warming up to the apocalypse

gratitude in the face of climate change

When I was 12, I loved conspiracy theories. Often, I would scour YouTube for mysterious videos that claimed to uncover a spectacular truth hidden from the public. Whether it was the banks, the Illuminati, or even corrupt lizard humanoids that ran the world, I would become a staunch believer. One theory that I was particularly obsessed with was the doomsday prophecy, which predicted the end of the world on December 21, 2012. The date was the last day that the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar included, a calendar that had no cycles.  I would preach to my family about Mayan scriptures, ancient prophecies, and solar alignments that told us to prepare for the end. I’m not sure if I subconsciously knew we would all be fine, but I had a lot of fun entertaining the thought. When the day finally came, and the world passed all 24 hours unscathed, I was oddly disappointed, as if I’d been denied some cheap thrill that came with the end of the world.

Now 20 years old, I’ve learned to go about my days with a healthier load of skepticism than when I was a kid. For the first time in years, however, I believed a headline instantly. This time, I could appreciate what the end of the world actually meant. Several weeks ago, a news notification appeared on my phone with the headline, “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN.”  I remember just feeling a cold, cutting chill slice through me as I read the article, as if some truth I had entertained in my head was finally said. For a few years I had heard about how our climate was starting to approach a critical juncture and about how, from that point on, natural disasters would escalate out of control. I had heard about how the Paris climate accord’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 ℃ to 2.0 ℃ was impossible to achieve, but I chose instead to focus on the celebrations of such a monumental agreement. However, internalizing the headline in front of me, there was no choice but to acknowledge that there was a real doomsday scenario approaching us.

The report, created by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, included 91 authors from 40 countries and over 6,000 references to scientific studies and journals. Its main emphasis was on limiting global warming to 1.5 ℃ above pre-industrial levels in the 19th century. If we allowed the Earth to warm by the 2 ℃ allowed by the Paris accord, we would lose all coral reefs, potentially all ice in the Arctic Ocean, and up to three million tons of marine wildlife. On top of that, rising ocean levels would displace hundreds of millions of human lives, leading to inevitable war over resource shortages and mass migration as well as trillions of dollars lost in the global economy. If we limit the warming to 1.5 ℃, we simply lessen the effects of these catastrophic outcomes. The report called for an unprecedented acceleration and remodeling of our world in terms of energy, transportation, business, land, and industry, with the target set at net zero carbon emissions by 2050. It states that “the next years are probably the most important in our history.”

The report also includes hundreds of pages detailing necessary protocols for policymakers to pursue. It remains doubtful what actions will be taken. Despite one of the greatest pleas for action in scientific history, those in charge seem to have greater priorities, at least in the United States. The coal and fossil fuel industry still has several years of lucrative profits ahead, and policymakers (often funded by these massive corporations) intend to milk every drop for their re-elections and local economies. We live in a system almost entirely based on these short-term gains. Manufacturing and industry, America’s greatest strengths since World War II, largely dictate the lobbying and influence of our politicians, who lose elections the moment they bring up carbon taxes or decreases in coal use.

I appreciate America’s values of ambition and progress, but not when it entails blackening skies and rigs drilled deep into the earth. There is a difference between progress and transgression. We have always suspected that taking megatons of carbon that have been stored deep underground for millions of years and then pumping them into the sky was perhaps not the best option for the environment, but such logic has so far been pointless when there are greenbacks to be earned. Indeed, President Trump has withdrawn from the Paris agreement in favor of the coal and fossil fuel industry, and the United States is not alone in prioritizing the economy over the environment. Jair Bolsonaro, the recent President-elect of Brazil, claimed during his campaign that he would ramp up agribusiness in the Amazon rainforest if elected, leading not only to the demise of massive portions of the forest but also the potential genocide of its indigenous peoples. The government of Saudi Arabia has proposed no plan to steer the country away from exploiting its rich oil reserves, and it remains to be seen if they will stay true to their commitment to the Paris agreement. Under their current carbon emissions growth rate, the country’s greenhouse gas emissions are projected to double by 2030.

