Last week, the climate-conscious received new cause for alarm. Two studies, published separately but simultaneously by independent groups of scientists, reached the same frightening conclusion: The West Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing. And there’s nothing we can do about it.
Their separate lines of evidence told the story of the southern continent’s response to global change and its inevitable impacts on the rest of the planet. Driven by climate-intensified winds, warm ocean water is seeping under the glaciers that extend over the western portion of the continent, which is causing the glaciers to melt and release their stores of frozen water into the ocean. The surplus of liquid contributes to global sea level rise, causing scientists to estimate that, as the ice sheet melts over the coming decades, global sea levels will rise by at least 10 feet. (Note that this doesn’t mean that the ocean’s edge will come 10 feet inland, but rather that the sea’s surface will be 10 feet higher. Depending on the slope of the coastline, that could correspond to hundreds of feet inland — and millions of dollars — in submerged property.)
Though it will take centuries for the ice sheet to fully melt, scientists believe that this process, which is now well under way, is inevitable. Once the glaciers have retreated beyond a certain point, they propagate an instability that leads the whole ice sheet to enter an irreversible decline. It’s a depressing conclusion: no matter what we do — carbon taxes, tree plantings, geoengineering schemes — the sea level is going to keep rising. We’re now playing a game of coastline defense: How many billions of dollars are we willing to invest to preserve our myriad coastal cities? Our vacation views?
This is the point where most people put down the news story, take a deep breath and wonder why they even pay attention when the news always makes them so depressed.
Climate change reporting seems to be a particular offender. The media is full of “scare stories”: messages that emphasize the overwhelming scale of climate change impacts (widespread crop failures; terrifying superstorms) and the global magnitude of the problem itself (the fact that we are so deeply intertwined with our fossil fuel economy; the need for seemingly impossible global accords on greenhouse gas emissions).
No wonder many Americans prefer to turn a blind eye to the problem. We justify this naivety in many ways: by citing climate change denialists despite their lack of scientific backing, by bemoaning our individual lack of agency or by shaking our fists helplessly at politicians’ ineptitude.
Increasingly, climate scientists and environmental advocates are realizing that the problem in America isn’t a lack of information, but rather an excess of it. Overwhelmed, we’re burying our heads in the sand.
But we shouldn’t be. The time for scare tactics is over, and the time for solutions is now.
Yes, climate change is a notoriously “wicked” problem: It’s difficult to disentangle responsibilities, hard to clearly link cause and effect and socially complex to develop solutions.
But it’s also a slow-moving problem with a multitude of solutions that we can implement — and indeed are implementing — today.
For example, the collapsing Antarctic ice sheet cited in last week’s news will take generations to fully melt. While we don’t want to ignore the problem and leave our children to deal with the consequences, we do have time to adapt. And humanity’s ability to adapt is a hallmark of our species. We have lots of possibilities: We could reinforce our positions with seawalls or make a calculated retreat to higher ground, for examples. These options may not be ideal, but they do exist.
Meanwhile, we have the ability to slow or reduce the impacts of climate change by modulating the size of our carbon footprint. Immediately eliminating it altogether is a monumental — and, frankly, impossible — task, but slowly shifting our energy supply to renewable sources — solar, wind, hydroelectric — is possible, and it’s happening.
And for those — like me — frustrated by our individual inadequacy, I can offer only the following thoughts. A small change is still a change, and those around you may observe and mimic it in the right direction as well. A drop in the bucket is still a drop that wasn’t there before.
Cowering in fear is un-American, unhealthy and unproductive. It’s time to change the climate narrative and start moving forward.
Holly welcomes reader comments and feedback at hollyvm “at” stanford.edu.