When Climate Change Broke My Heart and Forced Me to Grow Up

Photo by Anton Repponen on Unsplash

This week, the world-revered International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a damning report — more like a prognosis — on our impending climate crisis.

It’s bleak, y’all. The planet has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius. We’d actually passed that threshold right around the time of the Paris Agreement in 2015. The Paris Agreement was meant to keep us from surpassing 2 degrees, and to make best efforts to keep it below 1.5 degrees. Between every single piece of a degree lies untold levels of death and disease and generalized destruction.

Things are already bad. They are already getting worse. This report reveals — and for many of us, confirms — that we’re not doing nearly enough to stop things from getting damn apocalyptic.

I am not being dramatic. Read the report for yourself.

But the good thing about this report, if I can find anything at all, is that it forced the issue of climate into the public square. At least for now, the conversation is being had.

Lots of folks who had never thought about climate change, or who thought it lived on some distant horizon, are now coming to terms with its reality, here and now. They’re terrified. And sad.

I get it.

I think lots of us in “the climate-verse” — activists on the ground, experts in the field, professionals at big greens — forget that there was a moment when we had to face the reality of climate change. For most of us, I bet that moment hurt. I know it did for me.

It was my first year at NRDC as the policy publications editor. As a one-woman team, that meant that I dove deeply into every single policy report the organization published. We’re talking 100 per year, give or take. I knew our issues inside and out, and all around. And it was terrifying.

I came to the organization as an editor, not as an environmentalist. I cared about the earth, of course. I knew climate change was real. I knew it was dire. I had an inkling that it was not far away. But I didn’t know just how bad it was. I didn’t know how many innocent — and I mean innocent — people were already suffering hideously. I didn’t know how many people had been marked as allowable casualties because they were born in the wrong places under the wrong circumstances. Right at that very moment.

I knew I would see bad things in my lifetime. But I didn’t know I would see them… before 50. Nor did I realize how many of them I’d actually already seen. I was in both Sandy and Katrina, after all.

I didn’t know it then, but I went into mourning. I skipped denial and went right to shock. I floated around on a dark, dark cloud. I frequently and randomly burst into tears and I’d refuse to admit to myself that I knew exactly why I was crying.

Where other people saw bustling crowds of people, I saw death and destruction. Even as I walked on dry land, I saw floods. I imagined wild animals, especially snakes, getting out of the zoos in the aftermath of natural disasters. I worried about how we would treat each other in the face of such calamity. I doubted it would be kind. (I still doubt that, actually.)

I kept editing, but I tried to dissociate, as ridiculous as it sounds. It didn’t work either. The craft of editing demands empathy. You have to be present.

Then I went into depression. My social life turned into fits and spurts of intense engagement followed by equally intense withdrawal. I was deeply afraid of telling even the people closest to me what I knew and why I was so scared. I couldn’t sleep. The crying fits continued. They didn’t become more predictable.

At NRDC, it’s common practice for books to be left in commons spaces, like the kitchen. What can I say? We’re nerds! One day, I came across the book that saved me: Wen Stephenson’s What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other.

I’d silently been asking myself… what am I fighting for? What am I trying for? Why am I paying my student loans? Hell, why am I saving for retirement?

The prose was beautiful, immediately capturing my little English majored heart. Each page oozed with compassion, but it didn’t sugarcoat the severity of the issue. It looked it squarely in the face.

One of the many, many things that book taught me was that I was not crazy. That my broken heart was nothing but normal. I was not the only one feeling it and the best thing I could do was get out and talk to people who had already stood in front of this same emotional abyss and found the nerve to carry forward.

Then, I moved from depression to anger. And I’m still in anger because, in this context, acceptance is bullshit.

Whether we admit it or not, we’re all in the middle of one big, giant mourning process. We’re mourning our futures. We’re mourning the children we’re afraid to have. Our bucket lists. Our travel plans. Some of us are mourning homes already lost to fires or flood. Or savings accounts wiped out helping relatives recover from hurricanes. Some of us are mourning our todays, even our yesterdays.

Denial is part of the traditional mourning process, but we have collectively spent way too long there. It’s time to snap out of it.

Given the sheer enormity of climate change, it makes sense to be depressed. It makes sense to bargain. It’s okay. But, please, don’t stay there too long. Join me in anger. Pure, unadulterated anger. Righteous anger.

I know, the dominant narrative around climate change tells us that it’s our fault. We left the lights on too long and didn’t recycle our paper. I’m here to tell you that that is bullshit. If the light switch was connected to clean energy, who the hell cares if you left it on? And your scrap paper did not hasten the end of the world.

Don’t give into that shame. It’s not yours. The oil and gas industry is gaslighting you.

That same IPCC report revealed that a mere 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global climate emissions. These fuckers are locking you and everything you love into a tomb. You have every right to be pissed the fuck off. And we have to make them hear about it.

I grew a lot during that year. And that’s why I say this with no intention of condescension: in order to face climate change, to truly look it in the eye, we have to grow up.

We can’t pretend this isn’t happening anymore. Especially for us Americans, our general privilege and relative comfort can make it easy to turn a blind eye, but we don’t get to look away. We can’t pretend that some unnamed calvary is coming to save us. We are the adults in this room.

It’s not our fault, but it is very much our problem. At the same time, we have to be patient with each other, and kind. And then we need to dig in our heels and fight, for each other.

Climate justice writer. Co-creator and co-host of the Hot Take podcast and newsletter. Southern girl and NYC woman. James Baldwin is my personal hero.

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