María Bonete Escoto wrote such an evocative and devastating climate change story about a possible Madrid in 2031, that for us, we wanted to see what an expert thought of it. It was a story that most naturally lent itself to the ‘Ask an Expert’ format, where someone who’s spent a lot of time researching, writing or thinking about a topic gives an opinion on a piece of work – in this case, María’s story.
Alice Bell was a fantastic candidate – she is co-Director of the climate charity Possible, has a PhD in Science Communication and is the author of ‘Our Biggest Experiment: An Epic History of the Climate Crisis’, released in September this year.
We worked on communications related to climate technology when we produced the Top 10 Frontier Technologies for Climate Action a couple of years ago; and we worked on report design for Exponential Roadmap Initiative, which has the mission to halve emissions before 2030 through exponential climate action and solutions. So this is a subject we know a fair bit about. We’d love to help you with your social impact-related campaign – get in touch!
Madrid, 2031 doesn’t paint a full Mad Max dystopia. Nor is it some sort of Jetsons future where all our problems are solved though. It’s almost reassuringly familiar. And this rings true, because for many of us in richer countries, it might well be how we experience the next stage of the climate crisis.
Madrid is not on fire in this story. But that doesn’t mean everything will be ok. The weather is not what it used to be or, as the narrator puts it: ‘you still remember when spring felt like spring, when summer was just another season and not the only one.’ There’s a sense of hopelessness and things closing in; that the craving for ice cream isn’t just the memory of a delightful creamy, sweet and cool treat, but a memory of hope.
…it might seem crass – buying ice cream while the rainforest burns – but it’s how a lot of people are already experiencing the climate crisis (maybe you?), almost but not quite acting as if it’s not there.
Even if we take dramatic action to tackle climate change, we can expect temperatures to rise in the next decade, and for the impacts of the heat we’re already living under to start to bite. Sea levels will rise as oceans expand and ice caps melt, easily by 50cm by 2100. We’ll see more biodiversity loss – not only from climate change but from other forms of pollution. This will have an impact on food production and could well speed another pandemic along the way. And we’ll see more and more dramatic weather events, the climatic dice loaded to more and much harder storms, floods and heatwaves. As Carbon Brief’s scrolling infographic on the world at 1.5°C, 2°C or 3°C warming makes clear, even if we keep to 1.5°C, the global population facing at least one severe heatwave every five years will rise 14% (and that’s if we’re lucky). In Spain, the number of annual hot days and so-called ‘tropical nights’ (where temperatures don’t drop under 20°C) will go up by around 11 days. The likelihood of another European summer, like the deadly one in 2003, will go up 42%. You can find a similar percentage rise when it comes to areas burnt by wildfires in the Mediterranean.
…if you worry about the impacts of climate change, you shouldn’t just be shouting about cutting carbon and building flood defenses, but boosting social care, mental health services, migrant solidarity campaigns, support for victims of domestic abuse, renters rights, the list goes on…
It’s possible the narrator of Madrid, 2031 watches all of this with some degree of distance. Even if they aren’t super rich, they might be protected from heatwaves with air conditioning and earn just enough to manage the occasional food price increase. Maybe they avoid looking at the unfolding crisis in too much detail, or have become a bit immune to it, just as many of us have lived through the death of Covid around us the last 18 months. Not everyone will have the luxury of this distance; and it might seem crass – buying ice cream while the rainforest burns – but it’s how a lot of people are already experiencing the climate crisis (maybe you?), almost but not quite acting as if it’s not there.
The reference to gentrification is interesting. This has a long history and a multitude of drivers, but climate gentrification is already an observable trend in parts of the world, as those with the resources to have a choice move to areas at less risk. Gentrification is perhaps at the milder end of things. A report from the World Bank in September talks about hundreds of millions of people being forced to move due to climate change by 2050, possibly 86 million from Sub-Saharan Africa alone. I like to think that those of us living in the areas less affected will welcome those forced to move with open arms. But that’s not the direction migration politics is going. It’s one of the reasons why if you worry about the impacts of climate change, you shouldn’t just be shouting about cutting carbon and building flood defenses, but boosting social care, mental health services, migrant solidarity campaigns, support for victims of domestic abuse, renters rights, the list goes on …
The future depicted here is one where people have acted on environmental problems; they haven’t sat back and let it all happen. The narrator reflects with some amazement that they ever tolerated pollution from cars – that ‘the mere act of existing in a city shouldn’t make you sick’. But at the same time, it’s clearly not enough. The reference to trees dying is clever, with the narrator musing maybe people should have invested in fake trees afterall. I wondered if this is a nod to a new tree planting project in Madrid, but implying that it’s too little too late.
We can still do a lot to curb environmental damage, and protect ourselves and each other from the damage we’ve inherited. To do this, we must ensure we’re all awake to the crisis, not let it wash over us…
Still, it doesn’t have to be this way. We can still do a lot to curb environmental damage, and protect ourselves and each other from the damage we’ve inherited. To do this, we must ensure we’re all awake to the crisis, not let it wash over us and give in to a ‘new normal’ of death and ever-deeper inequality. It’s sometimes said we are the first generation to feel the impacts of climate change and the last to be able to do anything about it. This line’s getting a bit old – I first heard it from Obama at the UN in 2015 and he was recycling it even then. The longer we leave it, the harder it’ll be to convince ourselves of the latter part.