Last week, the International Panel on Climate Change (a group of expert scientists from around the world, assembled by the UN) put out their most recent Climate Change report. The negative news cycle got to work right away with headlines like:
We Have 12 years to Limit Climate Change Catastrophe, Warns UN — The Guardian
UN Says Climate Genocide is Coming. It’s Actually Worse Than That. - NY Mag
Major Climate Report Describes a Strong Risk of Crisis as Early as 2040 - NY Times
True to their titles, the adjectives and phrases used in the first paragraphs of these articles were also inflammatory.
A landmark report…paints a far more dire picture. Disastrous. Impossible. Collapse. Devastating.
I saw the posts on social media. I glanced at the articles. I read summaries (not written by the IPCC). With each fear mongering author, my eco-anxiety increased exponentially.
Ecological Anxiety is an experience that spurred the Ecopsychology movement, when clients began coming into therapists’ offices expressing fear and extreme worry about environmental degradation. Although the term was initially rare, chances are you’ve heard of it by now, and if not, I bet you’ve experienced it. It’s that absolute freak out you’ve been going through since the IPCC report came out. Anxiety and insomnia, characterized by worried, down-the-rabbit-hole thinking, where there is only one imagined future and it’s too bleak to bear.
I found myself in a major eco-anxiety spiral this last week, including 3am fantasies of maybe buying property (that we can’t afford) in Washington for when our family, and everyone else in California, is forced to migrate due to wildfires and The New Dust Bowl. Given recent events, it didn’t feel that far fetched, but I still recognized that I was spinning out.
Then i remembered my number one rule for clients when it comes to eco-anxiety: If your anxiety is fueled by the news, vet your information.
In this case, since my anxiety was caused by a report, I needed to actually read the report.
I decided to start with the Summary for Policy Makers. It nutshells the facts and reads like a blueprint for the UN to guide the world in mitigating climage change. So here’s the tough bit: If you haven’t been paying attention to Climate Change, the facts may seem dire. They can be summed up with “It’s serious, and if we want our children and grandchildren to have a fighting chance, we must act quickly.”
However, this is not new news. One of the reasons the report has created such a stir is because many people have not been paying attention to climate science. The other reason is because the journalists who write the alarmist articles are focusing on the timeline of needed action, but leaving out the rest of the report. The worst bit of this, is by using words like “impossible” or “too late” they are exhibiting a serious lack of imagination and innovation, while giving voice to their own eco-anxiety. We may as just throw in the towel and watch the world burn.
Guess what? It’s easy to feel cowed and give up. Rising to the challenge may be intimidating, but it also holds promise and reward. The report is an opportunity that giving up would waste.
The heart of the issue:
The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from human causes has created a global mean temperature rise between .8 and 1.2 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels. This average 1 degree rise is what is causing the super storms and drought that we are currently experiencing, and these events will increase, as will sea level rise. This is a done deal. This rise in average temperature is expected to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2052. However, if we can keep the rise in average temp from getting to 2 degrees Celsius, humans, animals, plants and whole ecosystems may be able to adapt. If we don’t stop this temperature rise, our ability to adapt and survive will be severely curtailed. If we continue at the same current rate of CO2 consumption, the temp will go up to 3 degrees Celsius. At 3 degrees we are probably looking at extinction.
WHEW! Ok, that bit was hard to swallow. But here’s the surprising bit - the rest of the report is hopeful and inspiring. Read on.
Where does the 12 year limit come from?
In order to keep the temperature at 1.5 degrees, we need to globally begin carbon drawdown by 2020, reaching net-zero ideally by 2045 at the earliest and 2055 at the latest. (For our purposes, I’m choosing 2050). By 2030, our carbon emissions need to be 45% less than they are now - that’s where 12 years comes from. Net-zero means that whatever CO2 we emit, we also have to capture, so the emissions stay at zero.
But isn’t that impossible?
It’s not impossible. It’s unprecedented…but only in scope. We are not lacking the technology, the resources, or the knowledge - but only the intention and the will. When America entered WWII in December of 1941, our country was crippled by the Great Depression, and still recovering from WWI. Through intent and will, by 1944 we were leading in arms production, and the whole nation had pulled together to make it happen. “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” was a common refrain. Well folks…Don’t you know about Climate Change? Even before WWII, we had already seen the industrial revolution. In 50 years, mechanization and electrification had spanned the country - and we are far more technologically advanced now. Change does not have to be laborious and slow -we just have to want it, and not all of us have to want it all at once. We can start taking the necessary steps now, and as the 1.5 degree increase does the damage it already promises, more people (and nations) will jump on the bandwagon.
So what do we do?
I’m so glad you asked! Here are 4 solutions I deduced, based on the IPCC recommendations.
Tell your congressional representatives that you demand policy for Net Zero by 2050. Bring Climate Change to the forefront - they will care if they know you do. Insist on candidates who prioritize it. For instance, New York representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is bringing forward her demands for a “Green New Deal”- a plan to transition the US towards a carbon neutral economy. Regardless of which political party you align with, Climate Change is a non-partisan issue and an equal opportunity destroyer. Vote as if all life depended on it.
Along with the goal of net zero by 2050, it is imperative that we focus on Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) from the atmosphere. There are many options for this, but these options are in different stages of development and research. Right now, the most developed and studied (proven to work) are Afforestation (turning barren land into forest), Reforestation (replanting timber lots and burned areas), land restoration and Bio-energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). Other promising solutions include Biochar, Enhanced Weathering and soil carbon sequestraiton. A focus on CDR can be achieved by either doing it ourselves (like through planting trees), supporting organizations that are doing it (working with a local or national organization that needs volunteers for reforestation efforts), investing in companies developing CDR and again - supporting candidates who put CDR on their agenda.
While I’m not an economist, I do understand how our addiction to a growth economy is at the root of the problem (especially with overconsumption). Since our capitalist culture is addicted to a growth economy, this addiction can be used to fuel the new green economy and growth of net zero technologies. A green economy is not necessarily a green growth economy - the latter focuses more on things like creating an EV boom - consumption, just more green. While our consumption does need to become primarily green, I’m thinking about green incentives, like the Forest App that helps you cut down on screen time and then rewards you by planting a tree. Or organizations like Americorps who offer university scholarships for individuals who complete a term of service. And there’s always the good ol’ carbon tax (go Washington, go!)
Support social justice and equality by investing in sustainable solutions for developing countries and at-risk communities. Food and water security through sustainable agriculture and permaculture, restoring ecosystems (like Bayview / Hunters Point in SF) to create healthy habitat for people and animals, and supporting the education of girls and women worldwide so they can live vibrant, healthy lives, which includes being able to make informed choices about reproduction.
All those things (or that one thing) that you are doing to live a greener lifestyle? Keep doing them. They really do count. However, I caution against putting the onus of saving the world from climate change on your own shoulders. It will only increase your eco-anxiety, make you exhausted and drive you to distraction. It’s also impossible. So the very best, the most important thing you can do? Talk to each other. In person. Especially your neighbors. Especially your neighbors that you don’t agree with. Find a way to connect with that relative with different political views - and do it by not talking about politics. What makes your neighbor happy? What’s something you and your relative both have in common? Find out. Because we’re all in this together.
And there’s no time to lose.