We’re not in climate change’s “end times”

I just wanted to write down some of my unedited thoughts here, for posterity’s sake…

Credit: NOAA

As people in the Midwest and Northeast of the United States cope with the polar vortex and frigid temperatures, right after people in the Southwest endured arguably the worst-ever wildfire season, it’s easy to feel like the end of the world’s upon us and there’s nothing we can do.

But that would be a huge mistake. We have to avoid that feeling. Even some science journalists, have been acting like the end times are here. Jokes about an imminent apocalypse and collapse of civilization might get a few likes on social media, but when they become the norm, we all suffer a loss in morale and our motivation for action dissipates into the warming atmosphere.

My one-month-old daughter and two-year-old son will likely live to 2100, assuming they at least average lifespans. Climate scientists tells us what they can expect if our business-as-usual scenario continues. They’ll experience more extreme weather events, from heat waves and droughts to floods and extreme cold. They’ll witness more frequent and intense wildfires and stronger hurricanes. They’ll deal with the loss of key fisheries and crops that can’t adapt quickly enough. Coastal people will lose their shores and infrastructure there, while arctic people lose their livelihoods and island dwellers entirely lose their homes and communities.

To prevent all this, or to mitigate the damage, we need positive action, not counterproductive and depressing talk of worst-case scenarios. I was an activist myself while I was a university student in the 2000s. Even as my fellow student activists and I took on David versus Goliath fights on things like university products from sweatshops and old-growth forests, living wage campaigns for local workers, and opposition to disastrous wars in the Middle East, we felt more optimistic as we engaged in the struggles, even if we objectively had slim chances for success.

There’s social science evidence for this phenomenon. Over the past couple decades, sociologists and psychologists have found that collective action can lead to more feelings of hope and less of fear among the participants — which in turn leads to more action. In contrast, I worry that a constant, myopic focus on the worst that can happen paralyzes us. We might write a click-friendly article or complain on Facebook and Twitter, and then we do nothing. That helps no one.

But let’s be honest: despite the daunting challenges we all face today, we’re not living through the end of the world — either environmentally or politically. It’s not like we’re all about to die and our government’s about to collapse. Our grandchildren and their political leaders will still be grappling with the myriad implications of climate change in the 22nd century, even if some crops will already have been lost and some people will have had to retreat from flood zones and fire-prone regions.

The proposals in the Green New Deal provide an excellent example of what can be done in the US across a range of industries. If some version of it were to come to pass, it would include popular infrastructure projects and create thousands or even millions of quality green jobs as well as support for the people who will bear the brunt of climate change and have the fewest resources to withstand it.

We can and should argue over the details, including ways these projects would be funded and whether to promote carbon taxes, nuclear energy, and so-called negative-emission technologies. We need major society-wide changes that decouple our economy from fossil fuels, and people have been clamoring for it for years. Finally influential members of Congress like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey have begun to listen and propose legislation. Yes, this is ambitious and might seem challenging politically during the Trump administration, but remember that environmentalists managed to spur the Nixon administration to create the Environmental Protection Agency and Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

If we really want to achieve a better future, let’s live in the present as if that future is possible. Climate change has become the most pressing — and the most formidable — threat of our generation and the next. But if we mobilize, think big, and act now, rather than dwell on everything that can go wrong, we’ll eventually weather these storms.