“Our house is on fire” has become a call to action for the environmental movement thanks to Greta Thunberg’s now famous speech at the World Economic Forum in 2019. There’s a reason it’s such a galvanizing statement: Even if we’ve never experienced it, we understand intuitively what to do when our house is on fire—and what it means if, instead, we spend our time “rearranging china” while it burns, as Rebecca Solnit once put it.
Yes, wildfires happen more often on a dry, hot planet, and they can feel like more of an immediate threat. But melting also accelerates—and it’s something we understand as dangerous less intuitively. Melting ice is pretty anticlimactic. “Our house is melting” doesn’t really make you panic, does it? The urgency doesn’t translate as strongly.
But our house is melting.
At the rate ice has been disappearing in Antarctica and Greenland for the past 18 years, we are losing glacial ice equivalent to the size of the U.S. Capitol every 31 seconds. What’s so dangerous about ice loss is that it compounds on itself once it reaches a tipping point: More melted ice means more dark water, which means more heat absorbed from the sun, and more melting. Heat-reflecting ice becomes heat-absorbing water. Climate scientists can’t say why with full confidence, but the Arctic is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the globe. Tipping points, feedback loops, vanishing glaciers—when will it sink in for us? When will we reach our melting point? In Hyperobjects, Timothy Morton writes, “global warming is a big problem, because along with melting glaciers it has melted our ideas of world and worlding.”
So, what kind of world do we want to live in? We can start building it by understanding the value of these glaciers. According to a feminist glacialogy study published in Progress in Human Geography, “Glaciers affect people worldwide by influencing sea level, providing water for drinking and agriculture, generating hydro-electric energy from glacier runoff, triggering natural disasters, yielding rich climate data from ice cores, shaping religious beliefs and cultural values, constituting identities, inspiring art and literature, and driving tourist economies that affect local populations and travelers alike.”
When Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral caught on fire in April 2019, almost double the amount of money needed for reconstruction was raised in no time. Emmanuel Macron stood in front of the remains that night and announced a fundraising campaign. Twenty-four hours later, they had 880 million Euros.
It felt like a big part of the world collectively watched their house burn down—Notre-Dame is esteemed as a monument of Europe and of faith, and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But where was the world five months later when Iceland memorialized Okjökull, its first glacier lost to climate change? For further perspective, we lose the equivalent of one Notre-Dame in glacial ice every 15 seconds.
We can rebuild Notre-Dame. But for Okjökull, we said goodbye with a plaque, inscribed with a letter to the future. It reads, “In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”
Concept and models by Future Earth and Studio Ossidiana (Giovanni Bellotti, Alessandra Covini, Sze Wing Chan, Maurane Gabriël, Eva Garibaldi, Daniele Ceragno)