State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Avoiding Environmental Panic

It’s turning into a scary summer. Arizona is baking even more than usual. The Canadian forests burned and provided some North American cities with an orange sky. The rural northeast is getting drenched with rapid rainfall, and many small towns have suffered massive flooding. The ocean off Miami is 90 degrees, and no one seems to be singing about those “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer” anymore. School may be out for summer, but for some, misery has replaced relaxation. Nations and corporations acting out of their self-interest continue to promote and burn fossil fuels. The climate models from the turn of the 21st century predicting the impact of a warming planet have proven to be too close for comfort, and it’s easy to succumb to a sense of despair and panic. Every day we see a new weather disaster.

Despite the bad news, there is good news lurking beneath the surface. More people understand the crisis of environmental sustainability, and due to that growing awareness, we are seeing the application of human ingenuity to our environmental crisis. Culture, economics, politics, and technology never change instantly, and when they do change rapidly, it’s often a response to war or natural disasters. But the winds of change are blowing. The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that there is a problem. That recognition is growing and unstoppable. There is a new urgency to the work of engineers and scientists who are developing the technologies needed to transition to renewable energy and a renewable resource-based economy. The technologies are becoming less expensive and less toxic, and we are seeing the start of an economic transition. Right now, it’s cheaper to mine the planet for natural resources than to mine our waste stream for those resources, but that is starting to change. Fertilizer made from human waste and food waste is price competitive with fertilizer made from raw materials, in part because recycled goods are subsidized by reduced costs of waste disposal. Renewable energy is already less expensive than fossil fuels, and as battery technology advances, the issues of intermittency will disappear.

The cultural force driving this onslaught of technological ingenuity is the growing understanding that the only way to maintain our lifestyles is to develop a high throughput economy that does not destroy the planet. All of us hoping to enjoy the outdoors this summer understand the danger posed by orange air, floods, and fire. Overflowing rivers and boiling oceans make it clear that we can’t continue business as usual. These experienced facts are like the smog that hid the mountains from downtown Los Angeles in the 1960s, the toxic waste that oozed into the basements of working-class homeowners at Love Canal in the late 1970s, or the toxic chemicals released from the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio in 2023. These environmental insults were real and frightening to the people living where they took place. Even in our politically polarized nation of blue and red states and ever narrower worlds of social media: Fire, poison, smog, and flood waters can’t be dismissed.

Polling data reflects changing views about the threats to the planet. The foundations of the transition to environmental sustainability are being built everywhere. Corporations see their customers and their most talented workers asking about the company’s environmental impact. Corporate concern is not “pure environmentalism.” It does not prioritize sustainability over all other values, but it places these factors in the mix of facts and values that influence decision-making. Companies are investing in clean-up technologies and trying to reduce their environmental footprint. Ignoring environmental impacts was once the norm. That is no longer the case.

We need to remember that environmental well-being is not the only value or goal we pursue. We have other serious problems: Russia is bombing homes and hospitals in Ukraine. New York City is now housing over 100,000 homeless people—half of whom are recent immigrants struggling for a better life. Mass shootings seem to have become the norm in this country. People all over the world face crises of survival, desperate for food, clothing, health care, shelter, and hope for the future. Sometimes these other crises dominate, and environmental issues must wait. But unlike in the past, environmental issues remain and stay in the decision-making mix.

Even in the horrific war in Ukraine, no one is forgetting about environmental destruction. Basil Seggos, New York State’s Commissioner of its Department of Environmental Quality, took a leave of absence and volunteered as an ambulance driver in Ukraine. This past April, he wrote a pointed account of that nation’s damaged environment in The Hill. According to Seggos:

“Russian forces have destroyed or damaged more than 300,000 housing units and 400,000 cars, generating millions of tons of debris whose toxic residue slowly leaches into soil and water. So, too, with the shelling of dozens of major industrial sites, including the Azovstal refinery, where intense combat released extraordinary levels of toxins. Abandoned coal mines in the east are filling with polluted groundwater, which impacts drinking water supplies and pushes methane to the surface. All that contamination threatens the health of Ukraine’s 43 million citizens — 6 million of whom now have limited or no access to safe drinking water. Combat has killed more than 50,000 dolphins in the Black Sea and destroyed 3 million acres of protected land.”

What is important about Seggos’ view of this damage is that leaders in Ukraine are also aware of and deeply concerned about these issues. I am confident that concern about environmental damage was present in past wars but typically not as rapidly articulated. In my view, the priority given to environmental damage is an indicator of the cultural shift now underway. Still, it is nowhere near the dominant issue in this battle for national survival. Again, as Seggos observed:

“Environmental concerns seem a distant luxury when civilians are being shelled in their beds. But the extraordinary sacrifices of Ukraine’s military have enabled leaders to consider the implications of the devastation as they peer into the rebuilding that’s ahead.”

What does this have to do with environmental panic? I am arguing for perspective and a sense of balance. Yes, my six-year-old granddaughter’s day camp had to stay indoors on New York’s worst orange sky day. Yes, I remain frightened for the planet she is inheriting. And she is not the only camper whose summer days have been disrupted. New York Times reporter Steven Kurutz recently filed a piece on the impact of extreme weather on summer camp this year. According to Kurutz:

“Campers are still swimming, playing tetherball and singing around the fire as they take steps toward independence this summer, but they have also been contending with a precarious natural environment. Parents who sent their kids off for an enriching experience in the great outdoors — perhaps with the hope of getting some child-free time — have received unsettling messages from camp directors, with updates on the latest flood, influx of unhealthy air or blast of heat. The wild weather has come at a time when the demand for summer camp is up, three years after the start of the pandemic.”

Despite the impact of extreme weather, Kurutz found that “the summer of 2023 has taught campers to be resilient and adaptable.” And I remain hopeful that we can adapt to a warming planet and eventually mitigate global warming. For my granddaughter, the sky over New York cleared, and soon she was back playing outside. We cope, but we are experiencing a crisis of environmental sustainability. People are experiencing that crisis firsthand, and it is changing their understanding of how the world works. Like other crises humanity has faced, I believe we will gradually address this one too.

It is important to take stock of the progress we have made in applying new technologies to address environmental problems. The pace of innovation is impressive, as is the application of human ingenuity to problem-solving. The path to addressing this crisis has not and will not be smooth and simple. Evil men like Putin pursue their aims without concern for the people or planet they harm. Some corporations pursue profit without concern for the damage they cause to the environment or life on Earth. But this evil is outnumbered by the vast number of people who understand these crises and, like Commissioner Seggos, are determined to act.

One problem with environmental panic is that it makes people who are worried about other issues less willing to engage in dialogue about environmental problems. Another problem is that it can lead to paralysis or unrealistic policy proposals. While it’s a scary summer, and we have reason to be frightened, there is no reason to panic. The alternative to environmental panic is to pursue purposeful, pragmatic change. There are signs of that change in corporations and governments around the United States and all over the world. Environmental sustainability has moved from the fringes to the center of our political agenda. The crisis of environmental sustainability is real, but so, too, is our determination to address it.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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