Why statements about a future of fire — or even no future at all — driven by climate change are neither accurate nor beneficial

By Sophie Wang

Climate change — a controversial topic with a million dollar price tag. 97% of climate scientists agree that the recent surge in temperatures around the globe — about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century alone — are due not to natural fluctuations of heat but to excessive amounts of carbon released into the atmosphere. 

Antarctica lost about 127 billion tons of ice within the past 30 years; Greenland lost 286 billion tons. Arctic animals — polar bears, walruses, caribou — are starving; one in every four mammals is facing extinction; a record eight species of bird have disappeared this decade. 

Scientists term this the sixth mass extinction.

As the numbers come pouring in, many youth struggle with feelings of worry, powerlessness, or exhaustion with the future. Out of 164 MVHS students surveyed, 70.1% had experienced eco-anxiety. For example, at age 11, Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden and a favorite to win the Nobel Peace Prize, fell into a bout of depression that she partially credited to learning about climate change. 

The rising numbers of youth who have turned to psychologists for mental help following their anxiety about climate change have led to a distinct name for this: eco-anxiety. In a climate related mental health press release from 2016, the American Psychological Association (APA) defined eco-anxiety as a constant worry or anxiety about the future, in the light of climate awareness. Feelings such as fear, anger, powerlessness or exhaustion tend to surface and some people are deeply affected by these feelings. Some psychologists consider these feelings incremental and sometimes invisible but with the potential to be just as damaging as more acute and aggressive climate impacts.

What About the Youth?

When Cupertino HS sophomore Sanat Singhal first heard about climate change, he was in denial. 

“At first, it didn’t seem like it could be possible,” Singhal said. 

It wasn’t as publicized as other global issues, so he had a hard time imagining that something like this could be happening.

 “As I read more and learnt more, there was no way to deny it,” Singhal said. 

He began experiencing eco-anxiety. For him, it’s a constant worry. MVHS alumnus Tara Sreekrishnan, the policy and outreach director of Santa Clara county, agrees. She says that she often feels hopeless.

“It’s a feeling of, ‘Oh, the problem’s gotten so bad, to the point of no return and my voice doesn’t even matter,’” Sreekrishnan said. 

She explains that the climate has gotten so bad that there is a consensus that the Earth will never be able to return to its original state. Sometimes, she feels as if there is no point in working towards a greener future.

Both Sreekrishnan and Singhal are youth environmental activists, part of the Cupertino Environmental Action Team, which pushes for climate friendly bills in Cupertino, and recently helped organize the San Jose Youth Climate Strike, on Sep. 20, 2019 at the San Jose City Hall. They agree that, to an extent, their anxiety fueled their activism. But is it worth it? Sreekrishnan thinks so. She believes that as long as that anxiety helps people become more green, it’s reasonable. Singhal, however, disagrees. 

“In a lot of cases, it can make people feel overwhelmed,” Singhal said.

Eco-anxiety isn’t healthy, especially for youth. Whether it is necessary in the face of such disaster is impossible to say. Whether miseducation plays a role in exacerbating it is an easier question to answer.

What they are saying

Eco-anxiety is a difficult beast to tackle because the more one researches climate change, the more facts appear that seem to corroborate and encourage anxiety for the future. The problem is that not all of those facts are accurate. 

For example, consider the 11 years claim, which is commonly read as “The human population will die in 2030 if they do not stop emitting carbons, cutting down trees and making waste.” This one is a favorite of more radical speakers, including several far left politicians. It makes a point. To the average student, however, this is a hard message to take, especially coming from such influential figures.

The origin of this claim: an IPCC report released in 2018. Scientists set a goal of a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius warming. They projected that in order to do so, emissions must fall by 45 percent by 2030, reaching net zero by about 2050. These are tall orders and many scientists acknowledge that they would require unprecedented change, but they are considered reachable. 

To be sure, there is a certain urgency to the 11 years claim, a certain push and pull that the original report did not have. It’s easier to shrug off degrees of heat than death and easier to measure numbers dead than inches the water levels have risen. But is it worth it if it’s not accurate?

Another one: a writer named Jonathan Franzen wrote an op-ed a few months ago in the New Yorker. He said that there was no way people could stop climate change; he advised the human population to begin investing in preparation for a destructive, toxic future. Any other path, he wrote, would be denial. Franzen’s methods and reasoning were controversial and many climate scientists and activists posted their own responses on social media, discrediting his claims. It is destructive, they said, to say things like this that are just blatantly false.

Apocalyptic statements are never acceptable and when discussing climate change, already a topic that incites strife, they’re not worth it. 

“[They’re] just not true,” Singhal said. “[Claims like these] discredit the whole movement.”

It’s easy for a high schooler to lose sight of the truth, especially when faced with death. Apocalyptic statements are flashy in a morbid way, but they distract the movement from the true, but quieter extinction. Even more importantly, they exacerbate eco-anxiety, debilitating students who should be going about their daily lives, and not even with accurate information. According to a survey of 164 MVHS students, 70.1% have experienced eco-anxiety.

Activism is so important in the future and outreach and education of the youth is even more so. But children are not being educated; they are being miseducated.

Activism is so important in this struggle for the future, but false, faulty claims are not.

If the movement is to be taken seriously, if it is to create change, bad, false science should not be a part of it.

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