The climate crisis has moved into everyday life and it can feel overwhelming.

Hurricane Dorian, which left more than 70,000 people homeless, was an instance of this climate breakdown. A hotter ocean means stronger storms, a higher sea means worse flooding, a hotter atmosphere means more rain. Worsening wildfires in California and elsewhere, devastating flooding in our agricultural heartland, swaths of dead forest in the Rockies, the global collapse of coral reefs – these are just a few examples of the long and lengthening list of the catastrophic impacts of climate breakdown.

The evidence that human-caused global heating is dangerously disrupting Earth systems is unequivocal, and it no longer takes a scientist to see this. Denying this reality puts billions of lives at risk, and will surely come to be condemned by history.

Faced with this reality, it may be tempting to say, “We’re doomed,” as Jonathan Franzen recently suggested. This view comes from a deep misconception about how the crisis is likely to unfold. We will not suddenly pass a tipping point to doom at 2 degrees Celsius of global heating above preindustrial levels, as Franzen incorrectly claims. Instead, climate breakdown exists on a continuum where every 10th of a degree of additional heating means more death and suffering. No matter how bad it gets, we must keep doing everything we can to keep it from getting worse.

My own climate wake-up call came about 13 years ago when, as a physics graduate student at Columbia University, I heard a lecture by the climatologist James Hansen. His talk terrified me even through its scientific jargon, and led me to begin reading the peer-reviewed climate literature. Around the same time, my first child was born.

My love for my son made his future mine. This love expanded to include all the life on this planet, this marvelous spaceship. I felt a sense of responsibility to do something, but I didn’t know what. I felt confused and panicked. As my awareness grew, I went through stages of grief. I’ve cried over ecosystems disintegrating, over the looming possibility of social breakdown, over the scale of suffering and death this will unleash. Letting in the grief allowed me to reach acceptance and get to work. I switched careers from astrophysics to climate science – and I changed my life.

I realized that bringing my actions into alignment with my principles could reduce my panic and cognitive dissonance. Reducing my carbon emissions was something concrete I could do, and it turned out to be interesting and fun.

In 2010, I examined my carbon footprint and realized that most of my emissions came from flying and food, so I became vegetarian, found ways to cut food waste, and started flying less. I also began to bike and discovered a love for gardening and growing fruit. These and other changes turned out to be so satisfying and joyful to me that I started going out into the community to let others know.

Over three years, I reduced my emissions to about a 10th of an average American’s. It wasn’t always convenient, and if there were carbon-free planes, I’d probably fly once a year or so. But overall, I prefer my lower carbon life. It’s slower and less hectic, and more connected to the Earth and to my community. But while I like it much better, I have no illusions that it represents a solution.

Instead, it’s extremely clear to me that the most important thing any one of us can do is to raise our voices to shift the culture as much as possible. 

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