Li: Joking about the reality of climate change

Grant Li, Op-Ed Contributor

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My friends and I often joke around and say, “we’re going to die in 50 years anyways.” I’ve always said those eight words without thinking about the specifics too much, until recently when someone replied, “do you really think that?”

At first I was taken aback. I’d heard the joke many times, and I had repeated it so often myself that I took it as a given fact. Is 50 years even accurate? Am I being too pessimistic? Is there actually hope for us to turn it around? Of course, I never really looked into it — the whole point of the joke is that the entire situation is depressing, and looking into the facts probably really wouldn’t make you feel any better. Yet struck by surprise, and curiosity, I dug into the details anyways.

To no one’s shock, the outlook isn’t great. Currently, the planet is set to warm about 3ºC by 2100. If we continue to be a fossil fuel reliant economy, temperatures can warm to about 4ºC by 2100. Those are scary numbers considering the fact that climate change scientists are already worried about the difference between 1.5ºC and 2ºC. Not to mention that we’ve already seen a global increase of 1 degree.

There are also a lot of nuances that shouldn’t be overlooked. Not all the warming will be spread equally. Some places have already surpassed 1.5ºC of warming and will continue to heat up faster than other areas. Additionally, these numbers should be taken even more urgently considering the fact that the planet is consistently beating the timelines set by the models.

Most importantly, all of these numbers are considered in a vacuum. What these numbers don’t indicate are the actual consequences besides the damage to nature. Perhaps they aren’t always included because the problems that will arise out of climate change are so infinite that there’s no way to consider them all. Each of the initial problems set off countless more downstream. From refugees, wars over water, the oil that resides in the regions where the wars over water are occurring, the plight of minorities and the poor, to new superbugs with pandemic potential molded by warmer temperatures, naming all the possible catastrophes is futile.

Perhaps I was wrong about 50 years. As a privileged person, I might not be dead in 50 years. But humanity’s existence on the planet is like a painting: if you slash a part of it, the entire painting is ruined. And maybe extinction isn’t the definitive future — extinction in 50 years may not be realistic. But it won’t be a pretty existence, either. I certainly don’t want to be there to witness the world in the process of sliding into self-destruction. Living and surviving are two different things. Will we actually be living? Or will we just be trying to survive?

Fatalistic attitudes can be problematic, and if I’m being entirely honest, the person who initially questioned my joke was getting at that point. At the same time, I believe it’s a valid coping mechanism, in the fashion of the common “expect the worst, and you’ll never be disappointed” mentality. Such a way of thinking doesn’t mean you have to just accept that it’s over and raise the white flag. Rather, it’s when your back is against the wall and you have nothing to lose when you hit back the hardest.

Grant Li is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at ligrant@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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