In January , college students all over the UK shall be submitting application forms to their chosen universities. If accepted, intimidatingly high debts won’t be the only challenge.  There’s also the threat of a rapidly deteriorating natural environment. 

How we treated our planet only become a political hotspot in 1985[1], when it was announced that a gaping hole had developed in the ozone layer, the planet’s gaseous blanket which deflects the bulk of the harmful UV radiation emitted by the Sun.  Janice, a 48 year old NHS nurse, remembers ““As a child, I would say we didn’t have any regard at all for the environment. So everything went into the rubbish bin and there was no recycling. We weren’t even aware. When the ozone hole came in, that was a new thing for my generation. It’s changed a lot”. 

The world was mortified by the news and the United Nations passed the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer a swift two years later.  Over 197 member states agreed to its terms, making the treaty among the most successful in the union’s history[2].  However, the chemicals thought responsible for eroding the ozone layer, the chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs used in aerosols and refrigerators, were not banned internationally until the Montreal Convention later that same year.

Thirty years after, the ozone layer is slowly recovering.  According to research by US and UK scientists published in Science Magazine, the ozone hole has been steadily closing at a rate of 4km every year and will be halfway to being fully sealed in five years’ time [3]

How did this happen?  Simple.  The world took a concerted, decisive action against a colossal threat which undermined the security of every living thing on the planet.  We heeded the warnings of qualified scientists and listened to their prescribed solutions.  We understood climate change was a real problem that urgently needed to be tackled. But most of all, we believed we could do it. 

Nowadays, that belief appears to be withering away, exactly at a time when we need it most.   Let’s skim the British government’s UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2012 evidence report.  Drizzly winters may become nearly 5 times as likely in the next 100 years [4].  The combination of increased overflow with rising sea levels will make low-lying areas increasingly vulnerable to flooding.  Disasters like the Cumbria flooding last December  (Pictured below) could easily become commonplace in the next twenty years.

Winter weather Dec 7th 2015
Picture Credit: Daily Mail

On the other hand, the UK is just as likely to suffer from a scarcity of water as a surplus. Government estimates suggest temperatures in South East England could increase by 2c˚in 2040 (Around the time most teenagers today will be deciding to have children), leading to decreased summer river flow and increased rates of evaporation. Consequently, over 27-59 million British citizens could be living in areas with severe water shortages by 2050 [4]

Furthermore,  average South-East temperatures  will be hotter and drier than the 2003 European heatwave that was related to over 2000 deaths.  Heat-related mortality is set to increase by 70% , putting significant pressure on an already under-resourced NHS [5]  There’s even a possibility this figure may spike by 540% by 2080[5]. Northern England will be less affected, but the entire country will see food tumble in availability and skyrocket in price as global temperature hikes make it difficult for foreign suppliers to grow essential crops like rice and maize [4].   

Bar a couple of nuclear holocausts, this is essentially the setup for Mad Max, so these faintly apocalyptic figures alone would be enough to suggest there has never been a worse time to be a British teenager.  But the future becomes steadily bleaker when you understand people either treat climate change as a secondary priority or a lost cause.  

When I asked several teenagers to rate their concern for climate change from a (admittedly crude) scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being equivalent to complete indifference  and 10 equivalent to highly stressed,  the average answer was  6.   Zac, a 17 year old college student, said of climate change “I know it’s there and it needs changing, but I don’t think about it unless someone brings it up”.   

Now, this is a perfectly reasonable response when you are juggling college coursework, a part-time job and university open days, but it speaks volumes to how global warming often slips to the wayside in the conversation, despite being a firm staple of secondary school education.   Evie, a 13 year old student, said “ For me, it’s like it’s always kept to lessons, and you never see it happen, so it’s like it’s happening somewhere else. It never really hits home”.   Because climate change is a very gradual process- the average temperature in the UK has only crept up by one crucial degree since the 1970’s [4]– we must ensure the ongoing consequences are discussed as loudly and publically as possible.  Otherwise, people will simply forget why fighting climate change is worth the hassle.

The other hurdle facing us is cynicism.  Harry, also a 17 year old student, believes “Too much damage has already occurred”  . Many would sympathise with his stance. Why go through the aggravation of cycling when the ice caps will still be slush-puppy by tomorrow? What difference does it make if you buy an energy saving light bulb when New York’s  theatre district- the home of Times Square- is still guzzling 161 megawatts 24/7 [6], which, by the way, is equal to the power generated by a moderate thunderstorm?

Times square night.jpg
Picture credit: Wikipedia

Because if we allow ourselves to surrender, if we slip into complacency, then that shall be it. Realising that climate change means little to voters, the government will instead dedicate their efforts to exhuming old nonsense like grammar schools while the land we stand on rots. Yes, irreversible damage has been done.  And unlike the ozone, the ice caps will likely never regenerate. But that doesn’t mean hope is lost. As George, a 17 year old student,  says “I believe we all have the ability to deal with the problem but none of us are willing to make any small sacrifices like just walking to work”.    

So let’s be more willing for this beautiful orb.  It’s all we can do.