You Look Scared. Are You Scared?

A house behind sandbags on North Topsail Beach, NC photo

Despite progress on many fronts, climate commentators and activists are increasingly owning up to their fears.

From cities with 100% electric bus fleets to the unstoppable march of cheaper renewable energy, TreeHugger has always tended to focus on what's possible.

Indeed—perhaps wary of being labelled as doom-and-gloom environmentalists—much of the green movement has, in recent years, focused its efforts on convincing people that a clean tech, livable city, low carbon future is going to be healthier, happier and ultimately more prosperous than business-as-usual.

And all that is true.

But lately I've noticed a slight change in tone: environmental activists, scientists, commentators and thought leaders are increasingly willing to admit that they are scared. James Murray over at Business Green appears to be noticing the same thing. In a moving, if somewhat depressing, commentary on the state of the movement, Murray suggests that the scale of the challenges we face meant that we were always going to reach this point. He was just hoping we'd be a little further along on solving these problems before things got scary:

I was hoping it would be a good few years before I wrote this piece. That it would be another decade or so before the visible, fever-inducing realities of climate change combined with the stalling of the Paris Agreement's promise of a concerted multi-lateral response to this unprecedented global threat. That we'd have made a little more progress before we had to ask ourselves - sleepless and sweltered at one in the morning - 'what will it really be like when the kids are my age?' But here we are.

It's a fair point. While headlines about the growing popularity of plant-based foods or utility CEOs seeing wind and solar as the future are encouraging, given the fact that so much warming is essentially baked in, it sure would have been nice to see global carbon emissions actually falling before the proverbial you-know-what started to hit the fan.

But we don't really have that luxury. From the strongest sea ice breaking up for the first time ever to scientists suggesting beach communities are 'doomed', regardless of how fast we cut emissions, this summer has been a brutal one for facing climate reality.

So what's a good TreeHugger to do?

For the longest time, many of us have been worried that admitting to fear might induce despair or resignation in others. We've held out hope that emphasizing silver linings will be enough to spur change in our deeply fossil fuel-addicted societies. Yet while there are countless positive signs that change is picking up steam, it's now pitted in a race against time to make sure that progress outpaces or at least keeps up with our rapidly unraveling natural systems.

Ultimately, I think famed climate scientist Michael Mann—a hero who has stared into the abyss much more deeply than most of us—has it about right in his recent tweet. Regardless of where we find ourselves on the continuum toward climate disruption, action is always going to leave us better off than inaction:

Strangely, it's actually quite comforting to hear others on the climate beat voicing a fear that most of us have felt for some time now. Fear is a useful evolutionary trait. Without it, our ancestors would have died out a long time ago. There's still much that can be done to limit warming to relatively safe levels, and much of what needs to be done really will leave us with a healthier, happier and more equitable society—regardless of how much the world warms. But we're going to have to act fast to outrun the proverbial four horsemen.

Let's just hope we heed the warning signals before it's too late.