We Really, Really Need to Start Freaking Out About Climate Change

The window to save the planet is quickly closing. It's time for us to spring into action.

It's December and I can't sleep because all I can hear outside are birds tweeting. It seems odd. I'm worried about them because in New York City right now it's windy and cold. Shouldn't most of them have flown south by now? I don't know enough about birds or what birds do around here to say for sure. It just doesn't seem right.

photo of roundup
The worst-case climate scenarios are becoming more and more likely as we fail to take strong action on climate change. Photo by Simon Lieschke.

Lately I've had restless nights and an ever-constant feeling of anxiety about the weather, the climate, the world. I worry that, without any warning, something terrible will happen, like a blizzard that traps me and everyone I know inside, leaving us without any running water or enough food. I worry about a tsunami wiping out everything I love at home, destroying my childhood bedroom and dragging my parents out to sea. I worry that one day, I'll go to buy water at the shop and discover a sign that reads “Sorry, We're Out.”

As much as I'd like to believe that all of this is impossible, the reality is that these worst-case scenarios are becoming more and more likely. The way we have been living, multiplying, consuming, electrifying, whatever, isn't going to work for much longer. The way I see it, we only have two options: Keep living this way and brace ourselves for The End or change our ways fast.

In 2016, the Paris agreement was signed. It represented a universal effort for countries to work together against climate change and prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Shortly after Paris, renowned scientists began to compile the UN Climate Change Report, which was published last fall. In it, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) examines the stark difference between a rise of 1.5°C and a rise of 2°C. Their conclusion? That the additional half degree of warming would make a major difference. That it would greatly increase the risks of major heatwaves, droughts, and floods that would leave many people without water, crops, or a place to live, impacts that would disproportionately effect the world’s most vulnerable communities. At 2°C, entire ecosystems, such as coral reefs, would disappear.

What the IPPC scientists are telling us is that the current Paris agreement goal isn't enough — we don’t want to allow warming to reach 2°C. What’s more, they say we have just 12 years to dramatically cut carbon emissions if we want to limit warming to 1.5°C

Already, we are seeing the impacts of a warming climate. The past four years have been the hottest on record. In 2017 and 2018, hurricanes such as Harvey, Irma and Maria cost billions of dollars and killed thousands of people. Severe drought contributed to unprecedented wildfires from Sweden to California and heatwaves have killed and injured hundreds in the UK, Japan, and Canada.

In the absence of some major changes, though, things are predicted to get worse. By 2050, 200 million people will face the risk of losing their homes due to climate change. Eighty percent of those will be women said Maria Espinosa, President of The United Nations General Assembly, at the 2018 UN Climate Change Summit in Katowice.

In a New York Magazine article, writer David Wallace-Wells says that the UN report is probably best described as “horrifying.” And he has a point. The report is a prediction of what will happen if countries meet the Paris Agreement standards. He wrote, “the real meaning of the report is not “climate change is much worse than you think,” because anyone who knows the state of the research will find nothing surprising in it. The real meaning is, “you now have permission to freak out.”

The President of The United States, the second highest CO2 contributor in the world, has promised to pull the country out of the Paris Agreement. He’s said he doesn't believe the UN Climate report. While visiting Puerto Rico, the place most affected by Hurricane Maria, last year, Trump threw paper towels at a crowd that needed water and supplies to re-build their island. When talking about the cause of the California wildfires this year, he concluded in a Tweet that “gross mismanagement of forests” was to blame. Understandably, none of this is subduing my restless nights.

After I read the UN Climate Report, and after I was given permission by Wells's to freak out, I expected there to be chaos. We’ve known about climate change for decades, but until recently, we were never really given a specific time frame in which to address it. The IPPC report made clear that we hold the future of the planet in our hands, and what we do over the next decade will have ramifications for generations to come. So I freaked out. I walked out of my apartment half-hoping to find panic. Surprisingly, there were no people running around or crying. There were no cars crashing into lampposts. No chaos. Everything felt normal, as if we hadn't been given 12 years to save the world.

So I tuned into the UN Climate Summit in Poland, and a Climate Change Town Hall meeting held by Sen. Bernie Sanders. After watching them, I still felt petrified, but also a bit optimistic. We know all we need to know now to take action; we have the resources and tools to make that change (i.e. reduce carbon emissions); we have many people in power who seek to do what they can to address the climate crisis.

Yet, I'm still freaking out. But I try to think about what we can do. We can start electing officials that take climate chaos seriously. We can start eating less meat and dairy, is one of the biggest ways individuals can reduce their own carbon footprint. We can consider how we travel, what we buy and who we're buying from by researching companies stances on sustainability. We can also start thinking about our usage of certain single or short-term items and where they end up: Toothbrushes, Qtips, Clorox wipes, straws.

We all really need to start freaking out. But we should be doing it in a constructive way. Overall, we need to do it quickly — we just really don't have much time left. I'm still waiting for the people around me, news outlets, and public officials to begin freaking out — constructively. So far, I still see little to nothing being done. I don't want any more reports or graphs or statistics. I want new policies and regulations and changes. Not for my hypothetical kids or grandkids, but for me and everyone I love right now.

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