Tonight the Royal Geographical Society hosts the launch of the book Culture and Climate Change: Scenarios, as part of their Geographical lates: COP25 climate talks. Do go if you can – they have wonderful speakers, including Prof Corinne Le Quéré (recently awarded a CBE for her work, including leading the Global Carbon Budget).
Below is my contribution, which I wrote last year, two weeks after finishing chemotherapy. It was the first time I’d articulated the strange parallels between my illness and the subject of my work. I still feel echoes of those side-effects: writing these words in a fog, aching, cancelling all plans for the day.
This is dedicated to all those who helped me through that period, and still continue to.
A cure for climate change
‘Colorectal cancer is curable’, said the surgeon with the dark, kind eyes. It was a known quantity, with a clear diagnosis from the CT scan — an obstruction blocking the flow, too many cells in the wrong place, too much of a good thing — and a clear pathway for treatment. They weren’t yet sure quite how serious it would be: I would have to wait for another scan of my lungs, later, and a forensic examination of the cells they would remove the next day. But it looked like the odds were good. On Friday 12th January 2018, around 5pm, alone, my story had changed.
My work as a climate scientist is founded in probability and risk. Predicting the most likely value of sea level rise by the end of this century. Assessing the probability that the Antarctic ice sheet will disintegrate enough to embark on a path of unstoppable loss. Trying to help people understand flood risk, one-in-100 events, the time periods in which the danger might return. How can we expect the public to trust our work if we talk in terms of “likely ranges”, “uncertainties” and “unknowns”? How can we ask anyone to trade one uncertain risk — climate change — for another, certain one: change to a way of life?
Now I see probabilities in clear, solid light. My oncologist tells me my prognosis before I begin to take the toxic drugs. I search journal articles, conference slides and blog posts for meaning, detail, concrete conclusions. Trying to find one extra percentage point of safety and certainty, another, one more. Maybe the odds are better because I’m younger? Because it’s one lymph node, not two or three? What level of risk would feel tolerably safe, and what level would be terrifying? I read and misread statistics, am panicked and then reassured, cry one day and then the next am exhilarated by cheating death — most people do not have such a conveniently obstructive tumour, one that makes them sick enough to see a doctor before it is too late.
I weigh one uncertain risk — metastasis — against another, certain one: peripheral neuropathy. My particular soup of chemicals is FOLFOX: not a handsome auburn face but an infusion from a pump that beeps for attention, followed by a milk bottle-sized container of cytotoxic clear liquid attached to an implant in my chest for two nights and two days. I am told that OX stands for a drug that will almost certainly damage the nerves in my fingers and toes, possibly forever — more likely with each dose, more unwanted side-effects with each action. I begin the regime thinking I will take all 12 hits of OX, that I will take any peripheral pins and needles, any neuro-related numbness, in exchange for a 1% or 0.1% chance at growing old. After nine cycles, I am in tears at the clinic, and the kind professor stops the dose. It continues to worsen, still. In shoes, my feet are encased in wet sand. Stretching my arm means electric bolts travel down my hands and forearms: like a superhero wrongly wired up. Water from the tap makes me wince, and the towel afterwards feels like rough rock. I ask people to help me rummage at the bottom of bags, tie shoelaces, open bottles that have tight, rough lids. I wear gloves to sleep and to type, and wonder if I should have stopped one cycle earlier. If it was worth it, my deal with the devil to be saved. I know climate policies are designed to make life better, not worse, but I gain a better understanding of people’s fear. One risk for another. Knowns for unknowns. In the Brothers’ Grimm story ‘The Grave Mound’, the devil is called the ‘charcoal-burner’.
Greenhouse gases are obstructing the flow of heat from the earth. Allowing less and less radiation through, like the ever-closing circle of my tumour. But without them there would be no life on earth. Like the warmth of a campfire, greenhouse gases sustain us in the cold night of the universe. The concern today is one of balance: too much of a good thing.
These probabilities of cancer and climate change circle my head at night like mosquitoes. If we make the strongest reductions of greenhouse gas concentrations that we can imagine, we have only a two in three chance of fulfilling the Paris Agreement. And the only way we can think of doing this is to turn over great tracts of cropland to fuel.
Now, an old hand, I recklessly trade risks. I sign up to a clinical trial, taking aspirin to try and increase the return period of the danger. To reduce the probability of unstoppable loss. There is a two in three chance I will get the aspirin, but otherwise, a placebo. I could just buy the aspirin for myself. Or put my head in the sand. Instead I choose to throw the dice: for science, and for others that follow after me.