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How to Combat Climate Depression


Photograph by Ike Edeani for The New Yorker

If there existed some kind of gauge for measuring ambient sadness, I imagine the needle would now be pinned to the far end of the red. Some of us are mourning the deaths of those we loved; more are terrified for the ailing; more still lie abed trying to figure out whether their job will last another month, or what to do about the one they just lost. The Times reports that the pandemic has become a “grim slog” for New Yorkers. Even away from the epicenter, the pervading uncertainty brews a fog that makes the future seem drab.

But here’s the worse news: even before the coronavirus descended, that’s how the world looked to an awful lot of Americans, especially younger ones. Seventh Generation, the recycled-paper-towel and household-products company, commissioned a survey, released in April. It showed that seventy-one per cent of millennials and sixty-seven per cent of Generation Z feel that climate change has negatively affected their mental health. How upset were they? Four in five people in the eighteen-to-twenty-three age cohort “aren’t planning—or didn’t want—to have children of their own as a result of climate change.” Even if the survey were off by fifty per cent, that would still be an astonishing number.

I spend a lot of time with young people, and I find much the same thing: they’re far more aware of the science behind climate change than their elders are, and they know what it means. They understand that if we can’t check the rise in temperatures soon, we will see an ongoing series of crises. In fact, those have already begun in large parts of the world. Year after year on the West Coast, summer has become the season of wildfire smoke, lingering for weeks in the air above our major cities. We’ve always had hurricanes, but they drop more rain than we’ve ever seen before. If you anticipated that your life was going to be punctuated by one major disaster after another, would you be eager to have kids? It’s worth remembering that the last big novel disease to hit our hemisphere—the Zika virus, which caused microcephaly in some babies—prompted the health ministers of several countries to urge women to forgo pregnancy for a year or more.

This is bad news, and not just because babies are wonderful. A society that becomes this disconsolate is a society that could veer chaotically in almost any direction. Yet this same cohort of young people, to its enormous credit, is leading the constructive response to our dilemma: eighty-five per cent of millennials report that they are actively fighting climate change. Again, that squares with what I see on the ground, but their discouragement will grow if their elders continue to oppose serious change. That’s why Joe Biden needs both to win in November and then to demonstrate that he’s more committed to climate action than he’s seemed so far. (It was a relief to see him podcasting with the governor of Washington and climate champion Jay Inslee on Earth Day, and to think about Inslee or people like him populating the next Cabinet.)

The only way to combat this kind of depression may also be the only way to combat the Depression now threatening our economy: an all-encompassing, society-wide effort to build out renewable energy, retrofit houses and offices for energy efficiency, and safeguard and nurture our remaining working ecosystems. If we don’t do it fast, then the gloom of young people will be justified—and it’s hard to think of a more powerful indictment of older generations than that. Their childlessness must not be our legacy.

Passing the Mic

I got to know Jane Kleeb when we worked together at the start of the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline. She remains a general in this battle, but she’s also become a force in electoral politics, chairing the Nebraska Democratic Party and serving as treasurer of Our Revolution, an offshoot of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign. Her new book is “Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America.”

“Keystone’s under construction.” “Federal court stops Keystone.” Is the pipeline going to be built, and what should people do if they want to slow it down?

Not an inch of the risky Keystone XL pipeline will ever touch our land and water here in Nebraska, because of the lawsuits and grassroots actions we are leading. The last ten years of our fight have been a roller coaster for the unlikely alliance of farmers, ranchers, tribal nations, and climate advocates who have been the heroes in stopping this pipeline. Every voter, no matter your political stripe, should ask candidates from county boards and mayors to state legislatures and Congress if they support building the Keystone XL pipeline. If they do, try to persuade them otherwise, by telling them our stories about how this pipeline hurts our communities—or vote for someone else, or run for office yourself. Elected officials at every level can take actions to stop the pipeline, by denying local construction permits, enacting bans on eminent domain for private gain, and honoring treaties with tribal nations. If TC Energy and President Trump try to ram this pipeline through by breaking environmental laws, trampling on property rights, and violating treaties with tribal nations, we will need everyone supporting us on the ground as we collectively put our bodies on the line to protect the land and water. Joe Biden might not be where I want him to be on all aspects of a climate plan, but I know this: if he’s elected, he will revoke Trump’s permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. We need everyone “all in” on electing Biden so we can protect our land and water. If we believe in climate action, then we cannot keep building new pipelines.

You’re in charge of the Nebraska Democratic Party. What’s the mood among activists out on the prairies, as you head into the state’s primary, especially after looking north to Wisconsin’s election earlier this month?

We are nervous, scared, and worried that no one is looking out for us. Governor [Pete] Ricketts is keeping the polls open here on May 12th, and we never had a stay-at-home order. In one of our communities with a larger meatpacking plant, around fifty per cent of the people who have been tested are confirmed to have COVID-19. But, because the Democratic Party has largely ignored rural communities for the last thirty years, we do not have enough Democrats elected at the state and federal level to give voice to the issues that affect rural communities. And this just continues a cycle of mutual neglect, where Democrats ignore rural voters and, in turn, rural voters do not vote for Democrats. The irony is, of course, that the issues rural communities face—hospitals closing, family farms being bought up by industrial agriculture, no real progress on rural broadband—are bread-and-butter issues for Democrats. Our party has a proud history of standing up for the little guy against big corporations. It seems our party stops at the borders and dirt roads of our red and rural states, having given up on us decades ago.

How many electoral votes will Biden get out of the Cornhusker State?

Nebraska and Maine are the only two states that split up their electoral votes by congressional district. While most non-Nebraskans would answer this question with zero, some pundits who watched Barack Obama secure an electoral vote in our “blue dot” of Omaha’s Second Congressional District back in 2008 would say it is possible to get that one electoral vote again in 2020. I am fully confident we can win both C.D.-1 and C.D.-2’s electoral votes for Biden while also sending the first Democratic women to Congress from our state. But, to do so, we need to take a page out of our organizing on the Keystone XL pipeline and keep front-line groups at the heart of our efforts—in the context of electoral politics, that is funding and listening to the state party. We know the candidates, the grassroots advocates, and the issues that motivate voters the best. Funding the fighters on the front lines is always the answer to victory.

Climate School

Julian Popov, of the European Climate Foundation, lays out a plan in the Financial Times for green economic recovery. “Fast distribution of cash will be essential,” he writes.

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