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A letter to the 21st century from Clean Air Fund’s Executive Director

Clean Air Fund's Executive Director Jane Burston was invited by BBC Radio 4 to share some thoughts on climate change and air pollution as the century turned 21. This is a transcription of the full episode.

Listen to the full episode on the BBC Radio 4 website.

Dear 21st century,

I can’t believe you’re already 21 years old! In human years, fully adult.

So if you’ll allow me to give you some friendly but firm advice, I’m writing to say that now you’ve come of age, it’s time to grow up, to step up, and to take responsibility. Now’s the time when you need to decide what kind of life you’re going to lead.

There’s one thing that is absolutely essential. In your lifetime, indeed, in your next decade, the decisions will be made and the actions taken that determine the very future of life on this planet.

In the next decade, either the climate emergency will be turned around, or it’ll run out of control.

It really is as simple as that.

It’s time to get serious.

It was in the very early years of this century, when I too was only a little over 21, that I decided to devote my life to flighting the climate crisis – to get serious myself.

It happened because I nearly died.

I nearly died on the side of a road, at mile 25 of the Chicago marathon. I’d run a few marathons before, and I’d picked Chicago because it meant I could visit my cousin who lived there, and because it was usually great conditions for running – a flat course and reliably cool October temperatures of about 12 degrees Celsius.

Unfortunately, that year, the weather hadn’t got the memo. On the day of the race the temperature soared to a blistering 34 degrees Celsius, with something like 80 per cent humidity.

At halfway it was incredibly hard going; by the time I got to 18 miles the water stations were dry and spectators were buying bottles from corner shops to hand out to the runners.

It was as I was passing the 23 mile mark that the marathon was actually called off. I found out later that, by this time, more than 100 ambulances had been called and hospital emergency rooms were full to bursting with runners suffering from heatstroke and severe dehydration. But my own heat addled brain didn’t listen to the warnings. I was delirious, and I pushed on regardless of the policewoman with a megaphone telling us to stop.

At mile 25, having passed scores of sunburned and exhausted bodies laid prone by the roadside, my own legs gave way.

Semi-conscious, I was lifted into an ambulance on a stretcher. The crew saw from my race number that I was from the UK and contemplated out loud how the hospital would contact my relatives were I to die. They thought it was curtains; so did I.

And in that moment, thinking I was about to die, one question dominated my mind vividly and clearly: what have I been doing with my life?

That might sound dramatic, especially as I hadn’t been doing anything particularly ‘bad’. It was more a realisation that I wasn’t doing enough.

I’d always been concerned about the environment. I was the green officer at my university, championing recycling and sustainable investment, I was vegetarian, I rode a bike, I took public transport instead of driving. And by the time the Chicago marathon came around, I was even working in sustainability for a major retailer.

But, lying on that stretcher, I had a moment of clarity. The reasons I’d taken that sustainability job weren’t, primarily, about concern for the environment. The reasons I’d taken the job were the global brand name, the CV points and the salary. I was living a comfortable life and I’d convinced myself that I was contributing as best as I could.

In that moment, I knew I needed to take the climate emergency as seriously as the science – and my conscience – demanded.

Immediately on returning home, I resigned from that job. I started to think hard about what I could contribute if I decided to really go for it; if I acted on my understanding of the scale of the challenge, and if I really got serious.

I’d never dreamt of setting up an organisation before but I founded a social enterprise to reduce industrial emissions. When I went to conferences, instead of sitting in the back and listening, I sat at the front, and challenged speakers I disagreed with. And when later I was asked to set up a climate and energy centre at one of the UK’s national science labs, I felt a lot of trepidation but again knew that this was the work I needed to do.

It’s fitting that it was a heatwave that triggered this change.

That crazy hot day in Chicago is one example of the types of extreme weather events that climate change is making increasingly more likely and more severe.

Twenty of the 21 warmest years ever recorded have all occurred since the year 2000.

Also within this century, floods have affected more than one and a half billion people; wildfires have torn through dried-out forests, grasslands and peatlands from California to Australia to the Arctic Circle; and crop failure has caused food insecurity, pushing up food prices in some of the most vulnerable parts of the world.

Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their livelihoods, their homes and even their lives in extreme weather events caused by climate change.

Nature is suffering too. The oceans have absorbed a third of the carbon dioxide that we’re pumping into the atmosphere. That’s changing the chemistry of the oceans so they’re more acidic, which dissolves coral and makes it harder for fish to survive.

David Attenborough showed this to us on Blue Planet. But we don’t need a documentary to show us how nature is changing anymore –  it’s visible on our doorstep.

