In defense of fear

In her DNC speech, Michelle Obama said things can get a lot worse. She's right.

Someone asked me yesterday how I manage to cover climate change each day without feeling perpetual fear and anxiety. I said I wasn’t sure—but generally, I don’t.

I think it’s because I’m uncomfortable with fear. I’ll use any mental trick I can muster to avoid it. One trick I use is anger: a similar, but easier and more action-oriented emotion. Why be scared about the potential permanent collapse of humanity’s habitat when I could be angry? Why experience an often paralyzing emotion when I could make it catalyzing?

Anger doesn’t feel like a trick at all most days. There’s so much I am genuinely furious about. The fossil fuel industry’s 40-year campaign to deceive the public for profit; the Republican Party’s eager willingness to aid that campaign for power; the Democratic Party’s unwillingness to do anything meaningful about it; the media’s complacency and utter gullibility. Most people with power in this country have failed to grapple with the science of climate change, and have done so knowing the consequences of their failure. People will suffer and die because of them.

There are rare moments, though, when anger is simply not strong enough to hold the veil of fearlessness over my eyes. In those moments, I can feel the planet’s heat rise in my throat, and I am forced to sit in the unbearable discomfort of a reality I’ve known for some time but that this year in particular has cemented: that our success as a species is not guaranteed. That things, in fact, do not have to get better.

I usually try to snap out of these fearful moments as quickly as possible. They can feel, to me, a lot like weakness.

But if there’s one thing I took from Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last night, it’s that fear is a natural reaction when your life is being threatened. And our lives are, point blank, being threatened.

It’s time we started acting like it.

I imagine people will be talking about Obama’s speech a lot today. I imagine they’ll be talking about how she flayed Donald Trump, and praised Joe Biden, and made a beautiful case for empathy and decency.

But if there is one thing I hope people talk about today, it’s the line Obama said herself she wants people to remember from her speech: “If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can. And they will, if we don't make a change in this election.”

A few days before the opening of the DNC, a team of climate scientists from Ohio State University published what I consider to be among the most alarming studies of the year. Human-caused climate change, it shows, has pushed Greenland’s massive ice sheet into a state of melting overdrive—and it has passed the point of no return. The ice sheet will, eventually, melt in its entirety, raising the global sea level by more than 20 feet. This will leave the modern world as we know it unrecognizable.

The question is no longer if this will happen, but when. Will it happen in our lifetimes? No—but the study also indicates that ice sheet stability in Greenland and all over the world is collapsing far faster than we anticipated. It’s possible, if not probable, that we will reach four feet of sea level rise by the end of the century if we do not act drastically, quickly. The entire future of human civilization will be decided by what we do now. That is not hyperbole. That is what the science indicates.

I don’t need to tell you what we’re doing now. You already know how the actions of our country and our president are affecting the global climate. Perhaps you saw that yesterday, the president finalized his plan to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Perhaps you saw that big oil donors are flocking to Trump’s side as the November election looms.

What I do need to tell you is that there is still time to fix it. Greenland’s ice sheet is headed toward eventual collapse, but “curbing greenhouse gas emissions today could delay the process by 5,000 years … giving people much more time to adapt as the sea encroaches across thousands of miles of densely populated coastlines.” There is still time to give humans who have not yet been born a fighting chance at a good life. But that outcome is far from guaranteed. It simply will not happen if we don’t act now.

I used to think that being scared about this made me weak. But fear is our most basic survival mechanism, and our planet is in survival mode. Fear gives us the strength to make tough decisions in order to survive.

Fortunately, the most important decision we can make right now is not actually that tough. We may have to, as Obama said, “grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks, pack a brown bag dinner and maybe breakfast too, because we've got to be willing to stand in line all night if we have to.”

In the grand scheme, it’s a small price to pay.

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