Fighting climate change is a campaign, not a term paper

I recently got a text from a friend that said, “I just can’t bring myself to care about climate change.” This friend is very politically active and plugged-in, but their brain isn’t framing climate change as a pressing, need-to-act-now issue—and I think I might understand why.

As a chronic procrastinator, I have some sense of what is procrastinate-able and what is not. Some tasks, like filling out a form, are not going to suffer much in quality if you leave them until the last minute; the only real downside is the unnecessary stress you put yourself under.

Others, like writing a paper, certainly should be started ahead of time, but it’s still technically possible to get them done under a tight deadline.

I think my friend, and many other people who aren’t taking climate change as seriously as they could be, see fighting climate change as the equivalent of a 10-page term paper: Yes, the paper would be better if you wrote an outline, a first draft, got feedback, days (or weeks, or months) before it’s due. It would benefit both the paper and the paper-writer—and the teacher, for that matter—to turn it in with plenty of time to spare before the deadline in case anything goes unexpectedly wrong, like a printer jam or a technical difficulty with online submission.

But when life gets in the way, and procrastination kicks in, you can still write a 10-page paper in the three hours before midnight when it’s due. It won’t be pretty, it probably won’t get an A, and those three hours will be miserable, but you can technically get it done.

Because the effects of climate change aren’t impacting our day-to-day life in the inland U.S. as much as they are other countries, and even the coastal regions of our own country, putting off decisive climate action can feel much like procrastinating a term paper. We’re all living with the constant low-level stress of knowing we should be doing things that we’re not. But many of us may be under the impression that we can pull out a last-minute turnaround in the last few hours before the paper is due, and with climate change, that’s just not the case.

Although we may not truly feel or comprehend its effects for several decades, the time to act on climate change is now. Renowned climate scientist Bill McKibben has reiterated this call to action, with increasing urgency, for over a decade; his most recent treatise in the New Yorker highlights the drastic and immediate actions we need to take to steer our future onto a non-apocalyptic course. Elizabeth Kolbert, an award-winning science journalist, paints a picture of three potential futures that await us. We’re in a choose-your-own-adventure book, but we can’t flip back to the previous page once we’ve gone too far down a path of bad choices.

So, if climate change can’t be addressed by furiously writing a last-minute term paper, what can we compare it to? Something that simply can’t be completed last minute, that will take days and weeks and months to achieve. Depending on your frame of reference, I’ve come up with a few examples: Writing a novel. Building a robot. Launching a presidential campaign.

A novel differs from a term paper most obviously in its length, which means it’s much more daunting and time-consuming to complete. Even the fastest typer in the world couldn’t write a novel in three hours. You must start long before your concrete deadline to avoid the negative consequences of not finishing your book.

Building a robot is a similarly formidable task, especially if you’re handicapped by a lack of tools or resources or knowledge. Or if someone keeps coming into your robot-building room and taking away essential pieces to use for their own benefit. Throwing together your remaining screws and bolts and bits of scrap metal won’t result in a functional robot, no matter how badly you want those incomplete pieces to add up.

Finally, running a presidential campaign, as we’ve seen over the past two years, is no quick or easy feat. It requires momentum, money, dedication, inspiration, public outreach, and delivering on promises. No one running for president could announce their candidacy in the fall, or even summer or spring, preceding an election and hope to win. Building a successful campaign is the result of the concentrated effort and resources of thousands, if not millions, of people over several years. Scale that effort up from a political race to the issue of our entire planet’s fate, and I hope you’ll see the momentous business we must take on. We must begin that campaign in earnest now—all of our futures depend on it. As Bill McKibben wrote three days ago, “on climate change, we’re entirely out of margin.”

I wrote this blog post in a stream-of-consciousness fashion and didn’t edit it very much, but I hope you enjoyed and got something out of it. Please let me know if you’d like to read more on this topic.

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