April 22, 2020

Harvard experts discuss climate change fears


To mark Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Harvard University Gazette contacted experts on climate change, the environment, and sustainability to ask them about their global-warming fears. Tyler Giannini, clinical professor of law and co-director of the Human Rights Program and the International Human Rights Clinic, contributed an essay he co-authored with his daughters Amaya (14 years old) and Rayna (10 years old). Prior to joining the law school, Giannini co-founded EarthRights International, an NGO that works to protect human rights and the environment. Find the full article with contributions from faculty around the University on the Gazette website. Read Tyler, Amaya, and Rayna’s piece below.


Tyler smiles with his daughters.
From left to right: Rayna, Tyler, and Amaya Giannini.

This is an intergenerational question, so the three of us sat around our dining room table and each made individual lists of how climate change scared us. Together, we represent one Generation Xer (aged 49) and two Generation Zs (aged 14 and 10) — also known as Zoomers. While our generations think differently on a lot of issues, what stood out most is that we have similar fears about climate change. We worry about the loss of ecosystems and about biodiversity. We worry about the future of humanity and our families, and we worry about how the world will react to the impending crisis. Will we come together or lose our empathy for one another? As the three of us started talking about our fears, though, we kept coming back to solutions — to listen to science, of course, but just as importantly to come together because tackling climate change requires seeing the connections between us rather than what divides us.“As the three of us started talking about our fears, though, we kept coming back to solutions.”

On all our lists, we hit on how we were scared of losing animals and hurting the planet itself. Climate change affects our ecosystems, and this will impact the lives of many animals. Some may even become extinct. But we also thought about how we are connected to our environment: Animals are a big part of our food chain, for example, and bees are critical pollinators, and if we lose them, it will affect our food supplies.

The theme of connection also played out as we talked about how climate change will deeply affect humanity. We fear for the unprecedented millions who will be displaced — the impending flow of climate refugees. We worry about our families, our kids, but we talked about how every displaced person is connected to a family. And we also know that it is much more likely that these families will be disproportionately poor and people of color, especially in the Global South.

We also worry about the emotional toll that climate change will take as we absorb a constant barrage of bad news — and how people will react once the impacts become even more serious than they already are. You can see how in the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, many thought it was far away and would not reach them. But there was a tipping point, and then it started to directly affect so many more people. This is where we are headed with climate change. Once we start treating climate change like the crisis it is, we hope many people will launch into action.

As we stay at home these days, we keep returning to parallels between climate change and the current pandemic. The curves look eerily similar. And there is a lingering question of whether we will hit the steep part of the curve or flatten the curve. For climate change, we fear hitting the tipping point and want to get ahead of it while we have time. In the end though, the three of us are most scared about what it will take to find solutions. It will take government action, individual action, and community action. Like the pandemic, we know it will take scientific knowledge and empathy and hope. We see the pandemic pulling us in two directions — increasing isolation and fears, but also creating innumerable acts of coming together and working to overcome the challenges. Solving the problem of climate change will not be successful if we allow our fears to overcome us. Solving the problem will require the strength, commitment, and creativity of our global community.

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