Is It Time to Panic About the Climate Yet?

Amy Mills Klipstine

I admit I’m a worrywart. That’s what my mom always said, “We’re a family of worrywarts.” In reality, we’re a family riddled with anxiety of varying degrees, from mild uneasiness to extreme panic attacks. But I suppose it’s a much more pleasant way of looking at it to say worrywart. According to Columbia Journalism Review, a worrywart is  “someone who worries needlessly, often without justifiable reasons.”

Thanks Mom.

So now I’m stuck with defining my anxiety. In the above stated spectrum, I straddle the middle. I’ve learned to channel my anxieties into habits that are not debilitating. Luckily, I’ve never had panic attacks, though my family members have. I worry, A LOT, most recently about the climate. More specifically, I worry about an extreme weather event ruining, or ending, my life. I’m left thinking… are my worries unjustifiable? 

Not anymore.

Open up your web browser to news. Scroll through a few headlines and you’ll find panic. From the pandemic, the election, the Supreme Court, police brutality, racial injustice, inflation, disappearing jobs, and environmental disasters. Just typing that list reminds me why I no longer open my web browser to the news anymore.

But beyond the news, my basis for worry is just outside my front door here in California—once the place of dreams, endless sunshine, towering palm trees, and bright blue beaches. But now Californians experience endless wind-stoked wildfires (causing smoke-filled air), rolling blackouts, increased temperatures, and constant drought.

Paradise isn’t so paradise anymore, and I find myself constantly worried that my life here will suddenly collapse. What if my home is destroyed in an earthquake? I’ve felt more earthquakes in the last few months than I have in my 20 years here. What if my power keeps going out every summer? What if I can’t walk outside my home ever again without breathing toxins?

I think it is absolutely time to start panicking and I’m pretty sure I have justifications. In 2016, the EPA released a snapshot of climate change in California. They concluded that California’s climate is changing, stating: “In the coming decades, the changing climate is likely to further decrease the supply of water, increase the risk of wildfires, and threaten coastal development and ecosystems.”

It’s as if Nostradamas has spoken, and so far the “coming decades” prediction has already come to pass. This year alone, California has exceeded 4 million acres burned from more than 8,200 fires. We’re in a milestone year and fire season might extend from October until deeper into winter.

There were several days this summer during which my family couldn’t go outside because the air was filled with smoke. I could feel it in the house, seeping in through the cracks, leaving behind a charred smell and giving me a terrible headache. I know this was not “needless worry” as I received urgent smoke advisories on my phone day after day for almost a week. Since we were also in the middle of a pandemic, I was trapped inside my home, unable to go outside for a breath of fresh air.

This is partly why my husband and I started discussing moving elsewhere. But where would we go? Is there another place that is not facing some impending natural disaster? My dream was to someday have a beach house along the Florida Gulf coast. I grew up visiting Destin, Florida, and living out my days there has been a futuristic benchmark, but…it’s on the coast, and coastlines are shrinking. 

Another fun fact, also thanks to the EPA: “Along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of Florida, the land surface is also sinking. If the oceans and atmosphere continue to warm, sea level along the Florida coast is likely to rise one to four feet in the next century. Rising sea level submerges wetlands and dry land, erodes beaches, and exacerbates coastal flooding.”  See, EPA publication.

Dream beach house today = wading pool tomorrow. 

Another drawback to coastal living are those pesky hurricanes. According to local Florida station WFTV9, tropical storms started forming early this year before the hurricane season officially started on June 1. Ten of those tropical storms hit the coastal United States, and five of those were hurricanes. There were so many storms, in fact, that we stopped naming them after people and resorted to the Greek alphabet. When Subtropical Storm Theta formed in the Atlantic on November 9th, 2020 became the most active hurricane season on record. The worst part of this news is that the season isn’t over until November 30.

I know firsthand how devastating a hurricane can be. In 2005, my grandfather’s house in Pascagoula, Mississippi was flooded by Hurricane Katrina. I traveled there with my husband (then boyfriend) to help salvage whatever we could. Because the flood waters reached four feet inside the home, sixty years worth of memories were lost. Photos. Collectibles. My grandmother’s antique furniture. All gone. The sea water left behind black mold and a putrid smell that meant even the dryest bits of furniture were unusable. Pretty much everything had to be hauled to the trash. It was painful to close out that chapter of my grandfather’s life, the last remaining items that were my grandmothers. I also had to bury my childhood memories of summers spent there riding my bike through the friendly neighborhoods abutting the Gulf. My grandfather packed up what little was left and headed inland to spend the rest of his days in a strange home in a strange town. That hurricane literally wrecked his life.

So…the coast is out. Where else can I go? 

Well, if my move is motivated by climate fears, I’m looking somewhere north. Go where it’s colder, my instinct says, and you can avoid the droughts and fires. Okay. But then I have to deal with snow. Since I’ve spent my entire life in the southern half of the US, I’m not sure a snowy climate is something I’m prepared to endure. I don’t know how to drive on icy roads, or  encounter the deadly “black ice” that causes vehicles to careen suddenly without any hope of control. And shoveling snow off my driveway just so I can leave home? No thanks.

There’s also the reality that every portion of North America has been affected by climate change. Independent news outlet Grist poured through the National Climate Assessments to report on the changes each U.S. region will face in coming years. 

For the northern states there could be extreme frigid temperatures but less snow, which unfortunately means there’s less water. Move a little south and the midwest has seen catastrophic flooding and a record number of tornadoes in recent years. On the horizon for the midwest is increased temperatures and diseased crops. What about the northeast? Well, they’re looking at increased temperatures, warming oceans, and sea level rise. Oh, and the northeast has hurricane season now. I’m not loving any of those scenarios.

Then where, exactly, is this Goldilocks place to live?

I’ve come to the conclusion there is no perfect place. So how can I go about making where I live better? How can I exit panic mode?

As defined by Merriam-Webster, panic is “a sudden overpowering fright.” I suppose now that I’ve been worrying for a while, and now that climate change is nearly undeniable, there is no more “sudden.” Therefore, there should be no more panic. It’s time for action. 

To deal with climate change, NASA has a two-step approach: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is that step we can’t seem to agree on as a country, as it involves changing industry habits like reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That, I don’t have much control over. But adaptation, I can do, since it involves “learning to live with, and adapt to, the climate change that has already been set in motion.”

I just need to first acknowledge the changes that have happened and then learn to live with them. Not exactly the solution I was hoping for, but it does help alleviate some of my worry. It’s similar, I suppose, to the five stages of grief that I’m currently negotiating:

  1. Denial (that was me pretty much most of my life), 
  2. Anger (Hurricane Katrina), 
  3. Bargaining (beginning of pandemic), 
  4. Depression (my mood leading up to this blog post), and finally, 
  5. Acceptance (stage I’m trying to get to). 

Acceptance will alleviate my fears. Acceptance will lead to a kind of quiet acknowledgement that I have plenty to worry about but I cannot let it adversely affect my mental health. I would like to add to this stage:

  1. Action 

Acceptance, by its nature, implies inaction. It’s a state of being in harmony with the forces in your life. But that doesn’t help solve any physical problems. Action requires taking steps to rectify the problem that first upset you enough to begin stage 1: denial. By moving into action, I can keep the peace of acceptance while trying to mitigate my climate footprint. 

At least this is what I tell myself. Maybe I’m right back at denial, believing that my actions are making any kind of difference. I changed some light bulbs, unplugged my appliances, recycled, and got a hybrid vehicle. What of it? This won’t stop wildfires or the impending decades-long drought across the western US. 

But the small changes all add up, don’t they? 

Maybe there are no easy or immediate solutions, at least not ones I can negotiate by myself. Maybe I’m doomed to be a worrywart and let my needless anxiety keep me from truly enjoying my life. Just the act of writing this blog post felt like a hamster loop, where every revelation just led to more questions and more worry. I searched the internet for an hour for a “solution to climate change” and all I saw was talk about the problem, which we’re all aware of at this point, and a lot of “what ifs” for the future. 

None of it reassuring and none offering a specific action plan that the common individual like me can implement. So then perhaps it’s time to look beyond the individual to the industry of business. 

In Joshua Axelrod’s blog, “Corporate Honesty and Climate Change: Time to Own Up and Act,” he calls out corporations for contributing to climate change, since they produce pretty much everything we buy and subsequently throw away. Axelrod claims,  “… the top 15 U.S. food and beverage companies generate nearly 630 million metric tons of greenhouse gases every year. That makes this group of only 15 companies a bigger emitter than Australia, the world’s 15th largest annual source of greenhouse gases.” 

Man, that hurts. My root beer and ginger ale habit is contributing to this madness.

We live in an economy of excess, to be sure. I’ve donated more items than a normal person might ever buy, and I still have a house packed with “stuff” in every corner. So is it the producer’s fault, the seller’s fault, or the buyer’s fault? I say it’s all of us. If we, as consumers, demand less, then production should be less. If tomorrow, every adult across America refused to buy plastic, then plastic would have no consumer industry. But of course, this won’t happen because as consumers, we like to buy convenient stuff—things like pre-washed salads, lattes, and to-go deli plates. 

So there we have it. Change can’t come from me alone, but if I don’t change, then nothing will. To quote the Lorax: “Unless someone likes you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

It’s time to stop worrying and start caring. Worry has a negative connotation. I worry, but do nothing about it. Caring, on the other hand, is positive. If I care, I might act. I might not change the world overnight by using energy efficient appliances, reusable bags, and refusing plastics, but I can turn down that soda and maybe influence others to join me. If those others influence others…then maybe we’ll get a lot of people to start making changes and then businesses will be affected. If big business gets negatively affected, then they’ll start to care, too.

I just hope we all start caring before my beloved California is uninhabitable.

Amy Mills Klipstine lives in Southern California, where she divides her time between writing and managing the many joys of distance learning. To do this, she relies on an unhealthy amount of chocolate and coffee.