And this future air has some very sensual qualities. It’s very heavy. It’s about eight times heavier than the air we’re used to breathing. It’s so heavy, in fact, that when you breathe it in, whatever words you speak are kind of literally heavy as well, so they dribble down your chin and drop to the floor and soak into the cracks. It’s an air that operates quite a lot like a liquid.
Now, this air comes with an ethical dimension as well. Humans made this air, but it’s also the most potent greenhouse gas that has ever been tested. Its warming potential is 24,000 times that of carbon dioxide, and it has that longevity of 12 to 16 generations. So this ethical confrontation is really central to my work. It has another quite surprising quality.
It changes the sound of your voice quite dramatically. So when we start to think — ooh! It’s still there a bit. When we think about climate change, we probably don’t think about giant insects and erupting volcanoes or funny voices. The images that more readily come to mind are things like retreating glaciers and polar bears adrift on icebergs. We think about pie charts and column graphs and endless politicians talking to scientists wearing cardigans.
But perhaps it’s time we start thinking about climate change on the same visceral level that we experience the air. Like air, climate change is simultaneously at the scale of the molecule, the breath and the planet. It’s immediate, vital and intimate, as well as being amorphous and cumbersome. And yet, it’s so easily forgotten. Climate change is the collective self-portrait of humanity.
It reflects our decisions as individuals, as governments and as industries. And if there’s anything I’ve learned from looking at air, it’s that even though it’s changing, it persists. It may not support the kind of life that we’d recognize, but it will support something. And if we humans are such a vital part of that change, I think it’s important that we can feel this discussion. Because even though it’s invisible, humans are leaving a very vibrant trace in the air.