. We are losing our crop-pollinating insects and soil-rejuvenating earthworms. One third of what we eat relies on insect pollination. Species are going extinct 100 to 1,000 times faster than they would be doing naturally. One million species are now threatened with extinction, including 1 in 4 mammals – many within the next few decades. Scientists say we are now entering the Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction. Only this time it’s our fault. The consequences will be catastrophic if we do not act swiftly.
The truth is that half of all our forests have now been destroyed - a staggering 3 trillion trees. Around 15 billion trees are being felled every year to feed the ever-increasing demands for palm oil, clothes and meat - releasing the same amount of carbon dioxide as driving 600 million cars and destroying the homes of countless creatures. Some parts of the Brazilian rainforest are being cleared at a rate of 3 football fields every minute.
The truth is we’ve lost more than four fifths of our wetlands that provide vital protection from floods and storms.
The truth is that over 95% of what we eat relies on healthy soils, yet as a result of deforestation and intensive agriculture over the past 150 years more than one third of our fertile topsoils have now been damaged or destroyed, releasing stored carbon back into the atmosphere and reducing our ability to grow nutritious crops. We are currently losing soil 10-100 times faster than it can be regenerated. The UK has some of the most degraded soils on Earth, with nearly 85% of fertile peat topsoil in East Anglia having been lost since 1850, and the remainder at risk of being lost over the next 30–60 years.
The truth is that changes in climate, alongside changes in land use that bring animals into closer contact with humans, increases the risk of disease transmission from animals to humans - making more pandemics increasingly likely.
The truth is, unless we change course now, due to a combination of rising seas, extreme weather and crop failures, hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people could be forced to leave their homes. In the first six months of 2019, extreme weather events displaced a record seven million people. By 2050 it is estimated that there could be up to 200 million environmental migrants.
The truth is, mass migration, along with food and water shortages and food price rises, are likely to take us towards civil unrest and ultimately war, threatening the very fabric of society, and raising the terrifying possibility of societal collapse.
The truth is, climate change disproportionately affects the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, who have the least responsibility for what’s happening. The carbon footprint of the average American is over 250 times that of individuals in several African countries. And as things get worse, so too will the inequality. On our current path, by just 2030, dwindling crop yields will push 100 million more people in developing countries into extreme poverty.
The truth is that these climate and ecological crises can no longer be ignored or denied.
In 2019, over 13,000 scientists from 153 countries declared “clearly and unequivocally that the Earth is facing a climate emergency” and that without deep and lasting changes, the world’s people face "untold human suffering". Just last month, a report from the U.N said that unless dramatic action is taken to curb greenhouse gas emissions, we are heading towards climate catastrophe.
As Sir David Attenborough put it: “We are facing a man-made disaster on a global scale.”
Yet in spite of promises from governments, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise steeply and biodiversity loss shows no sign of slowing. The UK Government’s own climate change advisors have reported a staggering lack of progress in making the necessary emissions cuts or preparing us for what’s to come.
It probably hurts to hear all this. It hurt when I found this all out, when I first started to write about it, when I was alone. It hurts less to stand in front of you here today and to share that pain because I know that your pain is an indicator that you too dream of a world in which creatures are given space to flourish and all people live in abundance and equality. When you hear this nightmare and you feel sad, angry or afraid you are showing that you are already starting to dream.
We all want the same thing, but this earth will only become our dream planet when we are able to truly take the bold step forward into wanting the dream to come true for everyone on it, and for every living thing. As long as we are willing to sacrifice SOME people, some animals, some places, we are not truly dreaming.
What I've shared with you this evening are my nightmares, the nightmares I have when I am alone and they wake me in the early hours of the morning. I am through with having nightmares, it is time for us to build a dream - a dream for our planet. It will take all of us in this room, and more. It will take everyone in your family, in your street and in your life. Take this knowledge home with you and share it, spread it until you have turned everywhere you go into a place where dreams are stronger than nightmares. Do the work of becoming someone who truly dreams of equality and happiness for all, and let that dream guide you in what you do next.
Make your house and your lifestyle as green as you can, not in the hope that your personal carbon footprint will decrease enough to save the planet, but as a sign of devotion to our collective dream.
Our dream needs us, but it also needs every government, every business, every influencer in the world. Our dream will not be realised without international co-operation and THAT is what we must dream of. We must dream of it with so much conviction that we will accept nothing less. Our dream must become so real to us that when we discover that it is not yet a reality we seek to right that wrong immediately. With our dream in our hearts we get up and call out to governments in the name of every blade of grass being trampled, in the name of every tree being cut down and every life lost, be it human or animal.
Let’s go back to Extinction Rebellion’s three demands and turn them on their head. Extinction Rebellion asks governments to tell the truth that this is an emergency, to act now and to go beyond politics. Today let us recognise that together we must do, ourselves, that which we are demanding of our government.
Firstly, we must tell ourselves the truth. We must declare to ourselves that this is, indeed, an emergency. We must tell that truth to those around us. If you want to know where to go to find the truth, in collaboration with a team of experts from the Scientists for Extinction Community that I co-founded, I wrote a free, easy-to-read, online guide to the crisis, called Emergency on Planet Earth. You can find it on the Extinction Rebellion website, under The Truth, The Emergency. If you want to know how to tell the truth to children, my book World-whizzing Facts; Awesome Earth Questions Answered, explains it all in very simple language and offers actions and hope for the future.
Secondly, we must act now. We must become activists - whatever that means to us. We are facing an existential crisis, the possible collapse of our life support systems, and we are the last generations that can act to stop this. It’s not too late, but time is running out. People around the world are now coming together to urge governments to do what needs to be done. We are going to need big changes, to uproot the system, but there IS capacity to do it. No amount of talks or summits will lead to changes on this scale unless the we people demand it too. And that means us.
It doesn’t matter what you do, but you must do something. And do it now. The future of our children, and our grandchildren, is at stake.
And finally, we must go beyond our personal politics, beyond everything we have been taught, and dream together of a world in which anything is possible. For everyone.
I’d now like to invite my partner, in life and in activism, Kimwei McCarthy, lecturer in music, singer-songwriter and the Grand Bard of Exeter, to unite us in song.