Climate Anxiety

It’s something I don’t think anyone has ever seen in their lifetime.

You’ve seen stories like it before. A headline will scream that “an asteroid the size of North Dakota will pass remarkably close to Earth” and everyone runs to see how likely we are to experience an Armageddon or Deep Impact scenario. “The asteroid will pass by at 1,934,039 miles. For reference, the moon is about 230,000 miles from Earth.” As non-scientists, the reaction is, “Oh, so not close at all. Just science close.”

That is the human experience with much of science that occurs at the cosmic or molecular scale. We don’t really appreciate the scale, and what compels scientists has a nominal impact on day-to-day life. They say “soon” and mean “in 10,000 years. Maybe 15.” When you’re used to dealing in terms of billions of years, 15,000 years is imminent. When you live for 76 years, 15,000 is irrelevant.

So, when it comes to the imminence of climate change it feels staggering to read scientific reports that say “soon” and mean “next Tuesday.” If you want to consider climate change on a cosmic scale, we’ve been doomed since the Industrial Revolution began. The climate alarms of the 1980s were imminent warnings. The urgency of the 1990s was an emergency alarm.

Now, in 2022, scientists have lost all margin for, “If we don’t act now…” The messaging is already changing from if to when. Prior messaging was that if the world did not take steps to improve environmental health, we would see consequences of a warmer Earth. That’s no longer imminent – that’s happening. The messaging now is, “We’re at Thanos levels of crisis. In the time it takes to snap a finger, we could determine whether billions of die due to climate change or not.”

I have been hearing the message my entire life. Emissions and other practices by humans are damaging the environment. If not directly warming the globe or disrupting other critical systems, we’re destroying ecosystems whose imbalance leads to those problems. By the 1990s the climate change discussion was integral to my life, with scientists already saying, “We are going to get to a point where the natural part of the equation, the part that we cannot control, gets so bad that we lose our ability to manage the crisis. We’ll be at the mercy of the planet.”

Surely that meant a scientific “soon” where Earth becomes apocalyptic in 500 years or 1,000 years if we don’t do things now.

Nope, they mean before I start to joke about how close retirement is. They mean before any child I have reaches high school.

Now, some will still dismiss it as catastrophising and doom-scrolling because the Internet has loads of that. This is science though. This isn’t a meme from your weird uncle on Facebook. This is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and countless other reputable agencies whose professionals have similar, reproducible data.

And the warning doesn’t just stop with weather: the systems of both increased intensity and frequency – wildfires, floods, landslides, hurricanes, tornados, droughts, monsoons, blizzards, thunderstorms… It includes the impact to food and water supplies. It includes access to other critical resources. It includes access to non-critical resources that still have a profound effect on the modern economy. It includes pressuring huge portions of the global population, which means war, refugee crises, more poverty, more homelessness, more illness.

The key (and this is the part that I have been hearing since grade school) is that from the Industrial Revolution to today, the brunt of this problem is humanity. If we can curtail our activities, we can turn things slowly around. The big concern, they said, was that we reach a point where it causes enough disruption to natural processes that those things take the wheel. Wind and ocean currents shut down. The permafrost and glacial caps melt, not only releasing tons of water and raising sea levels, but also introducing tons of icy fresh water into environments where it did not exist.

And I’m scared, folks. I try not to be and certainly not to voice it to spark anyone else’s anxiety, but I’m scared. Some of it is personal, but it’s more a combination of knowing how bad it will be for billions of people and how bad it might be for my child (which I do still want to have, but I worry about the world they will inherit).

People like to toss out comments that humanity has been through it over the years: Black Death, two World Wars. “People were still having children then. Humanity survived those things.”

Well, true, humanity survived those things. Humans, in a singular sense, did not and on a grand scale. I think that’s an American failure in particular – we’re generally an optimistic people even in our worst times because it’s baked into the culture. There’s a sense of, “Well, not me at least” when it comes to bad things. Bad things will happen, but not to me. And I think a troubling lack of motivation about climate change comes from, “Yeah, things may get bad in some places, but not here.” It puts aside that 1) “It’s okay if other people suffer” is a bad attitude and 2) we don’t live in a world where it’s just “there problem over there” – it will affect everyone to some extent.

I think what is also apparent over the last 20 years perhaps more than ever is that we cannot count on anyone we feel we ought to count on in situations like this. Not corporations, who are the biggest contributors to the problem, and not politicians, who are in a position to enforce boundaries on the corporations. They decided to side with them.

What I do love about the last 20 years is that as divided as things may seem online, I do not see the “real world” that way. All of the research I see indicates that progress marches forward and the majority of citizens around the world feel united on most issues, and many of those people will go to bat for one another. Sure, democracy seems to be in a backslide, but I again blame that on the minority who chipped away at institutional norms for generations to position themselves with undue influence.

Even for a socially anxious introvert, the greatest remedy to my climate anxiety continues to come in the form of other people. I don’t like problems without solutions (which is tough when trying to discuss anxiety about a subject in which I am not an expert), but I do see responses in the form of citizens uniting to punish corporations who refuse to do their part and politicians who abet them. It requires making up a lot of ground quickly, but I think the spotlight the recent years have shone on political deceitfulness will enable reasonable people to reassert humanity.

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