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Climate Optimism – The New York Times


Amid headline-grabbing wildfires, droughts and floods, it’s easy to feel discouraged by climate change.

I felt this myself when a group of United Nations experts released the last major report on global warming. He said that humanity was running out of time to avoid some of the worst effects of global warming. Another report is coming tomorrow. So I called experts to find out if my feeling of unhappiness was justified.

To my relief, they brushed off the notion of desperation. The world, they argued, has made real progress on climate change and still has time to act. They said any declaration of inevitable doom would be a roadblock to action, alongside the denial that Republican lawmakers have historically used to block climate legislation. Such pushback is part of a nascent movement: Activists challenging climate fear have recently taken off on TikTok, my colleague Cara Buckley reported.

“Fear is useful for waking us up and making us pay attention,” Katharine Hayhoe, a climatologist at Texas Tech University, told me. “But if we don’t know what to do, it paralyzes us.”

In a climate change survey of young people in 10 countries last year, 75% of respondents said the future was scary. Some people are now using therapy to calm their climate anxieties. Some have radically changed their lives for fear of global warming, even deciding not to have children.

Climate change presents a huge challenge of course, threatening the world with more extreme weather events than we have seen in recent years. And the situation is urgent: to achieve President Biden’s climate goals, experts say, Congress must pass the climate provisions of the Build Back Better Act this year.

But rather than see the climate challenge as overwhelming or hopeless, experts said, we should treat it as a call to action.

The world has made real progress in slowing climate change in recent years. In much of the world, solar and wind power are now cheaper than coal and gas. The cost of batteries has dropped over the past few decades, making electric vehicles much more accessible. Governments and businesses are pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into clean energy.

Prior to 2015, the world was expected to warm by around four degrees Celsius by 2100. Today, the world is on track to reach three degrees Celsius. And if world leaders stick to their current pledges, the planet would warm by about two degrees Celsius.

This is not enough to declare victory. The standard target that world leaders have adopted to avoid the worst consequences of climate change is to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. Sadly, that looks increasingly unattainable, experts say.

But every degree drop counts. A tenth of a degree may seem like very little, but it could save lives by preventing more wildfires, droughts, floods and conflict over dwindling resources.

And if the best result now seems doubtful, so does the worst. Scientists have long worried about runaway warming that is generating runaway weather, making regions uninhabitable and destroying ecosystems. But current projections suggest that scenario is unlikely, said Pennsylvania State climatologist Michael Mann.

Experts and advocates want to capture legitimate concerns and turn them into action. Governments and the world’s largest corporations have set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades, but they will need the help and support of the public.

A model for this is road safety. Drivers can reduce their risk of an accident by driving carefully, but even the safest ones can be affected. The United States reduced the number of deaths in car accidents over several decades by passing sweeping laws and rules that required seat belts, airbags and foldable steering wheels; drunk driving punished; builds safer roads and more — a collective approach.

The same kind of path can work for climate change, experts said. Reducing an individual’s carbon footprint is less important than the systemic changes governments and businesses adopt to help people live more sustainably. While individual action helps, it falls short of the impact of entire civilizations that have built their economies around burning carbon sources to produce energy.

The need for a drastic solution can make the problem seem too big and the individuals too small, again fueling despair.

But experts said individuals could still make a difference, playing in a collective approach. You can convince your friends and family to take the issue seriously by changing the politicians and policies they support. You can get involved in politics (including at the local level, where many climate policies are conducted). You can actively post about global warming on social media. You can donate money to climate causes.

At the end of the day, the experts have repeatedly told me: don’t give up on the future. Look for productive ways to avert impending doom.


Sunday’s question: could the war in Ukraine cause Putin to be ousted?

Russian casualties, anti-war protests and the pain of economic sanctions have weakened his grip on power, Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz write to Foreign Affairs. Adam Casey is more dubious, arguing in Foreign Policy that Putin’s control over Russia’s elite and security services has largely “protected him from coups.”

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