The Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
Well probably not.
But according to legend, in July of 64 CE while fire ravaged Rome for six days destroying much of the city and leaving half of the population homeless, Nero looked on and played his violin. Nero blamed the obscure sect called ‘Christians’ for starting the fire and executed many of them. Others rumoured that this was a part of Nero’s land clearance scheme for his new palace gone wrong. Or maybe it was high summer, and the fire may just have been one of those infernos which sometimes still sweep through Mediterranean countries.
The legend has passed into our language and come to mean doing something trivial and irresponsible amid an emergency. You have to wonder whether COP28, the great climate gathering in Dubai this week, has been any more than that. The deal wants to signal a transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems. At least, for the first time in an official statement, it identifies the role of fossil fuel emissions in driving up temperatures.
But what is that to us? We carefully recycle our plastic and paper while the industrial giants continue to belch toxins into the atmosphere at an alarming rate. What’s the point? Is the agreement worth the paper it is written on? Can this week’s summit give us reason for hope? Maybe.
First, this week’s Dubai deal was only achieved after a great deal of argument, negotiation and compromise. Small Pacific island communities wanted very different things from oil producing countries. The drowning island nations worry about their very existence while oil-producers are simply anxious about their flagging economies. Hard work to get them to talk together! But in Dubai they managed, after a great deal of impassioned debate, to find some agreement. Far from perfect but an agreement nevertheless.
Second, some of the big oil producers were willing to accept for the first time that there needed to be a ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels. That signals some movement at least. Maybe not enough but maybe some tectonic plates are shifting.
Third, there was apparently a broad consensus in the room that the pressure on fossil fuels is growing as the cost of renewable sources of energy comes down. Maybe some nations see a certain long-term political dividend in greening their credentials.
Observing all this, the campaigning journalist George Monbiot resisted any temptation to be complacent. He urged us all to keep up the pressure even in our own small ways. He wrote that we should be ‘expanding and defending islands of resistance’. We do this certainly as consumers by selecting only those products which are environmentally friendly. And as consumers we can affect producers and retailers where it hurts. But just as important, our daily casual conversations can slowly change local attitudes towards the urgency of the moment.
Our own ‘islands of resistance' may be threatened as much by a general apathy as by the vested interests of the big suppliers. But while our individual efforts may seem trivial, together they do help to strengthen a resistance movement. If we allow our own islands of resistance to be submerged, real islands, family homes, will soon be submerged too.
We dare not fiddle while home burns.