We Have Every Right to be Afraid of Climate Change. Let’s be Optimistic Instead.  

13 mins read

I feel the familiar buzz in my pocket: one of many news notifications distracting me while I do homework. I pull out my phone to read it and roll my eyes. 

“New climate report says we are screwed” — or something like that. 

As harsh and threatening as these headlines are, it’s hard not to shrug them off. We’ve normalized it all without even trying. Every major media organization sends them out constantly, soaring from server to server across the world before landing comfortably on my screen. At this point, it’s like reading the weather forecast every day — only I know exactly what the weather is going to be. 

I look up from my phone at the same time as my friend sitting across from me looks up from his. He chuckles and utters a common refrain: “don’t have kids.”

It’s the type of dark joke that is characteristic of a generation that was born into endless wars, witnessed their parents suffer the worst economic recession in nearly 100 years, and then graduated from school during a global pandemic, all while slowly succumbing to the predation of tech companies who have mined our brains for data and flattened our social experience into ‘like’ buttons and endless, sedentary scrolling. We have enough reasons to be an anxious generation already. It’s almost poetic that the world tells us, just as we begin our adult lives on this Earth, that it’s probably going to end soon anyway. 

I chuckle back and continue studying for my test the next day.

Our generation exists in a sarcastic state of being. On the surface, we are anxiously preparing for what is supposed to be an exciting and independent adulthood. But implicitly, we are told every day that our life is not actually the beginning of some exciting new chapter in human history, but is much more likely the whimpering epilogue to an epic-but-bygone era of human glory. 

But if it’s true that we are the generation destined to face humanity’s most existential crisis, then the complementary truth is that we have no other choice than to carry on. Yes, we are victims of a hyper-industrialized, economically insatiable society. But we are also the exact thing that every youth conference keynote speaker told us growing up: the future. In fact, we are the only future. We are the innovators and leaders armed with the most scientific knowledge and resources in human history. If anyone is literally going to save the world, why wouldn’t it be us?

To be clear, needing to save the world from climate change doesn’t mean the world will end tomorrow, or next year, or even in the next 50 years. The tipping point offered by scientists of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is not the apocalypse: it’s a realistic foreshadowing of significant consequences — consequences that we ought to treat like the apocalypse nevertheless. Even the worst case scenario is a very, very slow burn.

Before 2015, we were on track for the world to warm by 4 degrees Celsius come 2100 — an actual apocalypse level scenario. Just years later, we’ve reduced that number to 3 degrees Celsius. If world leaders follow through on their commitments to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, we will hit 2 degrees Celsius. Most importantly, every tenth of a degree matters. Each reduction corresponds to thousands of lives and livelihoods saved from impending disaster. The fate of our planet is nowhere near a foregone conclusion; our actions still have a huge impact. 

The ones who say there’s nothing we can do are the same people who benefit from inaction and apathy. As our ability to combat climate change has evolved, so have the talking points against action: climate change isn’t real … it’s real, but we aren’t the cause … we are the cause, but it’s not that bad … and now? It’s bad, but there is nothing you can do about it — at least not without upending our society in other devastating ways.

These are not good-faith arguments. More importantly, they are simply wrong. They are desperate attempts to preserve the status quo in the face of an emerging society that is tired of inaction. In fact, 84% of our generation — across all races, genders, ages, and hometowns — agree that waiting any longer will be too late for our kids, and we are already planning to make life decisions based on the state of the environment. 

But we don’t want to just save the world: we want to make it a better place than it was before. My coming-of-age years have seen shifts that not only give me hope in our potential but also relief at the reality of what we have already achieved. 

Renewable energy is becoming more cost-efficient by the day. Wind and solar are already cheaper than coal and gas in most of the world, even with massive subsidies and fossil-fuel-reliant infrastructure. This doesn’t just mean that we are already producing more renewable energy, but it also means ordinary people can expect to pay less for their personal energy consumption, which can be a huge burden in poor and rural communities. Yet, while these technologies are becoming cheaper and more accessible, we haven’t even scratched the surface of things like carbon sequestration and geoengineering. 

These market trends also mean burgeoning new industries that can provide jobs and economic growth. Renewable energy jobs already exist in every state, but more importantly, they are outpacing job growth in other energy industries. Moreover, many nations have been able to cut harmful emissions while increasing their GDP. As a young person preparing to enter the workforce, I look forward to not just a thriving planet but a thriving economy to support me and my future family. 

Finally, it’s not just scientists and suppliers that recognize the value of sustainability: it’s consumers, too. In fact, the majority of consumers are willing to pay more for products that are sustainably sourced. Consequently, more and more businesses are adopting sustainability strategies and setting realistic targets with the goal of making sustainability core to their brand. In other words, being sustainable is cool.  

The reality of our fight against climate change is that there is no silver bullet. It requires innovation, vigilance, and collective action from every corner of our globe. It demands that we all acknowledge the depth and breadth of the challenge we face and have the courage and competence to enact adequate solutions. The upside to such a daunting task is that if we do take the necessary steps to reduce our emissions and decarbonize the global economy, just like we’ve been doing for the last decade, we can create a new global landscape that incentivizes healthier behavior on an individual and societal level. 

With all this good news, it’s important to remind ourselves that we are still not doing enough. Emerging technologies and scientific breakthroughs are uplifting, but political obstacles remain large. We must pressure governments to be more responsive to the communities suffering from the climate crisis rather than those who would subvert it. As optimistic or inevitable as some elements might be, climate change will never solve itself. 

Moreover, we would be remiss to forget that we got ourselves in this predicament to begin with. Over-consumption, government deregulation, and pollution are all harmful activities regardless of the energy we use. A post-climate-crisis world must recognize the individual behaviors and societal incentives that once brought our world to the brink of collapse. 

When I do have children, they will grow up in the world we create for them. And when they have children, and their children have children, they will read history books about the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that we overcame, much like how we read about our forebears defeating the Nazis, winning their Civil Rights, or fixing the gaping hole in our ozone layer (yeah, we did that already).  

In times of struggle, there is no guarantee of success. There is only a willingness to strive for it. 

This is why I am optimistic about climate change. Not just because of recent market trends or a deep-seated faith in human exceptionalism, but because I have to be. There is no choice other than to believe in the potential not just of my generation but of my entire species and to align my actions accordingly. To wallow in the despair of believing our extinction is a foregone conclusion or to sit numbly with the apathetic worldview that nothing I do matters is not just counterproductive: it’s counter-human. It goes against everything that has propelled our species to the technological innovations, intellectual breakthroughs, and emotional connections that we have achieved over our long history on this planet. It simultaneously denies the value of everything we have created and everything that we have yet to create. 

It is true that I’ve grown pretty used to the terrifying headlines I get every day. But they will not deter me from having hope, and they will not deter me from working towards a better future than the dismal one being predicted. Happier headlines await us. 

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