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The Climate Anxiety Decade: How We Came to Terms With Our Warming World in the 2010s

Caroline Delbert
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From Popular Mechanics

The Decade Reviewed looks back at the 2010s and how it changed human society forever. From 2010 to 2019, our species experienced seismic shifts in science, technology, entertainment, transportation, and even the very planet we call home. This is how the past ten years have changed us.

In February of 2010, North America was hit with a record-setting blizzard. Time discussed climate change extensively in their coverage, taking GOP politicians to task for throwing out the old this doesn’t seem like global warming chestnut in denial of the evidence.

“Climate models also suggest that while global warming may not make hurricanes more common, it could well intensify the storms that do occur and make them more destructive,” they wrote.

In 2014, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated it plainly: "Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems."

The 2011-2012 winter was the fourth warmest in recorded history. In 2015-16, we set a new record. In 2017, we had the sixth warmest winter. People fixated on issues like disposable plastic straws while the U.S. pulled out of the Paris accord. Now, there’s now a documented phenomenon of anxiety expressed as “a chronic fear of environmental doom,” which the most concerned climate scientists say is warranted by the situation.

If climate anxiety is a fear of what's possible, how can we secure the future?

An Ecological Tipping Point

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In November 2019, Bill Ripple of the Oregon State University College of Forestry published an overview of Earth’s climate crisis and attached a list of over 11,000 supporting signatures.

“Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to ‘tell it like it is,’” that paper begins. The moral imperative is sometimes a religious one as well, with ideas like biblical stewardship of the Earth. Ripple’s plan in his paper is sixfold, an interlocking set of ideas that form a holistic approach to climate change.

His warnings in the paper are grave, but he believes there’s both interest and capacity to make drastic changes to mitigate the harm.

“I think we are entering into a social tipping point in our fight against climate change as the urgency of the conversation seems to be ramping up for governments, businesses, and individuals,” Ripple told Popular Mechanics in an email. “Governmental bodies are declaring a climate emergency. The Pope issued an encyclical on climate change. Schoolchildren are striking and grassroots citizen movements are demanding change.”

Dave Goulson is an insect ecologist and biology professor at the University of Sussex. He has signed Ripple’s climate crisis paper. In his work, Goulson studies insects and specifically bumblebees. He published an alarming report of his own this year, a subject survey of insect populations and the number of insect species that are facing extinction.

“Much attention focusses on declines of large, charismatic animals, but recent evidence suggests that abundance of insects may have fallen by 50% or more since 1970,” he wrote. Before the rapid onset of climate change events, insects were already struggling because of vanishing habitat, human encroachment, pesticides, and more.

Goulson told Popular Mechanics that he doesn’t consider himself a climate expert, but that for insects and animals, climate change is adding insult to injury.

“The basic problem for insects and other wildlife is that climate change is hitting them at a time when their populations are already massively reduced by habitat loss, pesticides and other pollutants, invasive species, and other man-made threats,” he said by email. “For many creatures it is likely to be the final straw.”

But he also had constructive advice for a hypothetical turnaround. “It is not too late to save a fair proportion of insect life, but to do so we need to learn to tread more gently on the planet, and fast,” he said. “We need to properly tackle climate change, with the aim of being carbon neutral by 2030, and we need to radically change our farming system to set aside more land for nature by reducing food waste and meat consumption.”

The First Climate Change Refugees

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The BBC Radio’s long-running agricultural soap The Archers, the oldest drama in the world, introduced rewilding as a village project. The show's setting also feels the drastic impact of climate change like other, real-world villages.

Villages like Newtok. In 2015, the Atlantic profiled the Alaskan village, a settlement of Alaska Natives who’ve lived in the region for thousands of years. The nearly 400 residents were told by the Army Corps of Engineers that they were going to be underwater by the end of the decade.

Alaskan soil ecologist Lorene Lynn told Popular Mechanics that by the time people were finally able to move to a planned new site, their school was being washed away by a river. Moving the whole population will take a long time because of the cost.

By a twist of fate, Alaska is a deep red state that is arguably most affected by climate change than any other U.S. state. Alaska's location in the sub-Arctic and Arctic, its place in the path of warming ocean currents, and its reliance on the outdoors compared to the continental U.S. all contribute to accelerated effects of climate change. Lynn worries that Alaska’s extremely low population density and high proportion of tiny villages means these stories are easier to ignore. Lynn describes the citizens of Newtok as some of the first climate refugees in the U.S.

That wasn't the end of Alaska's climate woes in 2019. The state suffered raging wildfires through the Kenai Peninsula after a record hot, dry summer turned the grass to kindling. In northern Alaska, melting permafrost is releasing greenhouse gases that only further accelerate climate change, forming what Lynn calls “the positive feedback loop.”

“That’s where the big alarm bells are going off with scientists,” she says.

Towns in Louisiana have also been identified by the Army Corps as vulnerable enough to preventively move. Around the world, tiny islands like Kiribati and Tuvalu are among the first affected. Low-lying Bangladesh is predicted to lose up to 25 percent of its landmass, mostly from the vital and fertile Ganges River delta.

A Reason To Hope?

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In the 2010s, it feels like we've entered the fourth stage of climate change grief—depression. We must hope that the 2020s spur acceptance of the situation, and more importantly, definitive action

There's already reason to hope. Nearly 90 percent of young people believe they can work to slow climate change, including 2019 Person of the Year nominee Greta Thunberg (above). The technology to slow climate change already exists (no silver bullet is required, though Bill Gates is welcome to keep searching for one). The number of climate laws passed around the world has doubled every five years.

While it'll take all those carbon-spewing governments and corporations to cooperate in order to truly tackle climate change, don't underestimate personal commitment.

“It’s no fun living without hope,” Lynn says, and adds that she keeps two ideas in mind. First, “The only person I can truly change is me,” including that she and her husband have committed to the Swedish idea of social flight shame.

And the second?

“I have a hope that people will start to think about where stuff comes from,” she says, including not just their direct waste but the impact of industrialized farms on workers, the human cost of cut-rate manufacturing, and on and on and on.

When the human cost includes all of us, we can only make progress together.

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