Should We Panic About Climate Change?
Why We Shouldn’t Despair Over Climate Change
Sea levels rising, flooding our major cities.
Crops withering in the fields, imperiling our food supply.
Catastrophic storms, blistering heat, water shortages.
Add it all up and you can only come to one conclusion … which is that it’s all probably gonna be ok.
Wait … what did you think we were going to say?
Folks, good news doesn’t come much better than this: The world is not ending.
At least not anytime soon.
And based on the numbers, that’s going to come as a relief to a lot of people.
A 2019 poll showed that nearly 40 percent of Americans think it’s likely that climate change could lead to the extinction of the human race.i And that fear is having real-world consequences.
In a recent survey of young people across the world, 45 percent of them said that they’re so worried about the climate that it affects their ability to function in their daily lives.ii
Now you can understand why. After all, as good justifications for anxiety go, the extinction of your species is up there.
Imagine how many depressed dinosaurs there would’ve been if they knew what was coming.
But here’s the thing: There’s actually a lot of evidence that being concerned about the climate doesn’t require panicking about the climate.
Because while the media is naturally drawn to alarmist stories about extreme climate scenarios … they’re also the least likely scenarios.iii
In fact, while you’d never know it from the coverage, there is a wide array of scientists who are simultaneously concerned about climate change but also want the doomsayers to stop scaring everybody.
Michael Mann, for example, is a leading climate activist. But he’s also a guy who’s said “There is no evidence of climate change scenarios that would render human beings extinct.”iv
Another group of researchers have noted that the media tends to pick up “implausible projections of apocalyptic impacts,” which simultaneously terrify people who are already worried about climate change and — when these doomsday predictions don’t come true — make it easier for people who aren’t worried about climate change to dismiss the issue altogether.v
So, we could all probably use a bit of perspective.
The good news: We’re not all gonna die.
Which is nice, because there is some bad news: We’re not likely to solve climate change anytime soon.
Here’s the issue. Getting the whole world to cut back on its carbon emissions — especially when much of the world is made up of poor nations that need to use fossil fuels if they have any hope of getting wealthier — is a tall order.
In 2019, for example, the United Nations admitted that despite being at the end of a decade that had seen more climate efforts than ever before in history … nothing really changed.vi
Wealthy nations’ efforts to reduce carbon emissions were essentially canceled out by the increased emissions of poorer ones. vii Not because those countries don’t care about the planet but because they don’t want to live in poverty. Real poverty. As in “the world still has 940 million people who don’t even have electricity” poverty.viii
And it gets even more complicated. Because even if all the political and scientific problems were solved — even if we found low-cost, carbon-free energy sources that could power the entire world — it wouldn’t be like flipping a switch. As NASA notes, temperatures would eventually plateau but would still remain elevated for “many centuries.”ix Which means that no matter what happens we’re going to have to find ways to cope with a warming climate.
Now, if you don’t know exactly how to feel at this point … that’s the appropriate reaction. That’s how complex this all is. But allow us to tip the scales a bit towards optimism.
Most of the talk about climate change revolves around prevention: How do we put less carbon into the atmosphere? And while that question is obviously vital, it tends to obscure an equally important one: What can we do about the warming we can’t prevent? And the answer to that question is … actually, kind of a lot.
Here’s what often gets overlooked: Climate change isn’t the same kind of problem as an asteroid hitting the Earth or the eruption of a supervolcano. It’s not a sudden shock to the system. It happens over the long term.x Which means we have time to plan. We can actually adapt our behavior to make the consequences less severe.
What does that mean in practice? That a lot of our concerns about climate change may not play out the way we fear.
