Shattering the climate silence. Speech by Dr Aaron Thierry of the School of Geosciences 19/05/15

19 May

Before I start, I’d just like to say how inspired by all of you I am. You’re amazing.

Hands up who here was born after February 1985. That includes me too. That means that for the whole of your life not one single month has the temperature been less than its 20th century average.  That means you’ve already been born into a fundamentally different world to the one your parents were born into. But the changes we’ve already seen are nothing compared to what is still to come if we don’t act now.

Climate change is a slippery concept. It is an idea with a bizarre ability to make us want to overlook it. Climate change wraps silences around itself, and leaves taboos in its wake.

I’m going to try and draw attention to three of those taboos. Three silences that you are shattering right now.

The first of these is one I’m sure we’re all vaguely familiar with in our daily lives.  I call it ‘Climate Silence’. It’s that uncomfortable feeling that you might have had, telling you that you know that something isn’t quite right with our weather, the number of extraordinary extremes that we hear about on the news, devastating cyclones such as Pam or Haiyan, the record floods in England, Chile, the Balkans, and the epic and ongoing drought in California.

We have that vague awareness that every few months the news reports about scientists who seem to be warning yet again about lack of action in reducing fossil fuel emissions, about how atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have now passed 400ppm, or in May last year you might have caught a mention, about how part of the West Antarctic Ice-Sheet has already become destabilised and is headed towards what NASA called “an irreversible collapse”. And this is only with 0.85°C of warming. Nature is just clearing her throat.

All of this is there in the background, gently prodding at our attention accompanied by a growing sense dread and yet we carry on with our daily lives as if nothing is the matter, as if it’s all under control.

The climate campaigner George Marshall tells a story about how he once tried to talk about his work at a dinner party. There was a silence. No one said anything until someone said, ‘What a delicious spinach tart.’ And then they spent the next 10 minutes talking about spinach tart — in obsessive detail ‘What a lovely spinach tart. Where did you get the spinach? I must have the recipe.’

This is the silence that we must confront. The silence in our daily lives.

That is the silence you are shattering just now in this act of occupation.

The next silence is the silence of ‘fossil fuels’.

George Monbiot has pointed out that: “There is nothing random about the pattern of silence that surrounds our lives. Silences occur where powerful interests are at risk of exposure.”

We’re often told that we’re all to blame for climate change as though each of us is equally responsible.  We’re told that we’re greedy, that our selfish wants demand high energy, carbon intensive lifestyles and that the fossil fuel industry is simply helping to meet that demand. But we are falling victims to a confidence trick. The old switcheroo.  Because by focussing attention on us and our emissions the fossil fuel industry has successfully avoided scrutiny. We have obsessed with designing policies that aim to reduce emissions, whilst at the same time allowing these companies to continuously extract ever larger quantities of fuels and rake in ever greater profits.

It’s madness to solely focus on demand whilst ignoring supply. You don’t try to hit the brakes whilst also sticking your other foot on the accelerator. Yet in twenty years of international negotiations never once have they talked about restricting extraction of coal, oil or gas. But the science is now clear that that is something that can no longer be avoided, this taboo must be tackled.

After years of delay and ineffective action, compounded by a fossil fuel industry funded misinformation campaign designed to sow doubt in the public’s mind about the dangers of global warming (which has drawn on the same dirty tricks that  the tobacco lobby used to deny the link between lung cancer and smoking), we now find ourselves in a situation where fossil fuel companies have laid claim to five times more reserves then can be burned if we are to meet our internationally agreed climate targets.

Yet, these companies’ business plans are based on digging it all up and looking for more. Just listen to Peabody Energy, one of the largest coal mining companies “The greatest problem we confront is not an environmental crisis predicted by flawed computer models, but a human crisis that is fully within our power to solve” or Exxon Mobil “All of ExxonMobil’s current hydrocarbon reserves will be needed, along with substantial future industry investments, to address global energy needs”

$600 billion was spent by fossil fuel companies last year exploring and developing new reserves. That’s $600 billion that could have been spent on putting us on a path to a clean energy future, instead of locking us onto even more extreme climate as though business as normal is still acceptable.

And they have the nerve to say that it is we who are the radicals for trying to protect our home and maintain a stable climate. Instead it is those who would put profit before people and the planet who are the real radicals. The real radicals are sat in the board rooms of fossil fuel companies and who send forth drilling rigs to the Arctic Ocean now that the sea ice has melted back. They’re the radicals! 

This is the silence that we must confront. The silence of pointing out who’s to blame.
That is the silence you are shattering just now in this act of occupation.

The last silence that we must face up to, is perhaps the hardest. It is our silence towards our friends.

We cannot let friendships get in the way of our challenging each other for failing to take action in a crisis.

There’s a Chinese proverb that says:

“To know and not act is not to know”

When the University Edinburgh last week decided not to act by not committing to fully divesting from fossil fuels it proved that they have not yet broken the first silence and have yet to come to accept the urgent and overwhelming reality of the threat of climate change.

It also showed that nor had they broken the second silence recognising the negligence, short-sidedness and greed of the fossil fuel industry and the need to strip them of their social licence if we are to make progress in truly rising to the challenge of the climate crisis.

It is our job not to let that go unchallenged. Friends do not let friends deny reality.

Our message has been one of simple morality since the beginning of the campaign “If it’s wrong to wreck the planet it is wrong to profit from that wreckage”. We will not stand silent when it comes to reminding our institutions of this obligation.

Marin Luther-King Jr once said “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Edinburgh University’s silence as a Climate Leader has been deafening.

That is the silence you are shattering just now in this act of occupation.


That is the silence you are shattering just now in this act of occupation!

And may your Bravery, your Honesty and your Truth shame them in to doing what is right.
So I say to the University of Edinburgh- DO THE RIGHT THING!

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