When the two of us talk to people about climate disruption, there are three common responses. The first is something like, “Don’t disrupt my beautiful life.” The second is, “That’s too upsetting; let’s talk about something else.” The third is, “There’s nothing I can do.”
If you’re paying attention, you should know that no matter what happens with climate change, it will disrupt your life. Addressing climate change adequately will require a massive individual and collective reorganization of the ways we obtain energy and consume many things, which will be disruptive to be sure. Alternatively, if we are not up to the challenge of doing something about climate change, we must realize that we are on track to destroy much of life on Earth, including human life. As Bill McKibben says “Climate change is a negotiation between human beings and physics, and physics doesn’t compromise.”
This is not the view of some white-bearded prophet with a sign that says, “The World is Ending.” It is the collective judgment of 195 of the world’s leading climate scientists (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) based on the research of thousands of others. Almost daily news reports of melting glaciers and polar ice, rising sea levels, extreme storms, severe drought, wildfires, and species extinctions should make the disruptions obvious, and what we are experiencing and observing now is only the beginning. In just the past several years, the acceleration of these changes has become clearer, and some projections for the end of this century are now for the middle of it.
Yes, thinking and talking about climate change can bring on disturbing and often overwhelming feelings. We may be terrified of the future, as many young people are today. We may be angry with those who knew – some since the 1970s – and did nothing. We may feel guilty for how we have contributed to climate change, knowingly or unknowingly. We might feel hopelessness and despair at the prospect of a grim future. To escape those feelings, it may be tempting to avoid or discount credible information because it is too hard to handle emotionally, but there is really no place to hide.
Alternatively, we might be hopeful that the world is waking up, energized, and ready to act, especially the younger generation who have so much at stake. Many schoolchildren understand, as McKibben says, that it’s a timed test, and time is running out. And there is hope in what trauma experts call “post-traumatic growth,” when coming to terms with trauma leads to a new and deeper understanding and appreciation of life.
Many proposals for addressing necessary societal changes include life-enhancing possibilities such as full employment for anyone who wants it; a four-day work week; healthier local food; revitalized rural economies; locally-controlled power supplies; cross-sector collaboration; unleashed innovation; and less carbon-intensive jobs in food, technology, transportation and human services. The transitions can be managed so as to minimize harm to individuals, businesses and communities, just as the market and society have often retooled to fit changing circumstances and needs.
Courage has been described, not as fearlessness, but as engaging in needed action in spite of the fear. When war veterans were asked if they were afraid, many said “yes,” but they did what needed to be done anyway. We could apply the same logic to anger, guilt, hopelessness and other unpleasant and often overwhelming feelings. We must act as needed, whether we are hopeful or hopeless, fearful or fearless. Jonathan Safran Foer, whose grandmother survived the Nazi purges when the rest of her family did not, reminds us of this: the people who follow will not care about how you felt; they will care only about what you did.
There is much that we can do as individuals, but more importantly, as a society. Two years ago, over 15,000 scientists signed onto a warning that humans must immediately take steps to limit population growth, incentivize renewable energy, protect and restore ecosystems, reduce food waste, eat more plant-based diets, reduce consumption, and follow other recommendations (search online for “World Scientists’ Warning”). Paul Hawken’s book “Drawdown” (available at the library) is a great source of realistic opportunities for effective change. Also, it’s the kind of book that children as well as adults can use. There’s a website for Project Drawdown, with regular updates: www.drawdown.org.
We simply cannot avoid confronting the climate crisis because it will disrupt our lives, the feelings are too difficult, or we don’t know what to do. The Swedish high school student Greta Thunberg made a journey from depression to activism, starting with convincing her own family to be vegetarian and her opera-singer mother to fly less. Then, as we all know, she launched a school strike that turned into an international campaign of shaming world leaders for failing to take responsibility for what needs to be done right now on the policy level and in terms of global cooperation. If a 15-year-old can move beyond paralyzing depression to inspiring change, surely we adults can do the same for the sake of the children and all the species of this beautiful but delicate planet.
George Cheney and Sally Planalp are residents of Moab and part-time professors of communication at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. The views expressed here are their own and do not represent those of the university or any other institution.