A DECADE ago, a new genre of speculative fiction began to be featured at writers’ festivals: “cli-fi”, dystopic stories set against a backdrop of catastrophic climate change.
More recently, a novelist told me the term was no longer useful: “All fiction is climate fiction now,” they said.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released an update to its 2014 report on the impact of climate change. It leaves no doubt the massive changes we have wrought on our planet are starting to move out of the realm of speculation into reality.
“It is unequivocal that climate change has already disrupted human and natural systems,” the report says.
“Climate-related illnesses, premature deaths, malnutrition in all its forms, and threats to mental health and wellbeing are increasing.”
The list of present and future threats is sobering. It’s not just heat stress, but also vector-borne disease, gastrointestinal illness from contaminated water after flooding, food-borne illness due to proliferation of harmful bacteria, and respiratory illness aggravated by bushfire smoke. Extreme weather events, such as bushfires or floods, are followed by increased rates of mental illness.
On top of that, climate variability is already contributing to food insecurity and, as a result, malnutrition.
All of these effects are felt most deeply in those countries that have the least resources to address them. The IPCC report also notes that, even in wealthy countries, there is a disproportionate impact on Indigenous people.
Prevention is always better than cure but, sadly, the report makes clear some of the future impact is now locked in. It’s too late to completely avoid the cascade of crises that awaits us, and they’ll no doubt be compounded by all the other environmental threats faced by our overcrowded planet.
So, alongside an ongoing focus on reducing carbon emissions, we need a more concerted effort to find new ways to live in the radically transformed world that awaits us.
Unfortunately, progress has been slow on adaptation strategies to protect food supply, water, inhabited areas, and of course health.
“Despite acknowledgment of the importance of health adaptation as a key component, action has been slow,” the report notes.
There’s a lot of work to do, and many of the strategies will require broader thinking. Yes, we need heat action plans, including early warning and response systems for extreme conditions, but we also need fundamental changes in urban planning and design to help keep heat at a manageable level in our cities.
The authors of the IPCC report believe lessons can be learnt from the experience of COVID-19.
“The pandemic underscores the interconnected and compound nature of risks, vulnerabilities, and responses to emergencies that are simultaneously local and global,” they write.
It has also shown us how hard it is to reach and implement international agreements even, or perhaps especially, in the context of an emergency.
The pandemic, the report says, “exposed systemic weaknesses, at community, national, and international levels in the ability of societies to anticipate and respond to global risks”.
“Individuals, households, sub-national and national entities, and international organizations have generally delayed responses or denied the pandemic’s severity before responding at the scale and urgency required; a pattern that resembles international action on climate change.”
Australians resoundingly voted for action on climate change at the recent federal election. Let’s hope that means an end to the ideological warfare that has stymied any real action for over a decade.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.
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