Nothing to Fear but Inaction and Division

Last month, John H. Richardson published an article in Esquire titled “When the End of Human Civilization is your Day Job.” Through an interview with climate scientist Jason Box, who studies glacier ice melt in Greenland, Richardson’s article focuses on how climate scientists have begun to deal with forms of depression after years of disturbing research findings and warnings about impending global catastrophe, which in many cases have gone unheeded by policy makers and the American public. I have only been involved in climate activism for about a year; this year it has been very difficult to not become afraid or overcome with a feeling of dread when reading the literature. I can’t imagine carrying this burden around for the last few decades.

A few weeks ago, the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics open-access journal published a study titled “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 degrees global warming is highly dangerous.” If you don’t want to read the whole article, the Washington Post does a nice job summarizing it.

The research was led by Dr. James Hansen and 16 other scientists. Hansen is former Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and now professor at the Columbia University Earth Institute. Hansen was also the first to testify before Congress in 1988 about global warming, which brought the issue to the public eye.

This research reports that the two degree Celsius limit of global warming that scientists and policy makers have for years claimed as the “safe upper limit” is actually highly dangerous. Hansen reports that we will likely see several meters of sea level rise by the end of this century. A century isn’t a long time for archivists. For the earth, it means we could possibly see one meter of sea level rise in the next 20-30 years. Even an inch of sea level rise can have a huge impact on floodplains. How far are your collections above sea level?

The sea level rise is caused by melting glaciers and sea ice in the Arctic, Greenland, and Antarctic. With more fresh water pouring into the oceans, Hansen also claims that this will power superstorms unlike anything that we have ever seen.

I’ll remind everyone why this is happening: Continued carbon emissions into our atmosphere are causing a greenhouse effect — heat and energy from the sun cannot escape the atmosphere. Prior to industrialization, Earth had about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; this lasted for around 800,000 years. Last year we reached 400 ppm. According to Dr. Hansen, the safe upper limit of C02 in the atmosphere is 350ppm. Beyond 350ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we run the risk of causing positive feedback loops and runaway climate change, which cannot be reversed or stopped. The continued burning of fossil fuels causes carbon dioxide emissions.

After I read the Esquire article, I thought to myself, “How are archivists dealing with knowing about climate change when the history of civilization is our day job?”

Archivists are responsible for preserving history for future generations. I believe that it should be a professional and moral obligation for the archival community to come together and take action to ensure the preservation of a safe and habitable planet for future generations. I hate to put it bluntly, but sometimes I wonder: what’s the point in doing what we do if the future of humanity is in question?

I’ve been working on a digital exhibition that features conversations about climate change documented by public broadcasting from 1970 to the present. In 1970, only three days before the first celebration of Earth Day, renowned environmentalist David Brower visited Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He gave a talk, which was broadcast over the campus radio station WYSO-FM and posed the question “What will it cost the Earth?” He urged the students and listeners to educate and inform themselves on the environmental problems facing the world. “You can make a difference,” he told them.

ProjectARCC, a task force of archivists working to affect climate change, is working to make a difference. We want to ensure that archivists are aware of the risks of climate change on their collections. We want to find ways to collectively reduce our professional carbon footprint. We want to elevate relevant collections to improve public awareness and understanding of climate change. And we want to make sure that this moment in history is preserved for future research. But what is needed is collective action and contribution among our entire profession.

In 2014, Yale University and George Mason University published a report that categorized Americans on how they perceive the threat of global warming. The segments included Alarmed (13%), Concerned (31%), Cautious (23%), Disengaged (7%), Doubtful (13%), and Dismissive (13%). Only 13% of Americans are alarmed about climate change. These people are the most concerned of all of the groups and are the most motivated to take action. Where do you fall on the spectrum?

I’ve become really interested in how people are dealing with knowing about climate change. I’ve been reading a book called “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change,” by George Marshall, which looks into the psychology of how people understand and deal with (or not deal with) climate change. According to Marshall, the evolution of our brains makes it difficult for us to comprehend or act on risks that are not immediate. I understand. There was a time when I didn’t care about climate change. I attribute that complacency to my former belief that change wouldn’t happen until after I was gone. It is hard to grasp the risk of something not happening right now — something too subtle and unclear whether and when it would affect me. But then I started reading the literature and I tuned in to the changes that are already happening. And then? I thought about how as an archivist, the purpose of approximately third of my life for hopefully the next half century is to preserve history for the future. I entered into sort of an existential crisis. Twenty, fifty, one hundred years from now, our world will be completely transformed. Will our collections survive? Will our efforts to preserve collections for future generations be in vain? And then I think about the children that I want to eventually have. By the time they are forty years old, Boston’s sea level may have risen more than a meter. Where I currently call home, we’re about 4 meters above sea level. Will my kids be able to call this place home? Will it be too hot for them to live in Mississippi, where I grew up?

I think that in order to overcome the evolutionary problem of not reacting to the long-term risks of climate change, we need to find ways to keep climate change on our minds, even when it is scary to think about. This may seem silly, but I have decided that I need to read at least one relevant article every day so that I do not lose my drive to act on climate. If I don’t, I can easily get caught up in other things. Yes, a lot of what we read can be quite scary, but I really like how Naomi Klein puts it in her book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate“:  “fear makes us run, it makes us leap… but we need somewhere to run to. Without that, fear is only paralyzing.” I co-founded and continue to participate in ProjectARCC because it gives me a place to run to. ProjectARCC gives our entire profession a place to leap into action.

I recently read Columbia University’s Connecting on Climate guidebook, which gives 10 recommendations on how to communicate climate change to audiences. It says people are motivated the most to act on climate within existing networks and social groups, and that people are more likely to become engaged on an issue when a group that they are part of cares about it. The guidelines recommend local groups (like churches or neighborhood associations), but I think that mobilizing with one’s profession is equally as constructive. Maybe I’m biased, and I think this would be a great research topic, but I think that this is especially true for the archival profession, because I believe archivists are some of the most passionate professionals of all professions.

I look forward to talking with many of you at this year’s Society of American Archivists conference. Together, I know that we can collectively make a difference. It is the preservation of the history of human civilization that is our day job, and uniting together to take action will stave off the fear and paralysis.

– Casey E. Davis

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license.

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1 Comment

  1. One thing that makes me very glad is the increasing openness with which climate scientists are sharing their emotions around this issue. For example,

    I think it’s important to realize it’s *normal* to feel despair over this. I think about how my friend’s kids and my niece may experience a very different world than our own and it’s hard not to get a lump in my throat. But Naomi Klein also says that to ignore it or assume that the scientists will figure out a solution or legislators will finally get their act together is a way of looking away. We owe it to future generations to not let despair drive us into inaction.

    Liked by 1 person

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