Let’s Panic About Climate Change Like It’s Y2K

Image: Newsweek

by Miro Korenha, co-founder and publisher of Our Daily Planet 

I know I’m not the only one, but the thought that 2020 is just three weeks away truly astounds me. The other day as my nostalgia got the best of me, I clicked on an internet article about Y2K and the pandemonium that surrounded the coming of the new millennium (or Willennium if you were a tween girl like me in 1999). You may recall the survival bunkers, the “end of the world” parties, and the genuine stress people felt at the notion that the number 0 might crash global computer networks and signal the beginning of our end.

When the clock rang midnight on January 1st, 2000, we all realized that we were a bunch of suckers and continued to carry on with our lives. However, when I look back on the final days of 1999 my regret is that we weren’t concerned enough about the real existential crisis that was well underway: climate change.

By 1999, we were fully aware that climate change was a threat as President Clinton was even allocating funds for climate action in his FY00 budget:

“On the heels of the announcement that 1998 surpassed 1997 as the warmest year on record, President Clinton is strengthening U.S. efforts to meet the challenge of climate change. The President’s FY00 budget will propose funding for a new Clean Air Partnership Fund; a package of tax incentives and investments to foster increased energy efficiency and greater use of renewable energy sources; and increased funding for basic scientific research.”

We all know that after George W. Bush was sworn into office, his administration began widespread political interference in the work of federal climate scientists as well as facilitated a powerful climate denial machine. But in those waning days of the last century, we had enough information to know that climate change was a global threat and that action was necessary. We had major studies saying so, an IPCC report warning that aviation was a contributor, and even the New York Times writing articles about the topic.

The “millennium bug” was of course much buzzier content for the media than climate change could have ever been. We also weren’t witnessing widespread wildfires, rapidly melting glaciers, and the rate of sea-level rise that we’re currently experiencing so perhaps that explains why we panicked over a pop-culture phenomenon rather than “inconvenient” scientific consensus.

Our lack of awareness twenty years ago may have been understandable but what’s our excuse now? Why isn’t the same fervor that hyped up Y2K being directed toward the current climate crisis? In 2019  scientists have told us that if we don’t take drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade then we will witness the unprecedented consequences of a warming planet. At this moment, we have a tangible crisis that might actually spell the end for humanity yet we’re blithely operating in much the same way that we did in 1999.

In fact, much of the decades-old rhetoric that was used to talk about climate change is still being referenced by Congressional Republicans today.

Take for instance the opening paragraph of a 1999 New York Times piece about climate:

“As evidence that the earth’s atmosphere is warming continues to accumulate, scientists are making slow progress toward an answer to the big question raised by the evidence: how much of the warming is due to human activity and how much to natural causes?”

Now here’s what Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) said on cable news in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael last year:

I think many scientists would debate the percentage of what is attributable to man versus normal fluctuations.” 

Sure, Democrats are nearly unanimous in their consensus of anthropogenic climate change but if the other half of our country hasn’t moved past archaic talking points then are we truly better equipped to take action today than we were 20 years ago? In 2019 we know that climate change—if unchecked—will cause food shortages, drive global instability and the collapse of ecosystems, so why aren’t we printing t-shirts and yelling on street corners about this crisis in the way we did with Y2K?

By every measure, this is an actual crisis whereas Y2K was questionable at best. But the difference is that programmers and analysts who weren’t certain about bugs in their software spent months checking code just to ensure that Y2K wouldn’t wreak havoc. In fact, an insurance analyst once told Forbes that “We found bugs and we fixed them. It’s because we did such a good job that people who weren’t involved think there was never a problem.”

The sad reality is that we’re not giving this basic level of caution to something as serious as climate change. Our own President can’t clearly articulate what climate change is, and his cabinet certainly isn’t taking any precautions to mitigate its effects.

In many ways, we’ve continued to make progress to advance humanity in the past 20 years, but when it comes to ensuring that future generations may carry on this progress we’ve buried our heads in the sand. We’ve gambled away our kids’ future and have continued to find excuses for why climate change isn’t as urgent of a threat as scientists postulated in 1999.

Over the coming 20 years, we can’t just hope and wish that we do better when it comes to climate action, we must do better because we’ve finally run out the clock. Climate change needs to be our Y2K, so let’s panic a little. (If Will Smith wants to write an accompanying song, that would be cool too).

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