When your future grandkids ask you that question years from now, how will you answer it?
Because if you believe the challenges created by a warming planet are only a problem for your unknown descendants, you are mistaken. If you are middle-aged or younger, you will see catastrophic impacts of climate change in your lifetime. And your pending grandchildren will ask you what you did to prevent these impacts now, in 2021, before they happened. So, if you want to have a good answer tomorrow, you need to get serious about climate change today.
Last August, a group of scientists released another alarming report on the threat of climate change. What made this report different, however, was its accelerated timeline for negative impacts. According to the latest predictions, the changes that would have affected future generations — from hotter summers to more extreme weather events to deadlier storms — will now happen during your lifetime.
This means if you ranked climate change on your end-of-the-world worry list between the Yellowstone supervolcano and an asteroid impact, it’s time to move it up a few notches. Because your children’s children will look back at the first decades of the 21st century and wonder why you didn’t notice the obvious signs that our planet was becoming more hazardous to our health.
Even though climate change is happening at geologic light speed, it is still too slow for people to notice. Until recently, the most-discussed evidence of its influence had been rising sea levels and collapsing ice sheets. But most people will only recognize climate change as a clear and present danger when the impacts strike closer to home. This is why 2021 — with its seemingly endless rounds of wildfires, heatwaves and 100-year floods — might be a pivotal year in convincing more people that climate change is as real and imminent as scientists keep telling us.
After this year, you are more likely to know someone who evacuated their home due to a fast-moving wildfire. You will see neighbors who needed help cleaning out their basement after a flood. You might have altered a vacation due to wildfire smoke or know another child diagnosed with asthma. It’s not that you are paying closer attention to these disasters; it’s because they are happening more often. So far in 2021, the U.S. has experienced 18 weather events that cost $1 billion to clean up and is on pace to surpass 2020′s record of 22 such events.
These in-your-face impacts from floods, fires and heatwaves will illuminate the “climate change is real” light bulb in more people’s heads than any melting glacier. Plus, we know from COVID-19 that warnings based on scientific probabilities are not enough to change people’s behavior (and can even have the opposite effect). Analyzing data can tell us that summer days where you grew up are several degrees hotter today than a few decades ago, but it takes a scorching July to make it real for most people.
So, what can you do now to better answer your future grandchildren’s questions? Start by making discussions and actions about climate change as routine as checking the latest sports scores or donating to charity. This is especially important for people older than age 40 who are less likely than younger generations to rank climate change as a top priority.
Focus your conversations on close-to-home impacts that will reduce everyone’s quality of life. For example, when the Great Salt Lake becomes the Great Dust Pan and the Greatest Snow on Earth turns to slush for most of the winter, it won’t be so great to live in Utah anymore.
You should also demand that elected officials factor climate change in their decisions ranging from water policy to K-12 education to building codes. To cool down our warming planet, we not only need millions of people making beneficial changes to their lives, but also hundreds of new policies to amplify and reward their efforts. For specific ideas, connect with the trusted nonprofits and advocacy groups who have been working on climate issues for years.
By far, however, the most important thing you can do is to ask yourself … will your future self be proud or embarrassed by your actions on climate change today?
Jason Stevenson is a writer and resident of Salt Lake City. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely his own.