Friday, October 15, 2021

Harnessing Eco-Anxiety and Triaging for the Future

Our children are scared and anxious. Our climate scientists are facing unprecedented levels of stress and depression. The future appears a dark and scary place. Sometimes, it seems like the only sensible engaged response is to pour all energy and attention into climate change mitigation. Climate change impacts are already severe, and there seems no realistic scenario where things aren’t worsening. Through the Paris Agreement, the nations of the world agreed to hold global warming to 2˚C above pre-industrial levels while (1) acknowledging that the real goal should be 1.5˚C and (2) failing to set in motion any measures that would realistically achieve the 2˚ goal. It is understandable that many of us are feeling stressed and depressed.

Some activists argue that we should embrace this eco-anxiety and use it to motivate action. If nothing else has spurred us to act, maybe fear will be the final push we need.

The challenge is how to harness our eco-anxiety into a fight for climate mitigation without leaving behind our other environmental or societal aspirations. The time has come for us to make the hard choices for what we want our world to be. Our economies were built on the idea that we can have it all. We throw the word “sustainability” around, suggesting that there is some magic sweet spot we can find where we meet our economic, environmental, and social goals simultaneously. But it hasn’t worked. The economic drivers remain dominant while environmental and social goals seem increasingly unattainable. As we look out at the 4˚C (and rising) world we have created, it seems time to acknowledge that we just can’t have nice things anymore.

Now comes the winter of our hard decisions. What are we willing to sacrifice? Should we fight to protect an endangered desert tortoise if it will hamper our development of renewable energy facilities? Are we willing to rely on nuclear power in exchange for getting rid of our coal-burning power plants? The questions get even trickier when we add climate change adaptation choices. Are we willing to put our parks and special places to more active use as climate migration forces people and facilities to relocate?

Environmentalists are now so worried about climate change that our eco-anxiety is making us willing to compromise and sacrifice our other environmental goals. Yet, are these really the places to push for change? We should all make changes in our daily lives. We should drive less and stop eating beef. We should reduce the single-use plastics in our lives and question our consumption habits. But environmentalists being better environmentalists is not moving any needle. Compromising conservation goals to combat climate change might be needed, but only after we have tackled the bigger structural problems in our economy.

International climate law is guided by the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR). Could we take that same principle and think about it not across countries but across interest areas? Why isn’t it the big economic players that should change? Environmentalists may find themselves willing to sacrifice protected lands and endangered species, but should they? Doing so is at heart an acknowledgement that we are going to continue propping up industries that mismanage and burn fossil fuels.

What does this lead to? Combining our eco-anxiety with righteous anger. So we are angry and anxious and the only people who are willing to act aren’t the ones we *need* to act.

And now I have written myself into a corner. I have no solution, especially not one that can be expounded on in a short essay. As professors of environmental and climate change law, we all use techniques in the classroom to prevent our students from becoming too depressed. I show how, despite the challenges that remain, our air is cleaner since the passage of the Clean Air Act. Many of our waterways are in better shape even with the economic and population growth we have experienced. I point to movements in big cities in the United States and Europe to reduce cars and encourage electric vehicles. We have better control of pesticides and disposal of toxics. But frankly, I am at a loss when trying to do a climate change pep talk. Our political and economic leaders continue to deny, ignore, and obfuscate.

Decades of knowledge about the problem has not resulted in significant progress. Furthermore, the COVID pandemic illustrates that we (as a species and definitely we as Americans) are willing to let millions of people die even when science is clear and solutions are not that onerous. Climate change solutions won’t be as easy as getting a vaccine or wearing a mask. It won’t be simply flying less and carrying around a reusable bag.

The only glimmer of hope in the climate change debate is that the number of people paying attention is growing. The number of people morphing their eco-anxiety into righteous anger is increasing. Next time my students look to me for hope, I will have none to offer. But maybe anger is what they need instead.

- Jessica Owley, Professor of Law and Faculty Director for the Environmental Law Program, University of Miami School of Law.

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