For an alternate viewpoint, see “Point: No Need to Panic on Climate Change.”
It’s not time to panic about climate change. It’s past time.
Usually, panic is the wrong response to almost every situation. It implies irrational overreaction to threats, often producing unproductive or harmful handling of them.
Yet, the existential threat that climate change poses to life on Earth and the very planet itself requires at least an element of panic as a catalyst to a meaningful, sustained response.
Worry hasn’t worked. Concern hasn’t worked. Alarm hasn’t worked.
Globally, June of this year was the hottest June on record, going back almost two centuries when the United States and Britain first began tracking atmospheric temperatures.
On July 3, the hottest daily mean global temperature ever was reached at 62.69 degrees Fahrenheit. The next day set another record. So did the next, and the next. From July 3 through July 29, the Earth experienced 29 consecutive hottest days — in any month, in any year, ever.
History’s greatest physicists and mathematicians, from Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein, loved the certainty of numbers.
It’s impossible to argue with the grim certainty of the ever more frightening climate numbers on our precious planet.
Whether or not panic is warranted, our anxiety is already rising, almost in concert with the inexorable increase in global temperatures.
While “climate anxiety” is not yet an official psychological disorder, therapists report a growing number of patients with what some call eco-anxiety, a term first coined in 2007, especially among young people. A peer-reviewed article published in May 2023 in the journal Nature Mental Health cited a recent study of 10,000 people ages 16-25 in 10 countries: Fifty-nine percent of those polled said they were very worried or extremely worried about climate change — and 84 percent were somewhat worried.
It makes sense that young people feel the most urgency about climate change. They have the longest still to live on a planet enduring more uncontrollable wildfires, more unbearable heat waves, more glacial melting, more warming of both the deepest seas and the blankets of air above them, more hurricanes unleashed by warmer oceans, more deforestation, more destruction of the life-saving trees that combat global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the air and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere.
We owe enormous gratitude to one singular young person who, as much as anyone else, has compelled her elders to finally take climate change seriously. Swedish savant Greta Thunberg began her relentless campaign as a teenager. At age 16, Time magazine named her among the 100 most influential people in the world, and, still just 20, she has been nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Our house is on fire,” Thunberg told the World Economic Forum in January 2019.
New economic powerhouses such as China and India protest that they are being asked to burn less fossil fuel, release fewer greenhouse gases, and take other remedial steps that the United States, Japan, Germany and other industrialized nations did not have to take in earlier decades.
China and India are right: the evolving requirements of responsible global stewardship are unfair. Their economies happen to be booming in a more perilous era, one in which the very future of life on Earth hangs in the balance for the first time.
Such inequity is no excuse for inaction on their part.
There have been signs of growing international resolve against the ravages of climate change. The Paris Agreement, an international treaty adopted in 2015, has been signed by 193 countries plus the European Union, pledging to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and give developing nations money to fight global warming. The historic accord aims to limit the global temperature increase this century to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) while pursuing efforts to hold it to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Even those relatively modest temperature hikes would cause more wildfires, hurricanes and other destructive climate events.
Disgracefully, former president Donald Trump pulled the United States from the Paris Agreement. His successor, President Biden, restored U.S. membership on his first day in office.
More ambitiously, the European Union has joined the United Nations, China and 69 other countries, which combined emit three-quarters of all greenhouse gases, in pledging to reach zero net emissions by 2050. More than 1,000 cities worldwide, including Los Angeles and Houston, are part of the same initiative.
Not surprisingly, even such a dangerous threat as climate change, one that should be uncontroversial, has been politicized in our deeply polarized era. Conservative commentators blame environmentalists’ longstanding opposition to nuclear power for contributing to climate change. Nuclear power production does not emit greenhouse gases, but it entails other risks involving the storage of spent fuel rods and the cataclysmic, if rare, danger of nuclear meltdown.
France has gone against the grain of most other industrialized countries in obtaining more than two-thirds of its energy from nuclear power, compared with just one-fifth in the United States.
While we’ve picked up the pace in mitigating climate change, however belatedly, it’s still far from enough. If we want to save our grandchildren and their grandchildren from even worse natural catastrophes, we will have to do far more.