The Decade When Climate Change Became Real

The 2010s were the decade when climate change stopped being an abstraction for millions of people in the rich countries. With extreme weather events presenting a grim picture of the future, suddenly politicians felt pressure to offer solutions — and young people started wondering how it would affect their own lives.

Campaigners protest during a climate change action day on September 20, 2019 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Throughout 2006 and 2007, just after my son was born, I used to walk in the park with a much older communist friend. He would amuse the baby by feeding acorns to the squirrels, and he’d provide me with much-needed grownup conversation. A lifelong radical, active in the National Lawyers’ Guild, and an invaluable font of information on revolution in Nepal, my friend was emphatically unconcerned about at least one issue: climate change. He didn’t have any kids or grandkids, he explained, and by the time problems began to arise, he’d be dead. “I just don’t have any stake in it,” he’d say

Hardly any serious political person thinks this way anymore.

Humans have had access to the science on global warming since the 1980s at the latest. But the 2010s were the decade when climate change lost its abstraction, even to those of us living in rich countries.

Climate change moved from future to present tense. The 2010s were not the first moment in which humans experienced the effects of global warming. Nomadic peoples across the African continent had been losing food and water, others were slaughtered in resource wars, inhabitants of the Arctic Circle had been increasingly deprived of animals and fish they’d depended on for food, and thousands lost their lives in Hurricane Katrina and other not-so-natural disasters.

But this decade was different because millions of people with more social power began experiencing the effects of climate change.

Hurricane Sandy battered New York City in 2012, costing almost $70 billion in damage. Like all climate catastrophes, it hit the poor and working class the hardest: those living in public housing remained without electricity the longest, and some residents of the modest Rockaways are still rebuilding their homes. But it still hit the epicenter of the finance and media world, grabbing the fickle and fleeting attention of the ruling and professional classes. Heat waves across European capitals throughout the decade similarly alarmed the world’s most comfortably situated societies. This past year, wildfires — especially in the Amazon and in California — were even more terrifying.

Scientists gave us a deadline. Amid all this end-times chaos, many began to pay more attention when scientists issued their warnings. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been around since 1988 and has issued many reports in its more than thirty years of existence, but this year’s, which said that we had twelve years left to avoid irreversible damage to the planet, finally penetrated cultural consciousness.

The political became personal. This was the decade when people, especially the young, began to take the issue personally, asking how climate change might affect their own lives. With the looming specter of an intolerably warming planet, many people began to wonder whether there was any point in trying to go to school, struggling to pay off student loans, starting a family, and all the usual milestones of middle-class life that have in any case, in neoliberal America, become far more difficult to achieve than they ought to be.

A youth movement ignited. This was the decade when people — especially the young — began to block pipelines, flood the streets and hold sit-ins in politicians’ offices, demanding solutions to the environmental devastation that the global capitalist classes have wrought upon them. From the indigenous youth at Standing Rock, to Greta Thunberg outside the Swedish Parliament, to Isra Hirsi and the US Youth Climate Strike, to the Sunrise Movement.

Even politicians took notice. This was the decade when even in mainstream American politics, candidates — Democrats, at least — were forced to have a plan to address climate change. A brand-new socialist congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was the first national politician to propose solutions on the scale of the problem, with the Green New Deal. And as Tom Athanasiou observed recently in the Nation, Bernie Sanders was the first to propose a truly workable international approach to the problem, in which rich countries assume responsibility for our fair share of the problem.  But what a difference four years makes: while even Sanders hardly talked about the environment in 2016, in this cycle, even the bland neoliberals have been forced to at least have a plan to address climate change (indeed, for Jay Inslee and Tom Steyer, climate change was the main or only raison d’être for their campaigns).

Everyone began to get a little more radical. This was also the decade in which many began to understand that addressing climate change demands radicalism. The problem can’t be solved simply by changing our individual habits — recycling more, eating less meat — it demands a complete overhaul of our economic system. Carbon-friendly capitalism is not enough, but neither is socialism alone. We need to rethink everything.

Several forces threaten the survival of millions right now. Right-wingers funded by earth-destroying industries — and enjoying popular support from Fox News–watchers who fervently believe climate change is a liberal or foreign hoax — control large national governments like our own. But even in the United States, according to opinion polls, those concerned about climate change greatly outnumber the deniers; the problem is that those who are worried don’t know what to do. They need to be organized.

There is an apocalypticism coloring climate awareness that is not always helpful. Greta Thunberg says she wants us to panic. She is right. But we must panic without jumping off a bridge. Young people these days often say, “The world is ending,” or, “We’re all going to die.” That’s probably not accurate, at least not in our lifetimes. (In the worst case “human extinction” scenarios, millions of people could indeed die, but there is so much uncertainty and still so much we can do to avoid this.) Apocalypse, while it gets our attention, risks fueling comfortable fantasies of impotence. More likely, we will survive, but life will become far more complicated, as it has already for many around the world.

No giant meteor is going to save us from having to figure out how to mitigate climate change — nor from how to win socialism. In fact, the project of creating a more equitable and just society will grow even more urgent. If we are facing massive storms, food shortages and extreme weather, as scientists agree is likely, we certainly can’t tolerate any resource-hoarding elites.

(Of course, even if humanity really is doomed, winding down, beginning an eventual die-off, we will, in our waning years, need socialism more than ever. As the writer and DSA activist Tara Rose said on Twitter recently, if we lose this struggle with the climate, “I choose socialism for our species’ palliative care. We may as well go out looking after each other.”)

Through the din of preaching about all that environmentalists want us to give up — The Right claims AOC wants to take away your hamburgers! Some climate activists say we must all give up airplane travel! Don’t have a baby! Don’t even keep a pet! — the good news for our daily lives can be almost inaudible.

But the reality is that many of the solutions to climate change would make all of our lives better. AOC’s proposed Green New Deal would not only take huge steps toward a decarbonized future, it would move millions of people from dead-end, low-wage jobs into rewarding and socially useful careers.

As well, much of what we need to do to address climate change would lessen air pollution, which affects us profoundly right now. Air pollution not only injures our respiratory system, it causes changes in the human brain that are comparable to Alzheimer’s disease. Worldwide, air pollution killed 7 million people in 2016 alone, and in the United States, following bursts of considerable progress, air quality has worsened since then (we all know what happened in 2016). Children are especially vulnerable, not only because their physiology is still developing, but because they spend more time outside than adults do. Even moderate air pollution can damage our lungs as badly as smoking cigarettes.

Yet clean air is a remarkably achievable policy goal. Air pollution can be — and has often been, in the United States and elsewhere — addressed by regulating industry and urban traffic. Policy encouraging renewable energy can also help. All of this would also cool the climate — and not just for the future, nor for still-unborn or never-to-be-born grandkids.

This is for us. Just imagine being able to step outside in the summer, in a major city, anywhere in the world, and take a deep breath of clean air. I moved out of that neighborhood long ago, but maybe when the haze clears, I’ll call my old communist friend and see if he wants to take a walk.