As a child, I remember spotting butterflies in the garden – red admirals, cabbage whites, and whatever those white ones were with the orange tips. During the UK’s first lockdown, like many people, I spent more time than usual out walking. I’d just moved house a few months before and it was nice to explore the local countryside. But I was struck that the outdoors wasn’t quite the same as when I was young. The blossoms seemed to be out far earlier than normal, I saw fewer bumblebees and there wasn’t a butterfly in sight. Our seasons are changing, and one change in the timeline of events can throw the whole cycle of nature out of sync.

All this only stands to get worse, unless the pace of our response increases dramatically.

It’s now – in this century and this decade – that we all need to get serious.

To do that, we need leaders who’ll prioritise our planet in their decision making. Too many Prime Ministers and Presidents have been scaling back environmental protection efforts, exploiting irreplaceable rainforests and cosying up to polluting industries.

But there are signs of hope.

Several major economies have adopted a net zero target, including China, which represents more than a quarter of global emissions. Thirty four countries have so far signed up to phasing out coal – including countries like Israel, Ukraine and Germany that are still reliant on coal for almost third of their electricity generation.

And the evidence suggests that our international collaboration is starting to pay off. The commitments under the Paris Agreement, if implemented, will take the projected warming of our planet from a worst-case scenario of a four and a half degree temperature rise by the end of the century, down to a 3.2 degree rise.

Yet even that 3.2 degree rise would bring about mass extinctions and make large parts of our planet uninhabitable. We have to get serious if we’re to limit the rise to just 1.5 degrees.

We need to go so much faster.

But the momentum is building to make it happen.

Perhaps the most exciting fact is that in no country in the world can leaders claim that their citizens don’t want to get serious about the climate emergency.

The majority of people in countries surveyed by the Pew Research Centre say that global climate change is a major threat to their nation. In fact, it’s seen as the top threat in half of the countries surveyed.

But it’s taken some inspirational young people – often even younger than the century itself – to highlight how our behaviour is not in line with our concerns.

One day in August 2018, a young girl decided to skip school and sit outside the Swedish Parliament with a handmade sign: saying “School Strike for the Climate”. Since then, millions of young people like Greta Thunberg have taken to the streets to make it known that they demand more from our governments to protect our planet.

Across the globe they’re showing that grassroots community organising can challenge incrementalism and inaction.

As the century comes of age, the climate emergency and calls to tackle it are increasingly clear, but so are other – very large – problems. The global pandemic threatens our health, our families and our economies. Climate change by contrast can seem to some more distant, less urgent, and less relatable.

But that too is changing.

On 15th February 2013, Ella Kissi Debrah, a nine year old girl from Lewisham in South East London, died from an asthma attack. Asthma attacks weren’t new for Ella. In fact, her asthma was so severe that in the last 3 years of her life she was hospitalised 27 times. Speaking to Ella’s mum Rosamund, I was alarmed to find out that no-one during those hospital visits had mentioned air pollution as a potential cause of the attacks. If they had, Rosamund would’ve done all she could to move Ella and her siblings away from their home and school near the South Circular, one of London’s busiest and most polluted roads.

At the re-opened inquest into Ella’s death, doctors confirmed that almost all of Ella’s hospitalisations coincided with peaks in air pollution near her home. As a consequence, the court found that air pollution was a major factor in her death, meaning it will be listed as a cause on her death certificate. This is a UK, and perhaps even a world, first. And this historic verdict has ignited widespread calls for the government to introduce tighter legal limits on air pollution levels across the country. The hope is that the new act will be called ‘Ella’s Law’.

Tragically, families like Ella’s are suffering in large numbers.

The World Health Organisation attributes 7 million deaths every year to air pollution. 7 million. That’s 15% of deaths, every year. And many millions more people have to live with chronic conditions caused and exacerbated by air pollution.

This is why I set up and run a foundation which aims to secure clean air for all. It’s for our health and it’s also for the health of the planet.

The causes of air pollution are often the same as the causes of the climate emergency – the majority of air pollution is from burning fossil fuels for power, transport and industry. And because the causes are largely the same, the solutions can also be the same: renewable energy, electric mobility, more walking and cycling.

What that means is that the climate emergency just got personal.

We might have thought of it as important… but distant and unrelatable. But the effects of fossil fuel pollution are immediate and they’re local. People are dying, right now.

So, dear 21st century, as you come of age, I want to tell you: it’s time to get serious.

2020 was a painful year, full of tragedy. But it was also a year of incredible achievement. As humanity, we showed our adaptability. We showed our capacity for community spirit. We showed that when we recognise one another’s health is at stake, we can do amazing things.

We have everything we need to solve the challenge of the climate emergency.

But we can’t wait until the end of the century.

We can’t even wait until the end of the decade.

We have to get serious. Now.

Listen to the full episode on the BBC Radio 4 website.

Photo: Emma Simpson, Unsplash