It seems that anxiety about climate change is a growing problem.
And this is entirely understandable. So let’s get the bad news out of the way first, THEN reasons to feel a little better.
The Earth is indeed facing a calamitous change. Continued climate changing emissions mean that the planet is very steadily heating up, resulting in areas of desertification, melting glaciers and shrinking polar ice. The melting ice will cause sea levels to rise around the world resulting in low-lying areas being flooded, displacing millions of people and destroying some coastal ecosystems.
Ecosystems will change, globally, in response to climate change. In the past, this has meant that ecosystems had to literally move to a suitable new territory. Ecosystems are currently in bad shape already from habitat destruction and subsequent loss of volume and coverage. They’re not in a great shape to move. Extinctions will be high.
We are entering what is likely to be Earth’s 6th mass extinction. And it’s the fault of humanity.
For more details and information on climate change, check the Skeptical Science website.
Ok, now to help you feel less desperate…
Firstly, the Earth has been through massive upheavals and mass extinctions before. I know that doesn’t sound all that reassuring; things are still going to be bad and we are going to lose a hell of a lot. I still get a pang of sadness every time I think of the extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin. The sadness can be overwhelming.
But from the perspective of the Earth and its time scales, it’s happened before. Of all the species that have ever existed, most are extinct. Having a clear out of species every now and again creates space for new and different species to evolve. However, the timescales are huge and if humanity survives, we’ll have to live on a relatively ‘species poor’ planet for tens of thousands of years. Not that we’ll notice; the Earth will still be beautiful. Have a look at England; one of the most ecologically destroyed countries on Earth. It still has many beautiful areas. Even some of the most impacted areas of England are still beautiful. Take most UK moorland – utterly devastated – and people love it!
One claim that keeps coming up is that the Earth will get so hot that all life will die out. I doubt that is true, mainly because the Earth has already been much hotter in the past. For many periods of Earth history there has been no ice on the planet; it’s been too warm. And even after that – we’re still here.
Another looming disaster is the breakup and die back of the Amazon rainforest, with much of the forest switching to a savanna ecosystem. Again, this has actually happened before. While on this occasion it is due to human-induced climate change and habitat destruction, in the past, it happened due to natural climate variation.
And the main reason to be optimistic, is that we are a clever species. We are weird and unique! Nothing like us has ever existed on Earth.
We look pretty dumb at the moment, that’s for sure. Our so-called leaders still haven’t grasped the enormity of climate change and they will be rightly vilified for it in the coming decades. If you’re anything like me, the frustration at the lack of political will can be over-fucking-whelming.
But… in the near future, climate change will be given the attention it deserves with action to match. I think we’ll reach a cultural tipping point of climate change awareness and acceptance. And when humanity decides to act, there are just so many courses of action to turn the problem around. There are so many things we can do.
The key word for me is ‘sustainability.’ Everything we do will have to become increasingly sustainable. No waste. No using resources unnecessarily. It means eating far less meat or better still, no meat at all. We would only need around a quarter of the land we currently use for agriculture if we had plant-based diets. That opens up huge areas to give over to conservation and climate change mitigation.
We need to switch our energy systems to 100% renewable energy. Transport needs to be electrified. We need more public transport. ‘Green hydrogen’ might be needed for some flights – of which we need to take far fewer.
Then there’s the option of geoengineering. I don’t think we need to engage geoengineering just yet. I think some interests think that we can have geoengineering as an add-on to continued use of fossil fuels and ‘business as usual’ economics; using machines to extract carbon dioxide while continuing to burn fossil fuels. That strikes me as ridiculous. Even if that approach could stabilise planetary warming (which I doubt) it doesn’t solve the problem of ocean acidification – all that extra carbon dioxide dissolving in the oceans, turning them slightly acidic. But once we’ve consigned fossil fuels to history, that will be the time to revisit geoengineering. And by the time we’ve passed that cultural tipping point of acceptance of climate change, it’ll be more socially responsible geoengineering.
To help overcome the problem of ecosystems being too degraded to migrate successfully on their own, they will get human help.
Something else that helps to make me feel better and helps to sustain my optimism is climate activism. I’ve been doing this for the best part of 30 years now. Getting involved in some well-planned activism can be very rewarding. It’s great to come away knowing you’ve made a difference, even if it’s a small difference. How much you do is up to you. Just DOING something will help ease your climate anxiety. Some people have more time and opportunity than others. If all you can do is share stories and articles on line, or write to your MP, then that’s a valuable action. It all adds up. The sooner climate activism wins, the sooner we’ll tackle the climate crisis.
And finally – you’ve got no choice. Sorry, I know that sounds less than optimistic. But basically, you’re stuck with it. The climate crisis will come to dominate all of our lives. Do you try to hide and give in to your anxiety or do you grab the bull by the horns and march with firm resolve into the future?
Positive action (and subsequent positive feeling) is your only option. It’ll be bad. Let’s work to make it as ‘least bad’ as possible.
So, chin-up my friend, we’ve got a long journey.
Check out my book for more on how we can win during this century: