by Brian Webb

In the final issue of the Voice last semester, the editors asked students the question, “What comes to mind when you think of the climate crisis?” The responses were sobering.

A handful — five of thirty six — expressed some level of optimism or determination regarding our ability to enact solutions, but the vast majority were dominated by emotions of worry, fear, anger, stress, sadness and frustration. “I feel helpless,” one student wrote, and I understand why — we have failed them.

2023 was recently declared to be the hottest year in human history — by a long shot. The United States alone experienced 28 billion-dollar climate disaster events (also a record, also by a wide margin), costing more than $92 billion. While global carbon emissions are expected to peak this year (good news), they are nevertheless currently at record highs. And yet we’ve understood the science for a long time.

Al Gore’s landmark documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” was released in 2006, the same year that many first-year students were born. It has been 36 years since NASA’s top climate scientist testified before the U.S. Senate about the dangers of global warming; way back in 1965, Lyndon Johnson was the first U.S. President to be briefed on the dangers of carbon pollution; and we’ve known about the heat-trapping properties of greenhouse gases since BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR.

So, I understand why students are frustrated at the mess we’ve left them.  

It’s normal to be saddened while watching endangered species go extinct, island nations disappear and millions of migrants flee from extreme weather. It’s appropriate to be angry at the soulless corporations, the jet-setting billionaires and the spineless politicians who aren’t treating the climate crisis like the emergency it is. It even makes sense why more than half of 16 to 25-year-olds believe “humanity is doomed,” according to a recent study in The Lancet. As Greta Thunberg once put it to global leaders at the World Economic Forum, “I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is.”

These negative emotions reflected by our students are valid, appropriate and to some degree inescapable given our current situation. I too wrestle with feelings of anxiety, sadness and anger at the state of our world. But allow me a moment to respond to what I believe to be the implied question behind these frustrations. 

“How can I possibly make a difference when the problem is so big and our leaders so complacent?”  

I have no intention of glossing over the challenges, but I would like to offer four realistic suggestions for how we might turn such legitimate frustrations into productive action. Because, quite honestly, the climate crisis is too urgent and too important to become complacent.

First, and most importantly, SPEAK UP. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe says that the most important thing we can do about climate change is to talk about it. Even though 65 percent of Americans worry about climate change, 63 percent rarely or never discuss it. This is important with our friends and family, but it’s also important with our leaders.  

While seated in his Washington D.C. office, a U.S. senator once told me that he could name “many” conservative members of Congress who would like to take more action on climate but are waiting for their constituents to tell them it’s a priority. Similarly, here on campus we’ve made important strides in sustainability recently, but the College will only prioritize climate action as a top issue when students ask for it. Your voice has power; don’t be afraid to use it.

Second, VOTE FOR THE CLIMATE. I won’t presume to say who to vote for, but if your candidate doesn’t have a strong climate position, let them know that climate action is a top priority for you. Calling or writing to their office is easy and takes just a few minutes. This is a critically important election year for the climate, and not just in the U.S. — there are elections with huge climate implications this year in Mexico, India, South Africa, the European Union and the United Kingdom.

Third, GET INVOLVED on campus. Join a student club like Greenhouse, WOODS or the unfortunately dormant Environmental Justice Coalition (which needs new student leaders to reinvigorate it). Email me to join our team of 20 Sustainability Interns who are taking action to make our campus more sustainable.  Or sign up for the Environmental Communication and Action Pathway to explore career opportunities in climate leadership.

Finally, TAKE ACTION in your personal life. It’s true that individual actions won’t fix the world, but I firmly believe that they can fix us. Life is a lot more enriching when our actions and values are aligned. Start a habit of turning off lights when you leave a room. Try out the ScotShare vehicles. Implement a plant-rich diet one more day a week. Commit to no food waste (which Project Drawdown lists as their #1 most impactful climate solution, by the way).

Yes, the climate crisis sucks. Our weak and painfully delayed response to what is probably the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced is, quite simply, inexcusable. So, let’s step it up and turn our anger into action. We can solve this challenge. We must solve this challenge. Let’s get started.