My New Year’s Resolution for the Climate: Start at Your Feet

They say hindsight is 2020. When we look back on the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow, what will we remember?

Sometimes numbers tell a story better than words or images can. The post-COP number that stands out for me is 2°C.

At 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures we lose 99% of our coral reefs.

It’s easy to turn that number into a picture – but it isn’t a pretty one. Just imagine every vibrant, colourful, diverse, complex, multi-dimensional coral reef in the world bleached white and lifeless. Gone forever.

No more waving anemones, no more electric-coloured fish darting in and out of crevices, no more eels hiding in holes waiting to ambush. There will be nothing left to hunt. Nothing left to eat. That’s what lifeless means. Not just for the oceans, but for all of us.

Missed opportunity

We had the opportunity in Glasgow to put an end date on coal use globally, and we didn’t do it. If we had, it would have sent a strong message to the markets that change is coming.

Instead, leaders who should have made binding commitments simply ‘kicked the can down the road’.

We have lost another year, and we shrug it off as if we had all the time in the world.

What’s another year?

Let’s take another number: 200. That’s the number of species going extinct every day at the current rate. Two hundred per day!

You can do the maths yourself and work out how many species will be gone before we meet up again at the next COP summit in 2022. The world faces an environmental catastrophe, and we are in paralysis.

Catastrophic change is a hard thing for the human mind to comprehend. Day follows night, the moon waxes and wanes. These things have always been. It is this predictability that allows us to grow crops, to plan futures.

Everything we have achieved as the human race in the last 10,000 years was enabled by climatic stability; during this time the temperature has not wavered by more than 1.5 degrees.

I cannot accept that we will lose all the coral reefs in the world.

Do not accept

But not everyone is frozen into inaction. My most memorable COP26 moment happened outside the conference halls, when I joined more than 100,000 people marching through the streets of Glasgow in the pouring rain. There were young people and old people, mothers with children, Scots in kilts playing bagpipes and indigenous leaders who had travelled very far to be there.

One banner stood out for me. It was a clever rephrasing of the Serenity Prayer: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

I cannot accept that we will lose all the coral reefs in the world.

Extreme ownership

How do I feel at the end of 2021?

I keep coming back to a single piece of advice: “Start at your feet.”

Those wise words are from my friend, environmental activist Afroz Shah.

Afroz started a movement when he began clearing the mountains and mountains of trash on his local Mumbai beach. It was an enormous task, but rather than be overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, he started where he was with regular weekend cleans. He is still going now, 350 weekends later, with the help of thousands of volunteers.

Afroz took extreme ownership of a problem he could have shrugged off as someone else’s responsibility. Instead he took a stand, and that inspired action.

New resolution

As we begin a new year I ask everyone to take extreme ownership to protect nature.

Start where you are. Make a difference where you can. Connect with nature. We protect what we love. So cherish it, heal it.

Alone, it may feel like drop in the ocean, but together we can bring about a mighty sea change.

Pictures: Kelvin Trautman, Michael Booth and

Lewis Pugh is an endurance swimmer and the UN Patron of the Oceans.