When the band R.E.M came out with its 1987 hit, It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine), they didn’t know how apt that headline would be 30 years later. If you read the recent climate change article by David Wallace-Wells in the New York Magazine, you’d certainly think the end of the world is near, and you probably wouldn’t feel fine. “You are surely not alarmed enough,” Wallace-Wells wrote. He then went on to do his utmost to make sure we all got appropriately alarmed. If things continue the way they are now, he wrote, not only will large parts of the earth be too hot for habitation by the end of this century, but we won’t be able to grow food; ancient pathogens, against which we have no immunity, will be released from melting Arctic ice; our carbon dioxide and pollutant-rich air will be unbreathable; our modern fossil-fuel-based economy will collapse; and we will descend into perpetual warfare.
Wallace-Wells paints a bleak picture, but it is an absolute worst-case scenario. And many experts—including the climate scientist Michael Mann on Facebook, the sociologist Daniel Cohen at Medium, and science writers at The Atlantic and Mashable—immediately came forth to assuage readers that it is unlikely that everything he outlines will come to pass. Wallace-Wells’s vision is exaggerated, they insist, and the evidence he presents is not complete. One point Mann specifically challenges is Wallace-Wells’s claim that melting Arctic permafrost will eventually release tons of methane into the air. And yet, our situation is hardly rosy.
Climate Changes Fuel Conflict
Environmental changes have been linked to increased conflict in societies. Scientists and public health experts found that climate change can affect human well-being in two ways: directly—by causing diseases and death, and indirectly—by damaging the environment, depleting financial resources, weakening health-supporting infrastructure, and forcing people to leave behind homes and families.
When essential resources—notably food, water, and land—become scarcer, people have more reasons to fight. For example, the prolonged drought that affected the Middle East from 2006 to 2011, has been linked to the Syrian war, the aftermath of which echoed all over the planet. As people living in coastal areas are forced by rising seas to flee their homes, these climate refugees might end up in areas where they represent a new ethnicity. Historically, mass migrations, in which refugees descended onto a region unfamiliar with them and their culture, have not always ended peaceably, especially when the native population already faced their own environmental or political challenges.
The effects of climate change are also projected to dampen economic growth and will disproportionately affect the poor, exacerbating economic inequalities that are already vast. All of these factors will likely contribute to increased violence.
Scientists Remain Optimistic
Despite all of this gloom and doom, climate scientists tend to be an optimistic bunch and have faith that humanity can engineer our way out of this mess we’ve engineered ourselves into. They are refining batteries in electric cars for better efficiency, zeroing in on the wind energy potentials, and searching for other alternative energy sources—for example geothermal energy. Plus, they are building machines to filter carbon dioxide particles out of the air, much in the way plants do it, but more efficiently. The captured CO2 would be buried underground or perhaps utilized as a solvent or freezing agent, or maybe even in as yet to be discovered applications. And as the Paris Agreement showed, on the policy front many governments and people seem to have finally seriously committed to reducing emissions. Even in the face of federal disapproval, states and cities intend to implement the Clean Power Plan to diminish the amount of carbon dioxide that American power plants—our largest source of carbon emissions—spew into the air.
To fix the worsening social ills caused by climate change will require not only energy policies, like those drafted in the Paris Agreement, but also socioeconomic policies. There is room for optimism here too. Many social policies that seemed impossible to change—think gay marriage—have radically shifted in recent years, thanks to dedicated activists. Hopefully, activists will be similarly successful in altering our policies on refugees and inequality.
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But activists need to be motivated, and presenting them with apocalyptic scenarios is not a great motivator, says Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology and environmental studies, who wrote a paper about the effects of climate change on psychological health and well-being. “Fear grabs our attention, but can hinder complex thinking,” Clayton said. “When combined with a recommendation for action, fear can successfully prompt a response to a short-term threat. But in the absence of a clear path to safety, fear can motivate defensive avoidance of an issue rather than encouraging the carefully considered plans for long-term action that the search for sustainability requires.” In the face of dire climate predictions, remaining paralyzed by fear is tantamount to denial. Human ingenuity created these problems in our climate and our civilization; it will take human ingenuity to repair them.
So perhaps R.E.M’s lyrics remain apt in their entirety—it is OK for us to feel fine. For now, let’s not panic or move to the North Pole, but rather focus on fixing what we can.