Prologue

It’s April 2022. For three days in March, temperatures in Antarctica were more than 40 degrees Celsius above the seasonal mean. At the same time, in the Arctic, the temperature was hitting 30 degrees above normal for the time of year.

The polar ice haunts me. I want to look away, to turn the volume up on Netflix, to sleep even, but I can’t.

The Greenland Ice Sheet is made up of ice deposits going back over 110,000 years. In Antarctica there is ice that is over 420,000 years old. From space these ice caps are the shiny white topping on our green and blue planet. They reflect back some 80% of the incoming sunlight, helping to keep our planet at the temperatures that life on Earth has become accustomed to for over 10,000 years. This reflection by the Earth’s surface is known as the albedo effect and it is the light-coloured surfaces, like the ice and snow, that reflect the most.

Human beings evolved around 300,000 years ago, but it was only in the last 150 years that we started to cause global heating through greenhouse gas emissions. As the Earth warms, the ice melts and unfortunately the temperatures are rising much more steeply at our icy polar regions. Less ice, means less reflected sunlight, which means more warming. It is what is known as a positive feedback loop – where a change in one direction causes further change. If enough of the ice melts, we will reach what is known as a tipping point, where the Earth’s systems are no longer able to take us back to the way things were before. The melted ice does not come back in this scenario and we are in new territory – an Earth that is significantly different from the one that has supported human life for so long – not to mention countless other species who are perfectly adapted to the conditions of the past 11,700 years or so.

It is not just the ice sheets that keep me awake at night. Since I was a child, the world around me has changed. It has been subtle, but it is getting harder and harder to ignore. Living in the UK I am lucky. In many parts of the world the alarm bell started ringing with an urgency long ago, with increasingly frequent and increasingly severe flooding, wildfires, drought and the resulting crop failures and loss of homes or even lives. If we were aware of this alarm in the Global North, then it seems we have repeatedly been hitting the snooze button. We are only just seeming to wake up to the problems. I feel deep guilt that I did not know that things were so bad elsewhere in the world. In the same way I feel sad and rather ashamed that I did not notice the absences of childhood friends immediately. There were far fewer house sparrows where once they had been abundant and regular companions. The chattering hedges are disappearing and with it the sparrows and song thrushes and many other species. The insects that would spatter the windscreen on a trip down the motorway were almost completely gone – not that I am sad that a family trip no longer results in mass insecticide. My grief and anguish are because it is a sign that their populations are already in deep, deep decline. With a few exceptions, this story is repeatedly being played out across the plant and animal kingdoms all around our globe. This sixth mass extinction event has multiple causes – all ultimately pointing to human activity.

I hope that you read past this point. The story continues. How each of us responds to this moment, how we choose to write our next line, next page, next chapter, is something we have agency in. Our opening act sets a pretty bleak scene, but there is hope and it lies in how we, as individuals, as families, as communities and as global citizens, choose to write our part of the story. What happens next is, in part, down to you.

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