What happens if our cities end up underwater? Well, a lot of them already are … including one-third of the Netherlands,xi and parts of London that are home to nearly a million people.xii In fact, around the world, 110 million people live below the high-tide line.xiii
And that turns out to be manageable if you take the right precautions: things like the use of seawalls, levees, or even simply restoring sand on eroding beaches. And research has found that solutions like those can protect 90 percent of the world’s population that is threatened by rising sea levels.xiv
What happens when drought reduces the water supply? Well, take a look at Israel, where desalination — the process of converting salt water into drinkable water — is on track to provide 90 percent of the country’s water for homes and businesses.xv
Agriculture in those dry conditions? You could look to innovations like the one that came out of the University of Illinois — where researchers were able to genetically modify crops to require 25 percent less water.xvi
Crushing heat waves? It’s a real problem, especially in big cities, which tend to be hotter than their surrounding areas because of all their non-reflective surfaces like pavement and roofing.xvii
But a study from London suggested that mitigation efforts — lighter surfaces, more trees, and more water elements in the city — could bring down the city’s temperatures in the midst of a heat wave by as much as 14 degrees.xviii
None of which is to suggest that we don’t need to worry about climate change. But it does suggest that we need to put it in perspective. And to not succumb to despair. Because when times get tough, it’s good to belong to a species that knows how to innovate.
Just ask the dinosaurs.
- International Climate Change Survey — YouGov
- "Climate Anxiety in Children and Young People and Their Beliefs About Government Responses to Climate Change: A Global Survey" (Caroline Hickman, et al.) — Lancet Planetary Health
- "Distorting the View of Our Climate Future: The Misuse and Abuse of Climate Pathways and Scenarios" (Roger Pielke Jr., Justin Ritchie) — Energy Research & Social Science
- "Could Climate Change Make Humans Go Extinct?" (Patrick Pester) — Live Science
- "How Climate Scenarios Lost Touch With Reality" (Roger Pielke Jr., Justin Ritchie) — Issues in Science and Technology
- Lessons From a Decade of Emissions Gap Assessments — United Nations
- Change in Total Greenhouse Gas Emissions — Our World in Data
- "Access to Energy" (Hannah Ritchie, Max Roser) — Our World in Data
- Is It Too Late To Prevent Climate Change? — NASA
- Average Temperature Anomaly, Global — Our World in Data
- Dutch Water Facts — Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions
- False Alarm — Bjorn Lomborg, pg. 32
- "New Elevation Data Triple Estimates of Global Vulnerability to Sea-level Rise and Coastal Flooding" (Scott A. Kulp, Benjamin H. Strauss) — Nature Communications
- "Economically Robust Protection Against 21st Century Sea-level Rise" (Daniel Lincke, Jochen Hinkel) — Global Environmental Change
- Background - Seawater Desalination in Israel — Israeli Ministry of Finance
- "Photosystem II Subunit S Overexpression Increases the Efficiency of Water Use in a Field-grown Crop" (Katarzyna Glowacka, et al.) — Nature Communications
- Causes of Heat Islands — U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- London’s Urban Heat Island: A Summary for Decision Makers — Greater London Authority
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Footage | The Guardian // CNN // New York Times: Henry Fountain, Justin Gillis // The Washington Post // USA Today // Le Monde // El Pais: Victoria Torres Benayas // Der Spiegel // Al Jazeera // United Nations: United Nations Environment Programme // NASA // Our World in Data: Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT), World Bank, Met Office Hadley Centre (HadCRUT5) // Science Direct: Global Environmental Change // Nature.com // Twitter: @ClimateRealists // NBC Wesh 2 News // WKMG News 6 Orlando // PBS Newshour: How Israel Became a Leader in Water Use in the