This piece is adapted from an earlier blog post on rogergloss.com.
Sometimes we need to step back and look at the big picture. For me, this is one of those times.
For the past five years I’ve called myself a climate activist. I interact daily with others – friends, colleagues, acquaintances – whom I also consider to be climate activists. Since we all got into this, though, things have changed. On the positive side, the past ten months or so have seen a significant uptick in public awareness, political discussion, and media coverage of what is now increasingly recognized as a “climate emergency.” We have last October’s “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5° C” by the IPCC and a 16-year-old student activist from Sweden named Greta Thunberg to thank for this belated awakening.
But on the negative side, world leaders have made negligible progress during this same time in dealing with this emergency. Worse yet, those who currently hold political and economic power in Washington, DC, are perniciously exacerbating the crisis: pulling out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement (insufficient as it is), rolling back greenhouse gas (GHG) regulations, freezing automobile fuel economy standards, and disingenuously trying to bring back a destructive, dying coal industry. This is national idiocy in its highest form. But we need to understand that such idiocy is explained by the inability – unwillingness – of free-market capitalism to respond to changing circumstances, even when those circumstances threaten the habitability of our planet by human, animal, and plant life.
The problem is, we’re running out of time, after decades of inaction.
Meanwhile, the activist community, the community I have chosen to be a part of, has trouble keeping up. Many joined this community when Trump was elected in 2016, but by that time these negative trends were already long underway. Many people new to climate activism are brimming with energy, enthusiasm, and hope. Some focus on individual change and leading by example: put solar panels on your roof, buy an EV, go vegan, refuse plastic, reduce waste (I do these things myself). Others view the political and economic landscape and believe that compromise and incremental progress offer the only practical path to deal with the climate crisis. Still others try to reach the climate deniers and persuade them, with science, logic and reason, that climate change is “real” and must be addressed.
Recently others (myself included), inspired by Greta Thunberg and a burgeoning youth movement, hope that the younger generations will speak truth to power (like Greta) and get power to listen, finally building a critical mass to force political change.
The problem is, we’re running out of time, after decades of inaction. Having been at this longer than many, I personally feel a growing sense of desperation. It’s too late for educating the masses, awakening the apathetic, growing the circle, compromising on incremental solutions or bridging the political divide, which grows wider with each passing day. I recognize and appreciate the good intentions of climate activists who pursue these avenues, but I’m losing patience with the entire movement. To paraphrase Greta Thunberg, when the house is on fire, you don’t sit down and talk about it.
I don’t want your hope. … I want you to panic.Greta Thunberg
I’ll admit to some degree of activist burnout, but I won’t forgive myself for it. Coming back to the climate emergency, Bill McKibben has been at this far longer than most of us. Naomi Klein has been at it for years, with great intensity and wisdom. It is now increasingly probable that methane release from melting polar ice will, at some unknown but imminent future date, render all possible mitigation and adaptation measures inadequate. We are likely destined to face increased environmental destruction and human suffering in the short, medium, and long term.
Hopefully some subset of human, plant and animal life will survive on a diminished Earth. This might be all the hope we have left. So while this is no time to give up, it is definitely time to panic. Greta has it right. The house is indeed on fire.