Climate confessions of a millennial 

Helen Chapman is a CIWEM member, a member of our Water Resources Panel and is Associate Director for Water Resources Policy at Atkins. Here she sets out her realisations on personal and professional choices and behaviours, or as she sees them - responsibilities.

As a philosophy student in the early noughties, Sartre’s existentialism revealed the world of possibility. The realisation that I had complete personal freedom (and, with it, responsibility for my choices) came as a genuine shock.

Sartre’s all-out attack on determinism made me realise that our future really is up to us. We don’t have to choose the path that society or those around have chosen for us. The future is what we make of it. He is explicit that by each conscious, individual action, we collectively define humanity and that to fail to take responsibility for our actions, is living in bad faith. It is self-awareness and the freedom to choose how we act that makes us human.

After the revelation of reading Sartre, I questioned everything and tried to choose my best life. I consciously chose being an environmentalist as a lifestyle and a profession. I felt comfortable with my choices and stopped apologising for being the ‘awkward’ vegetarian. I opted for environmental volunteering and chose to start my career enthusiastically encouraging people to turn off the tap while they brushed their teeth, fix leaky taps, and use a water butt in their gardens.

I thought I was doing ‘my bit’. It turns out that was not enough.


I had a similar epiphany in March this year when looking at Figure SPM.1(a) published in the AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023. The figure uses the incredibly impactful climate stripes to illustrate the different emissions scenarios for children born in 2020.

Source: AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023 — IPCC, March 2023

As a mother and an environmentalist, this diagram has had a profound impact. My family mirrors the generations shown in the diagram. My dad was born in 1950. I was born in 1980, around the time managers at Exxon commissioned research which fairly accurately predicted the climatic consequences of burning fossil fuels. . My youngest son was born in 2018. We are responsible for the consequences of our actions, but it is our children and grandchildren who are going to live with these consequences.

Professional choices - water

Water is at the frontline of climate change. Throughout my career, I have seen drought, heatwaves and floods become more frequent events. Calls for climate mitigation have been joined by advice about necessary adaptation steps.

We experience first-hand that a statistical ‘average’ increase in global temperatures feels far from gradual - with more frequent fluctuating extremes, changing seasonal patterns and chaos to societies and ecosystems. The environmental and human demand for water is predicted to outstrip the amount of available water during future droughts which will be worse that those previously experienced.

As a society we face some big decisions in water resource terms. There are no fresh sources of ‘new water’ in the environment.

Our choices range from reducing the amount of water we use, to investing more in our existing infrastructure to use the water we already take from the environment more efficiently and developing large-scale Strategic Resource Options (SROs) like water recycling schemes, building new reservoirs, or transferring water between river catchments. Although the SRO schemes are often unpopular with their local communities, the alternative to these is a wholesale change in the way we each individually and collectively value and use water.

Waterwise provide practical advice about how each of us can reduce the amount of water we use. Their 2022 UK water efficiency strategy sets out an ambitious path of how we can, if we work right across society, reduce water use by at least 1,500 million litres a day between now and 2030. This can be a difficult message when we have just had the wettest March across England since 1981, even if this did follow the driest February across England since 1993 and a very dry Summer 2022.

Personal choices - the good environmentalist?

Although in my career I have mainly focused on how to save water, outside of work I have tried to minimise my wider environmental impact and I feel inspired by so many of the actions I have seen. The responsibility for the impact of our actions on future generations has been marvellously enshrined in law by the Welsh Government in their 2015 Well-being of Future Generations Act. The bravery and conviction of Greta Thunberg and the people who strike on Fridays for Future.

CIWEM’s The Environment magazine and Planet Possible podcast never fail to give me hope from the positive action people are taking around the world. I’m still completely in awe of Ploggers who can run while litter collecting.

Last year my resolution was to make it through the year without resorting to a disposable shopping bag or coffee cup, and to treat clothes as strictly long-term investments.

This year it is to move my current account away from one that funds the development of fossil fuels. Most banks are rated on the ‘banking on climate chaos website and switching is easier that I thought it would be. While I’ve felt quietly satisfied achieving these personal victories, they don’t feel like nearly enough given the enormity of the task that faces us. Acting alone isn’t enough – we need to work together.

As Debriana Berlin pointed out recently, there is no blueprint for what a ‘good environmentalist’ does. We are all feeling our way, making our own daily decisions and trade-offs, trying to do the best we can.

Does the chemical and energy use outweigh the water saving benefit of grey water recycling? Why is the ‘green’ option so often the more expensive option? Why is it so hard to buy fruit and vegetables not wrapped in plastic? How does the benefit of my electric car balance with the damage caused by mining the materials for its battery?

The list goes on. It can feel overwhelming but there are easy steps we can all make in the right direction.


My millennial confession is that I felt I was ‘doing my bit’ and ‘doing my best’. I cannot default on my responsibility for future generations. The stark reality of the science is that we are not currently doing enough, but the future is undeniably in our hands.

One of the reasons I appreciate being part of the CIWEM community is being able to learn about and from people across the environmental community. We are not alone. Although the decisions are difficult, and the responsibility can feel heavy at times, I feel I am in good company.

We have endless possibilities for our own freedom to choose and to act. Whether we face up to or hide from our responsibilities, we are making a choice. A choice either to continue our current trajectory as a society, or to change.

CIWEM has published an advice note on Low Carbon Living. Read more about how what actions you can take to reduce your impact on our environment here.

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