Fighting Through Climate Despair
Extreme weather caused by climate change is intensifying. But the only thing that guarantees it gets worse is giving up the fight.
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“We draw our strength from the very despair in which we have been forced to live. We shall endure.” -Cesar Chavez
An intense heatwave is scorching the northeastern United States, immediately on the heels of a fatal heatwave in the southwest. Over 85 million Americans are under heat warnings this weekend. Europe is dealing with record temperatures and wildfires that the World Health Organization says have claimed over 1,700 lives and displaced thousands more. It’s not ‘just summer.’ It’s a crisis that the wealthy and powerful around the world have both fueled and let fester for decades.
Last Monday, UN Secretary General António Guterres made a bleak warning: “We have a choice. Collective action or collective suicide. It is in our hands.” Global temperatures have risen dramatically just over the last 40 years. If these trends continue we will see “catastrophic climate change, causing sea-level rise, extreme weather and damage to ecosystems and human settlements across the globe,” according to MIT analysis of the most recent IPCC report.
We watch as world leaders plead with oil rich countries for increased fossil fuel production as their countries burn. People languish in the heat as politicians in Washington make concessions on climate plans to appease a coal baron. Loyalists nod steadfastly as the ruling class tells us to vote for them again. The United States military—the single largest institutional producer of greenhouse gasses in the world, according to Brown University—is poised to receive its biggest budget ever, upwards of $850 billion. This will completely negate the modest gains on emission reductions made through Biden’s infrastructure bill, as pointed out by researcher and writer Stephen Semler.
Credit: Stephen Semler/Speaking Security
It’s difficult, if not downright impossible, to feel optimistic about the future of humanity and the planet. The effects of climate change are becoming more difficult to ignore. Two-thirds of American adults now acknowledge they see extreme weather more often.
Perhaps nobody feels the emotional and social burden more than the world’s young people. In December 2021, researchers published a study in The Lancet that surveyed 10,000 people ages 16-25. The participants lived in Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the UK, and the United States. They were asked a variety of questions about their thoughts and feelings regarding climate change, the health of the planet and society, as well as their government’s response to the climate crisis. Only 30% said they’re optimistic about the future. 55.7% said they think humanity is doomed. 75.5% think the future is frightening.
Reducing these sentiments down to simply “doomerism” isn’t necessarily accurate. Young people are still deeply committed to taking action, even if it’s just individual action–which obviously is not enough on its own–because they still have hope we can collectively work together to mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change. And you can see that in the responses. Only 29% said they felt indifferent about climate change. They’re motivated by a deep engagement with the issue and the understanding they’re going to be around to see the effects manifest over time. Younger Americans are also much more likely to consume and engage with content online about climate change.
A 2021 Pew Research study found that 56% of Gen Z social media users had seen climate change content online in the weeks leading up the study, compared to just 44% of Boomers. 69% of Gen Z users surveyed said they feel anxious about the future; only 41% of Boomers said they felt similarly. Part of this could be chalked up to younger generations consuming news online at much higher rates than their elders but it’s also attributable to TV networks doing an incredibly poor job covering climate change. That Adam McKay, director of ‘Don’t Look Up,’ the “satirical” (can we really call it satire anymore?) comedy about how bad the media is at covering existential crises, was able to deliver this missive on network television is honestly surprising:
But one stat from the Pew study really stood out. Only 29% of Boomers said they felt angry there isn’t enough being done in response to climate change. This is the source of a lot of frustration for me and a lot of other people. Obviously, not all Boomers feel this way, but many simply don’t share the same sense of urgency or moral obligation to demand greater climate action. I’ll let you make your own inferences as to why that is, but I certainly have a hunch.
That frustration is intensified by the powerlessness so many of us rightfully feel from living in a country where corporate interests nearly always triumph over popular will, and where major polluters can spend millions to influence decision-makers. It’s very easy to feel cynical. Michael Mann, author of “The New Climate War” and Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State, told me this is exactly what big oil wants.
“Polluters count on, and exploit, that cynicism. They want young folks in particular to be disengaged, and they actually fan the flames of doomism hoping that folks will fall into that trap,” Mann said. “We’ve witnessed the absolutely devastating consequences, when it comes to gun policy, a woman’s right to choose, and taking action on climate, of voter apathy. The Trump-appointed justices have tipped the balance of the supreme court so far to the right that we’re all losing key rights, including the right to a livable planet.”
This trap of cynicism and despair is something I’m certainly guilty of falling into. But despite the alarmist and fatalistic headlines that sometimes border on scaremongering, we need to remain clear-eyed about the path in front of us.
“Yes, we’re seeing dangerous climate change consequences now—all it takes is turning on the evening news to see that. But there is still time to act to prevent the worst impacts,” Mann said. “If we can lower carbon emissions by 50% within the next decade—which is absolutely doable technologically—we can stabilize warming below 3F and prevent the worst consequences of climate change. The only obstacles at this point are political.”
Labor leader and activist Cesar Chavez famously said, “We draw our strength from the very despair in which we have been forced to live. We shall endure.” This is the mindset and outlook we must adopt. While recognizing the social and environmental disasters unfolding before our eyes, it’s important to remain diligent. Finding strength in our collective despair is key. We can lean on each other in times of hopelessness.
Sure, voting is one response, but it takes so much more than that. We won’t simply be able to vote our way out of this. Getting involved in your community with groups like Sunrise Movement and your local DSA chapter as well as supporting organizations and candidates who are firmly committed to getting corporate money out of politics are essential accompaniments to voting.
And we absolutely cannot distract ourselves with mindless entertainment, ignore what’s happening and chalk it up to a lopsided balance of power. That’s the easy way out. We have a moral obligation to pay attention and fight back, even if we ultimately think it’s a losing battle. It very well could be. But the only way to guarantee defeat is to give up.
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"This trap of cynicism and despair" and "giving up" are in fact completely rational responses to the very truth you straightforwardly lay out in the earlier part of the post. I never understood critiques of "doomerism" when or even the idea that doomerism is a thing given the reality in front of us. On an individual level we have one tiny insignificant life and I don't begrudge anyone who understands these things doing whatever they want with that life. If you want to argue against that then please do but you don't even try in this piece you simply say there's a "moral obligation" not to give up. To whom or what? Derived from what?
I take it you have spent exactly zero time looking into how NOAA adjusts the raw temperature data or the machinations it took for Michael Mann arrived at his Hockey Stick chart. You really should take the time to do so, you might find yourself a little embarrassed over this post.
In the meantime, if temps are rising dramatically and all the heatwaves are unprecedented, can you tell me why only 2 states have posted record highs in 2000's?