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David Bange: Turn anxiety into climate action

David Bange: Turn anxiety into climate action

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Have you been feeling anxious lately? I know I have, and I believe the vast majority of Americans are feeling a heightened level of anxiety these days.

Here’s a helpful definition of anxiety: a feeling of worry, nervousness or stress, typically about an imminent event that has an uncertain outcome.

An incomplete list of all-too-common anxiety or stress inducers includes COVID-19, business closures and job losses, having enough money to pay bills and put food on the table, and returning to classes in K-12 and higher education institutions.

In addition to anxiety stemming from the coronavirus, Nov. 3 brings a critical election along with the possibility of seemingly endless disputes after the actual voting is complete.

For another, the Black Lives Matter movement and the subsequent protests triggered by the murder of George Floyd have made everyone aware of the anxiety that fellow citizens who are people of color deal with every day.

Americans are now under so much continual anxiety that the July issue of Scientific American featured a major article on it.

Focused primarily on how people might respond to stress from the COVID-19 pandemic, it was ominously titled, “The Biggest Psychological Experiment in History Is Running Now.” Even though no one volunteered to be in this experiment, everyone is included in it.

Let me add one more anxiety.

I am among those people becoming increasingly anxious about climate change. If climate change with its dire effects is not high on your list of anxieties, I fully understand — other serious worries likely feel more imminently threatening.

However, the presidential election will soon be over, although perhaps not on Nov. 3, and the worst of the pandemic will eventually be behind us even if the coronavirus fails to “magically disappear.”

After the election and COVID-19 are in the rearview mirror, many Americans may become anxious about climate change and its consequences.

Even Americans who have reached an age where they believe they will not live to see the worst consequences coming just a decade or two in the future may also share my anxiety.

They may fear for the quality of life experienced by their children and grandchildren. I believe this anxiety is more widespread than commonly believed.

Some doubt that such anxiety will lead to policies that effectively address climate change. I’ve heard it argued that few Republicans believe the climate scientists, saying, “it’s just a hoax.”

But this isn’t what polling actually reveals. Although Democrats definitely express more concern over climate change, an April survey by the Pew Research Center found a recent uptick in concern among Republicans, with 31% saying it is a major threat and another 45% responding that it is at least a minor threat.

This January, before COVID-19, a Public Agenda/USA TODAY/Ipsos survey reported that a clear majority of Americans — Republicans, Democrats and independents — support increasing the use of clean energy, modernizing the electrical grid, investing in research to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and government help for cities and states to fight climate change.

It seems that although Democrats outwardly express more concern about climate change, a majority of Republicans also take it seriously. But for some reason, many people appear to be unaware of this.

So why would that be? I think several factors are at work here. First, regardless of political affiliation, everyone wants their children and grandchildren to live in a healthy, safe, and verdant world.

Second, extreme weather events — record-setting heat waves, raging forest fires in the West, more powerful hurricanes, floods and droughts — have become daily items in the news.

The third factor, at least in my opinion, is that people seem reluctant to talk about climate change with their friends, and how it will affect everyone on earth. Such conversations simply have to start.

Why? Because climatologists are warning that only a few years remain to enact remedies that will attain “net-zero” CO2 emissions by 2050.

The net-zero goal means that CO2 added to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels is offset by an equal amount of CO2 that is removed. This will be very difficult, but it can be done.

Sure, COVID-19 has been creating anxiety as the world searches for an effective vaccine or a cure. But, as others have previously written in the Tribune, there will never be a vaccine for climate change, no medical miracle can cure it and every nation on earth is already suffering the consequences.

It’s time to turn our anxiety into effective climate action.

David Bange is a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse professor emeritus who has spent his retirement years learning more about our environment and its fauna and flora. He is a board member of the Mississippi Valley Conservancy.


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