Forty years ago, as I was leaving my friend’s house to throw a baseball outside, his father stopped us for inspection.
“Where are you going?” Peter’s father asked. “When will you be back?” And most pointedly: “Have you done your homework?” Peter had, but I had not. “I’ll get around to it,” I said.
“Ah, well, here you go.” Peter’s father put a small round disk in my hand. I turned it over, and on the back printed in green was the word Tuit. “You said you’ll get around Tuit,” he laughed, every bit the corny dentist he was, “now here you go.” I still have my Tuit. It sits on my bookshelf, gathering questions. Did Peter’s father go to a woodworker to have these printed? Did he keep a bag in his car and refresh his pockets daily? Did anyone ever give it back?
I wish there were more Tuits in the world, reminding us of what we have yet to do. We’d all have a few. All of us would have received a few when it comes to climate action. After all, when scientists told us the planet was heating up in the 1960s, killing off species and threatening the delicate balance of the planet’s ecosystems, much of the world said, I’ll get around to it.
When trackable data suggested the warming was increasing, we said it again. Even in recent years, as catastrophic weather events—floods, tsunamis, heat waves, droughts—increased as a result of this warming, many of us and our governments said one more time, I’ll get around to it.
Across these years, instead of handing out Tuits, the world rewarded our laterism with soothing stories. For decades, the energy industry, using paid-for climate deniers, sowed disinformation. Their story was: It’s not as bad as they say. Or worse: It’s a hoax.
It has not been open for debate that we are in the middle of a species-threatening climate crisis for a long time. The buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere as a result of human activity has already warmed the planet by about 1°C above preindustrial levels, and as a result of this warming, we’ve seen impacts on a scale not witnessed before in human history. Hurricanes, wildfires, floods. They’ll get worse.
Still, even as we stare hard facts in the face, a host of excuses disguised as stories—a whole bag of Tuits—remain in the cultural narrative atmosphere, propping up the magical thinking required to keep delaying action. They included tales like Someone Else Will Fix This (as in I didn’t do this; let the experts deal with it), Nature Is Meant to Change (as in So what if we don’t have polar bears?), The Economy Can’t Afford It (as in Going green will wreck our way of life) and We’re Already Doing It (as in We can recycle and carbon-capture our way back to planetary health). If you look at them even for a brief moment, all of these tales deserve a Tuit. They have, however, been highly effective at one thing: allowing us to do nothing drastic.
And here we come to the most destructive story of all to emerge in recent years, one that many who believe the climate crisis is existential often tell. It says: We are not capable of drastic change.
Around the world, but especially in the U.S., this story tells us human civilization cannot make rapid adjustments to the way we live, and survive those changes. If you live in the U.S., this feeling is entirely justified. Film of unarmed Black civilians being shot by police cannot lead to the conviction of officers? During a pandemic, billionaires’ wealth grew by astonishing amounts, but a minimum wage guarantee is too expensive?
Change matters. Study after study shows that if sustained long term, a sharp reduction in carbon emissions will have immediate effects. If we can globally get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, we can keep temperature increases across the world to 1.5°C. To reach these targets, though, we don’t simply need change, but drastic change.
There is an example of this. During the pandemic, businesses, governments and people made sudden, severe changes to stay safe. People stayed indoors for weeks. Some for months.
They didn’t hug or shake hands. They wore masks. They worked a job and taught their children. Here was an immediate threat to life, and were it not for these drastic changes, scores more would have died. We face a similar threat, but one with a much longer lead-up. If we do not reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, big parts of the world will be uninhabitable in our lifetimes.
There are not enough Tuits in the world to allow us to stay out of this one. But there is one story staring us in the face. We can change, we can change rapidly, almost overnight, altering almost entirely our way of life. It would be good if our leaders reminded us of this, and made the case scientists know well: it’s not tThe pandemic shows we’re capable of drastic change. It’s time to stop telling ourselves we can’t do the same to save the planetoo late.