For me, the scariest aspect of the Paris report is how it destroys normalcy in my life. All the excitement in the future pursuits of my education, career, and passions is now completely put out of frame; my worries about deadlines, assignments, and exams now feel meaningless when our planet’s delicate ecosystem is on the brink of collapse. All the dystopian and apocalyptic prophecies that I used to be fascinated with may now very well become reality, and suddenly they no longer seem so fun to entertain.

A few days ago, I discovered a source of hope. My favorite view on campus is the path between MacMillan and Marston Hall that heads toward Soldier’s Arch. A few days ago, with colorful leaves floating in the breeze and strewn all over the ground, the scene looked absolutely stunning. I’d been thinking about the report for a long time, but in that moment, I realized that the picturesque scene before me was more vivid than usual: The air felt clearer, and the sun was just the right complement of warmth to the cool breeze. After seeing the report, I realized that everyday scenes like this have become extraordinary for me. Now, I find myself carrying a large store of gratitude for the perfectly normal days we have left.

Moving forward, I hope to go outside more. I have always been a bit of a homebody, but I have also assumed the days of traveling or even taking a walk outside would always be there for me in the future. I’ve recently noticed how amazing it is that we have heat and electricity in the midst of increasingly violent rainstorms and windy days, but I also imagine how much energy I must be sapping every second for that comfort. I’ve become more aware of times when I have consumed more resources than needed, of times when I needlessly enlarged my own carbon footprint. I am now aware of so many luxuries I took for granted when I was a kid and am extremely grateful to have had a childhood where I could speculate about armageddon, knowing it was just speculation.

In a strange way, the climate change report allows us to see the small miracles in the world around us more clearly. Whether it is the cool mornings, the tiny robins hopping outside my dorm, or the squirrels that never seem to be afraid of me, I realize how lucky we are to be able to take such things for granted. At the same time, I realize how heart-wrenching it would be if they began to fade away, replaced by unpredictable storms, collapsed ecosystems, and silent forests and oceans. It is an amazing thing that we often only see how beautiful and valuable things are when we also realize that they are temporary. Today, circumstances are far more grim, and it falls on each of us to take responsibility. We must be grateful rather than despairing for what we have today, for only then can we have the hope and inspiration to improve. For my part, I will try to use less electricity, eat less meat, and affect policy in any way I can. These are meager contributions to a problem dozens of orders of magnitude larger than I am, but collectively, if each one of us takes this responsibility, I believe we can make a sizable difference.

I have always been someone who tries to find happiness in the worst of any situation and make any positive outcome seem like a luxury. I think it is one of the reasons why I could stomach so many conspiracy and armageddon theories as a kid. Recently, whether out of maturity or confusion, I’ve found myself becoming more cynical, having less hope, and feeling especially annoyed by the people in tinfoil hats. I realize now that there is no progress or hope in that approach. It is far too easy to shout at the world and expect things to change, and it is far too easy to be angry and turn a blind eye to all the good in the world. Instead, perhaps the true message of the climate change report is not one of panic or resignation, but of encouragement to find an unprecedented unity with each other. We must feel gratitude and compassion for all life with whom we share this planet. Perhaps then we can lead our lives with responsibility not only for ourselves but also for everyone else.

This Thanksgiving, I hope we can all find a larger source of gratitude than ever before. I encourage each of us to be more aware of the beautiful fall leaves, the brisk air, and each one of our family members, no matter how they might ruin the conversation at the dinner table. Because everything, including the very ground we stand on and the sun that shines every morning, is far more fragile than we once thought, and we can take none of it for granted. This Thanksgiving, I hope we can turn that into a blessing in disguise with a deeper and more poignant sense of gratitude for our food, family, and friends.

Here at Brown, we are part of the generation that will be the most equipped to positively impact our climate within the next decade. When I go through each day on campus, I have no doubt that we will. I see the most supportive groups of students helping each other through tough times, keeping their spirits full of hope despite this overwhelming time of year when everything happens at once. When we graduate, we should not forget to keep our hearts open and extend our gratitude for each other to the communities and ecosystems that we will impact. The world just might depend on it.