You may have heard the fable about “the boiling frog”. It’s a simple experiment in two steps: Take a frog and place it in a pot of hot water. The frog will react immediately and jump out of the pot. Take another frog, place it in a pot of lukewarm water. This will feel like a nice warm bath but, then put it on a hot stove and heat it very gradually. The water will reach boiling point but, unfortunately, the frog will not perceive the danger and it will be cooked alive.
As I woke up on that day, 31st of December 2019 at 4 am, in the small town of Ulladulla, a beautiful corner of New South Wales, Australia, I wondered if we had reached that point of no return, a tipping point. The sky was dark, the air smoky, and the flames bloody orange. What climate scientists had been predicting for years was becoming a reality.
That day marked the end of a fiery decade for the planet, and hopefully the start of a new era with the emergence of an ecological civilization. Can nature come back to life after so much destruction? Is there space for recovery, rebirth, regeneration in the aftermath of the large-scale inferno of mega-fires?
2020 is also the start of my 40th year of life on Earth. A time to look back and rethink the next steps. In my entire life, I had never experienced such a deep feeling of fear and emergency.
I had lived some intense challenges and risky situations: working as a humanitarian volunteer near the Afghan border in Tajikistan when I was 21; climbing difficult rocky peaks with my future husband; facing adversity when giving birth to our daughter, or crying out a mix of joy and pain on the finish line of the Jungfrau Marathon in freezing conditions. I had seen despair and poverty in the eyes of lonely women living in the forgotten suburbs of San Fabio de Alican in Chile, but, I had never seen anything like that. It felt like the apocalyptic end of the world.
It felt like the entire world was committing climate suicide, starting with Australia where people were either feeling too lethargic to get out of their comfortable sunbaths (including ourselves as holidaymakers), or feeling the heat of fires to the point that they had to take refuge on the beach.
Luckily on that day, some of our best friends who live in Canberra (and escaped the flames in Sydney), sent us a map of the expanding fire hazards advising us to leave as soon as possible.
In an effort to stay calm and rational, we packed our bags, put the sleepy kids in the car and left before sunrise. The weather forecast was predicting intense heat and strong winds, the perfect ingredients to heat up the stove on a stock of wood fuel perfectly prepared by three years of droughts. Three hours later the roads were closed in both directions, North and South, leaving the people of Ulladulla, in an isolated enclave, to shortages of food, water and fuel, power cuts, a lot of despair, and finally the unavoidable escape to the ocean.
“What were you doing there on New Year’s Eve?” you may ask. Being born and raised in France, I met my husband Matthew in Canada on an exchange programme between the University of British Columbia and Sciences Po, Paris. My sister-in-law, Aija, met her husband Danny, they got married in New South Wales, Australia and had three children. They are therefore cousins of our two children: Lucas and Leïla. Despite my reluctance to get on an aeroplane that would be emitting so much carbon (even if compensating by investing in reforestation projects), we decided to stick to our plans and hold our family reunion in Newcastle, Australia, as my mother-in-law was also joining us for the occasion.
In a way, our family is a pure product of globalization from the 2000s, the “happy decade” when everything was still possible. At that time, we could still change the world. Can we still do that today?
As I was watching the flames greedily absorb the beautiful Australian bush, I asked myself if this was real, and it was.
I had started studying and working on climate change about 20 years ago. At that time, I found the discovery challenging but also fascinating. In addition, there was no Greta Thunberg to tell the younger school students about the reality of climate science. My studies and work changed my perspective on humanitarian action, which I had been passionate about. It became clear that we could only achieve poverty reduction and sustainable development if addressing the root causes of natural disasters. Putting stitches on open wounds would not be enough. After witnessing the impacts of drought and soil erosion on agriculture and food systems in Tajikistan, I went back to studying the environment at the London School of Economics. I wanted to learn about how we could rebuild the bridge between development and the environment.
As I was advising the green Members of the European Parliament this brought me to my first UNFCCC COP in Montreal in 2005. One thing I remember clearly was visiting the ice-breaker with my friend Agnès Sinaï, a climate journalist and writer. We were given the opportunity, as COP delegates to observe the graphs which showed the evolution of the melting ice in the Arctic. At that time, we were convinced that the Kyoto Protocol was going to save us with a legally binding agreement and quantified emission targets for all industrialized countries.
Kyoto failed. Copenhagen failed. But then there was Paris, in “The City of Light”. The success of COP21 brought so much hope to the world, demonstrating the capacity of all nations to come together in a model of shared leadership and solidarity to tackle the “defining issue of our times”. Humanity and light in a time of horror and terror, as if millions of candles had been lit to brighten the sky for future generations.
I sometimes compare the Paris Agreement to a giant sailing boat, travelling towards the safe horizon of carbon neutrality by 2050, with all of us on board. The US President may have decided to jump ship, in a self-jeopardizing act of selfishness, but the boat is still there, going through episodes of storms and sun. Because there is no plan B for humanity. There is only plan A, also for all of the other living species on Earth which we have taken with us onboard this Noah’s Ark of Paris.
Today, in 2020, is the boat sailing fast enough to safely reach it’s destination, staying below 2 or even 1.5°C?
Global warming has been creating its own feedback loops. The oceans are becoming warmer and more acidic, reducing their capacity to absorb carbon. Forests are drier and burn more easily, particularly in Australia, Brazil, Canada, California and the Arctic. In Siberia, the permafrost is melting and releasing vast quantities of methane, another powerful greenhouse gas that will speed up global temperatures. In parallel, human beings have never been so numerous, on the planet, and so greedy in oil, gas and coal consumption. Global emissions keep increasing, reaching top-roof levels.
In Australia alone, as of January 2020, more than 5.5 million hectares have already been burnt and this is only the start of the summer; thousands of people have lost their homes; several firefighters and volunteers have been killed; one-third of the koala population has been decimated. An estimated one billion animals have lost their lives and at this scale, we can start talking about ecocide. The fires are also adding the equivalent of half of the total volume of greenhouse gases normally emitted by the country in a year, reducing its capacity to naturally absorb carbon in forests for next year and accelerating the 6th mass extinction crisis with the loss of critical endemic species and ecosystems.