It’s a new year, and a new era it seems. It is simply undeniable that the public – most certainly in developed countries but also in developing – care more about the impact of human activities on “the environment” than at any point in human history.

(Note that I use the phrase, “the environment,” as a convenient shorthand. I’m actually really tired of it. To discuss the biosphere as “the environment” is woefully short-sighted. As though the air, the water, the soil, and the food web exist in some isolated land outside our normal sphere of activity. As though we have the realm of human civilization in one corner, and the realm of wild landscapes in another. Which is just silly. It’s all connected, we ourselves are an integral component of “the environment,” and increasingly people are – thankfully – recognizing that “environmental issues” are also issues of the economy, agriculture, human health, even international security. It’s just common sense. We need clean air, clean water, and planet rich in biodiversity for our own sake – we can’t live in a techno-bubble, nor would we want to. But I digress.)

It really does seem like its taken a long time for the bulk of politicians, corporations and  everyday people to realize just how dire the situation is, and just how much needs to be done.

When I took part in London’s Climate March back in December, even though it was grey, cold and rainy, I still felt overwhelmed with joy and hope to see so many people give a damn. Sure, maybe – like the Iraq war protests – it might not effect any change. And maybe it’s too late anyways.

But if I had been told in 2005, when I was studying climate change ecology at the University of Toronto, that three years later I would see thousands upon thousands of people take to the streets to march for action, I would not have believed it. Not a chance. Back then, scientists were still struggling just to dispel the archaic arguments of climate change deniers and convince the lay public of the certainty of the science and the urgency of the situation. I didn’t imagine that in so short a time would so many people really grasp the importance and the complexity of the issue, and really start to care.

Even if the march has no effect. Even if the new climate change framework discussed at Bali ends up as ineffective and impotent as Kyoto. Even if our best efforts now would be insufficient to avoid a temperature rise of more than two degrees Celsius (the agreed upper limit to maintain a reasonably comfortable existence on this planet). Even if.

It was still so inspiring to march that day. I spend so much of my life sitting at my desk and poring over all the world’s bad news, it can be easy to feel pessimistic. Though I’m certain that we truly could turn things around, I’m by no means convinced that we will.

But at least now it’s plain to see that these concerns have finally gone mainstream. Finally.

Arguably for the first time in human history, people around the globe are staging public demonstrations on an environmental issue. Australians – traditionally the most stubborn climate change deniers – kicked out their inert government and have signed on to Kyoto. The movement to ban plastic bags has become so popular that British tabloid The Daily Mail has taken up the cause (and even Rupert Murdoch himself has pledged to green News Corp’s operations). Hell, even the American government is actually inching towards signing a climate agreement.

What can account for this? Hard to say. The weight of scientific evidence proving the reality of anthropogenic induced climate change has gone from totally convincing to utterly overwhelming. People are witnessing this first-hand more and more, from disappearing glaciers in the Himalayas, to droughts in Australia, to disappearing Arctic sea ice, to freaky weather, early springs and climatic oddities around the globe. And Al Gore probably does deserve some credit for spreading the word. (I just saw An Inconvenient Truth myself for the first time a week ago – I gotta say, it can get a bit sentimental here and there, but he really did a great job at outlining the evidence in an accessible and clear way.)

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that we’ve finally crossed a threshold: environmental concerns are no longer restricted to a few niche groups, but have gone mainstream. Politicians are tripping over themselves to prove their green credentials, and profit-driven businesses everywhere are jumping on the bandwagon. I am pleased.

Remember, though: this is just the first step. Recognizing the problem is a far cry from actually solving it. We have a long way to go before we come anywhere close to fixing things. And, unfortunately, at the moment we’re still making things worse.

But at least this is a start.

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