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Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

Despite honest intentions to make the world livable for generations to come, my reasons for hopping on board the environmental movement were misguided and a tad off base. 

Simply put, I was misinformed.

For many, we are inspired to join the climate fight to tackle an environmental emergency — the vanishing rainforests, extinct species, and dying coral reefs. And after years of carrying the tree-hugger stigma attached to climate activism, we proudly assume the “environmental” character trait.

But lately, the climate movement is no longer just some crusade paraded by insular activist youth who only care about the trees. It has welcomed a remarkable number of Gen Z that, in response to hours of scrolling through media-induced fear-mongering, view climate change as they would a freakishly realistic Hollywood apocalypse. Immediately transported to an alternate reality — a vacant world turned black and gray — we are drawn to the allure and excitement of living on the verge of an unborn crisis. Letting our world operate beneath the scientifically-proven ticking of a twelve-year time bomb.

Allowing myself to slip into momentary lapses of fear, I failed to realize the privilege that allowed me to embark on this apocalyptic fantasy, invented by the imagination of the safe and secure confines of my own mind. Because I knew that, when the clock struck midnight, I would be safe. That, as consequences continue to intensify, the level of protection will vary greatly between those living on both sides of an expanding wealth gap.

But this is not a story about privilege within climate activism. This is about me and so many others falling victim, for better or for worse, consciously or unconsciously, to a dangerous narrative around climate change that separates planetary ruin from immigration, agriculture, healthcare, economy, security, and countless other current socio-political issues. It is about the need to recraft this narrative in a way that not only describes an imminent disaster, but includes all those suffering a current reality of injustice. 

Because unfortunately, the dominating apocalyptic narrative has removed many communities from both the problem and, consequently, the solutions. It has left us — our political systems and our economy — to believe that climate change can simply be addressed with a reversal of its cause (i.e. the regulations and incentives for atmospheric carbon removal to cool the Earth down to pre-industrial temperatures). But to those who drink dirty water day after day or suffer severe rates of asthma from living near oil refineries, a solution to climate change means so much more than removing CO2 from our atmosphere. It means forcing oil refinery managers to cover medical bills for asthma. It means developing urban farms to ensure food deserts have access to affordable, nutritious produce. It means providing adequate flood insurance in high-risk regions. It means redefining lost and marginalized identities through a history of colonialism and decades of oppression. 

While we fantasize about what the end of the world will look like, the true apocalypse has already hit home and is terrorizing hundreds of communities living on the frontlines. 

What does a twelve-year countdown mean to those who have already lived through the trauma of being displaced after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their home? What does the looming threat of climate change mean for a working class that struggles to carry the burden of putting food on the table day after day, not to mention the mounting costs of rent, healthcare, home insurance, and everyday life?

What’s more, the apocalyptic narrative has framed climate change as a stand-alone crisis that increases global temperatures and ignores the way it has escalated social inequality. 

The Democratic National Convention has reinforced this twisted characterization of climate change for years, convincing voters that climate change is worthy of just five minutes and twenty-seven seconds in the 2016 debates (with modest improvements of fifteen minutes in last month’s debates and twenty minutes in this week's debates) and undeserving of an entirely separate debate because it is a “single issue area.” If climate change continues to be treated as a single issue, politicians will continue to pit it against other pressing issues, without viewing climate change as a limiting context within which these issues should be solved. They will continue to describe it with a few tepid talking points and hackneyed phrases like “Green New Deal” and “just transition,” without making explicit, concrete plans or policy proposals. The way we perceive and talk about climate change dictates how we develop solutions and how our decision-makers respond. 

Your story is different than my story. And the variance between our stories can shift the narrative on the issue of climate change — as a problem that extends far past an imminent apocalyptic reality with rising CO2 emissions, rapidly receding arctic ice, and extreme weather events. Effective storytelling can display the broad intersectionality that combats the political single-issue framing. Stories that show the crisis is no longer looming on the horizon, but have very much hit home, in the flood insurance debts, excruciatingly hot summer days with no AC, expensive treatment from decades of breathing in toxic air, and sacrifices made to travel ten miles to the nearest grocery store. Stories told by silenced, desperate voices that are calling for a dignified life in an environment that rapidly deteriorates from profit-driven extraction.

So let us share our stories. 

Let us voice how climate change impacts almost every sector of society and underlies nearly all of today’s key political issues. 

Let us seek solutions that will help those who bear the burden of climate change and will continue to suffer even after atmospheric emissions are drastically reduced. 

Let us turn to the here and now. 

[With a handful of candidates voicing support for a presidential debate centered around climate change, the DNC has scheduled a vote on August 23rd to hold a climate debate.]

MAEVE MASTERSON is a College sophomore from Chicago studying Environmental Management and Sustainability. She is an active organizer for Fossil Free Penn, a cellist in the Penn Symphony Orchestra, and a circular economy enthusiast. Her email address is mmaeve@sas.upenn.edu.

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