Living Through the Anthropocene Storm

“It’s too late, isn’t it?”

That was the subject line of an email I received the other day. The sender was a mother in Brooklyn who, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, was terrified of what climate change portends for her young children.

slice of cover graphic depicting a footprint

As a parent myself, I share her pain. Concern for my own daughter led me to spend four years writing a book, HOT, about how she and the rest of what I call “Generation Hot” can survive the climate crisis. The barrage of extreme storms, drought and wildfires in 2012 demonstrated that climate change is arriving sooner and nastier than even the most worried scientists had projected. What’s more, the inertia of the climate system makes harsher impacts unavoidable.

In my reply to the mother in Brooklyn, I sympathized with her fears but begged her to reject despair. Fear is an understandable, even useful, reaction to climate change. But despair is a dead end. It only paralyzes us when what’s needed is to redouble our efforts to chart a different course.

Despair is also an (unwitting) act of arrogance. To say “it’s too late” to fix a given problem assumes we can predict the future and all the social forces that combine to create it, and no one can do that.

For example, consider the threat of nuclear war – the first, most threatening manifestation of the Anthropocene era.

I’m not old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but as a young reporter in Washington I had a front row seat for the belligerent jousting between the superpowers in the 1980s, when the massive arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union were poised on hair triggers. I wrote a lot in those years about the arms race, and there were times when the facts left me pretty depressed. Yet humanity dodged the nuclear bullet, at least for the time being.

Who could have predicted how that happy outcome came to pass? Who would have guessed that a radical reformer like Mikhail Gorbachev would rise to the top of a rotten system and make peace with Ronald Reagan, who never met a weapons system he didn’t like? Humanity is still not free from the threat of nuclear war, but the huge step we took away from the abyss reminds us that history is full of surprises.

Of course there is a fundamental difference between the climate crisis and the nuclear arms race. With nuclear weapons, as long as neither superpower pushed the launch button, it remained possible to avert disaster; inaction was a good thing. The climate threat cannot be defused so quickly, and inaction on reducing greenhouse gas emissions only puts us further in jeopardy. Thanks to decades of delay, temperatures on this planet are all but certain to reach 2ºC above pre-industrial levels. It will take billions of dollars and big changes in how we organize our societies to survive the impacts heading our way. Meanwhile, the task of reducing heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere grows more urgent with each day.

Read more in our special issue exploring the consequences of a new geologic epoch: the Anthropocene.

Yet we know how to make most of the changes that are required. What’s lacking is not technological breakthroughs but political will. And political will comes not from politicians, but from large numbers of people taking action together and demanding that their leaders pursue a better path.

This is the very kind of action that has produced the two biggest victories against climate change scored in the US in recent years: the de facto moratorium on new coal-fired power plants that the grassroots Beyond Coal campaign helped impose, and the blocking (for now) of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. It is the kind of action that a number of us hope to inspire with Climate Parents, a group that is mobilizing parents to get active in the fight to preserve a livable planet for our kids.

Which returns me to my message to the terrified mother in Brooklyn: We must shun despair in favor of hope. Without hope, neither of the two climate victories I just mentioned would have been achieved. Make no mistake: Hope is not a passive faith that things will turn out all right in the end. Hope is an active verb, a choice, a commitment to fight for a better world no matter the odds. Hope is our only hope.

Mark Hertsgaard, a Fellow of the New America Foundation, is the author of six books including, HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, and a cofounder of the group, Climate Parents.

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