OPINION

Should we be scared about the changing climate?

Contents of grain silos burst from flood damage in Fremont County, Iowa, on March 29, 2019. (Tom Polansek/Reuters)
Contents of grain silos burst from flood damage in Fremont County, Iowa, on March 29, 2019. (Tom Polansek/Reuters)

The warnings from scientists about climate change get ever more extreme. Horrific suffering, damage, economic losses, and geopolitical instability are coming soon, according to recent studies by both the U.N. and the federal government, unless we make drastic changes immediately.

Famed naturalist Sir David Attenborough warned: “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Should we be frightened by these dire reports?

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old schoolgirl from Sweden who spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, thinks the answer is yes: “I want you to panic,” she said, because “our house is on fire.”

David Wallace-Wells, author of the best-seller, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” admits that “I would like people to be scared of what is possible because I’m scared … It is O.K., finally, to freak out. Even reasonable.”

“Scared, panicked, and freaked out” are not, in themselves, reactions that will solve the climate crisis. But they do capture a sense of the energy and immediacy that are required if we are to avoid the worst predicted outcomes.

Immense changes must be implemented, very quickly — and that will take much more than a mild motivation or a moderate concern. Unsettling alarms need to go off to trigger a sufficiently bold response.

And yet we don’t like fear, or the people who try to inflame it. We call them alarmists or fearmongers. Fear can lead to denial or withdrawal, we say — it’s counter-productive.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it this way: “Fear is not a plan. Courage is a plan.”

And yet courage and fear are intimately linked. There is no need for courage in the absence of fear.

Fully facing a threat as pervasive and destabilizing as the climate crisis may be frightening, but it is courage that allows us to take effective action.

Out of strong fear comes strong courage — and out of courage comes bold action.

In Wallace-Wells’ view, fear about the climate actually is a call to action: “The scale of suffering that is possible … can be so overwhelming that it feels paralyzing, but, ultimately, the size of those impacts are a measure of our own agency. We have the power to stop them from happening entirely if we take the necessary action.”

The scope of the climate crisis is monumental, but the power to avoid its greatest harm is entirely in our hands. There is no time to waste.

First we must face the facts, by listening to the overwhelming consensus of our best scientists.

Having listened, it’s critical that our fears and worries lead not to withdrawal, denial, or hopelessness, but to a commitment to fundamentally change our energy economy before it’s too late.

Everything we care about depends on the strength and swiftness of our response. The future is at stake.

• Thom Krystofiak of Fairfield is co-founder of Climate Action Iowa, an organization devoted to making educational presentations about climate change. He holds degrees from Harvard and Cambridge University and is a writer and software engineer.

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