Middle East // Urban Land Institute: Heat Island Group, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 2019 // National Archives Catalog: Whispering Wires of War, Wings for this Man // 20th Century Studios: The Day After Tomorrow (2004) // Sony Pictures: The Fifth Wave (2016) // Getty: Don Farrall, Humanizr_AV, UniqueMotionGraphics, Albinutza, Forrest Brown, Bryan R. Smith / Contributor, Bilanol, Aleksei_Ptitsa, Juanmonino, Marco_de_Benedictis, Alexey Filatov, Sky News/Film Image Partner, Milmotion // Alamy: Richard Milnes / Alamy Stock Photo, Jim West / Alamy Stock Photo // Adobe Stock: Gerd, Kmiragaya, Mistervlad, Estherpoon, Klagyivik, Anton Balazh, Vastram, Goinyk, Axel Bueckert, Koya979, Creativefamily, Pterwort, SciePro, Imaster, Syda Productions, Khosrork, Ranta Images, Bohemama, Georgii, ViDi Studio, Artwell, Victor Koldunov, D1sk, Writerfantast, Leberus, Aleksandra Konoplya, Danlersk, BillionPhotos.com, Zephyr_p, Joseph, Maciek905, Murat Baysan, Albert, Studioindigo, Lemonsoup14, GVS, Akr11_st, Lestyan, Svetlanais, Robynmac, Fotofabrika, Lumos sp, SvetlanaSF, Alexyz3d, Dancing Man, David, FullRix, Ekostsov, Vchalup, Andrey Kuzmin, Somkhanask3, Banphote, Aurelija Diliute, Alexey Shpadaruk, Elnur, Stokkete, Hakki Arslan, Aleksandr // Artgrid: Finn Moeller, Danil Rudenko, The Stock Studio, Josh Etheridge Films, Via Films, Cristian Baitg Shreiweis, Animedias, Dot Films, Videophilia, Denys Hrishyn, Lior Patel, Wesley Aston, Wind Collective, 21 Aerials, Jordan Hatfield, Thomas Gellert, Mikhail Linnikov, Polina Borisova, Omri Ohana, Fernando Avruj, Storyfootage // Unsplash: Andrey Haimin, Prashanth Pinha, Hermes Rivera, Shihab Hossain, Adli Wahid, Andy Al Mesura, Just Filip, Melissa Askew, Jordan Opel, Hannah Pemberton, Zoltan Tasi, Call Me Fred // Pexels: Cup of Couple // Vecteezy: Klyaksun // Yug // Karl Withakay // Digital Juice VFX Library // YouTube: Kingsparkmedia // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.
International Climate Change Survey
- Lancet Planetary Health
"Climate Anxiety in Children and Young People and Their Beliefs About Government Responses to Climate Change: A Global Survey" (Caroline Hickman, et al.)
- Energy Research & Social Science
"Distorting the View of Our Climate Future: The Misuse and Abuse of Climate Pathways and Scenarios" (Roger Pielke Jr., Justin Ritchie)
- Live Science
"Could Climate Change Make Humans Go Extinct?" (Patrick Pester)
- Issues in Science and Technology
"How Climate Scenarios Lost Touch With Reality" (Roger Pielke Jr., Justin Ritchie)
- United Nations
Lessons From a Decade of Emissions Gap Assessments
- Our World in Data
Change in Total Greenhouse Gas Emissions
- Our World in Data
"Access to Energy" (Hannah Ritchie, Max Roser)
Is It Too Late To Prevent Climate Change?
- Our World in Data
Average Temperature Anomaly, Global
- Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions
Dutch Water Facts
- False Alarm
Book by Bjorn Lomborg, pg. 32
- Nature Communications
"New Elevation Data Triple Estimates of Global Vulnerability to Sea-level Rise and Coastal Flooding" (Scott A. Kulp, Benjamin H. Strauss)
- Global Environmental Change
"Economically Robust Protection Against 21st Century Sea-level Rise" (Daniel Lincke, Jochen Hinkel)
- Israeli Ministry of Finance
Background - Seawater Desalination in Israel
- Nature Communications
"Photosystem II Subunit S Overexpression Increases the Efficiency of Water Use in a Field-grown Crop" (Katarzyna Glowacka, et al.)
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Causes of Heat Islands
- Greater London Authority
London’s Urban Heat Island: A Summary for Decision Makers
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- "How Climate Scenarios Lost Touch With Reality" (Issues in Science and Technology))
- "Could Climate Change Make Humans Go Extinct?" (Live Science)
- "Climate Change Calls for Adaptation, Not Panic" (Wall Street Journal)
- "A New Climate Reality Is Coming Into View" (New York Times)
- "How to Worry About Climate Change" (National Affairs)
- "A Plan to Cool Off the Hottest Neighborhoods" (The Atlantic)