By Shonali Palacios August 26, 2021

I don’t know that there’s ever been a better summer to be working on climate issues. Well, “better” is kind of a relative term. Maybe I should say I don’t know that climate issues have ever felt more urgent. A large swath of the country has been on fire since just before the beginning of the season, deadly storms and flooding have pummeled the South, drought is deepening in the West, and the hurricane season appears to be ramping up. And that’s just in the U.S., forgetting the massive fires in Greece and Australia and the rising tides that threaten to swallow up entire nations among countless other existential climate threats. The IPCC Climate Report simultaneously confirmed some of our worst fears about climate change — that there are some consequences we probably won’t be able to address in time — and bolstered our resolve to prevent its worst outcomes.

This summer also seems to be a time, finally, for action. Congress has been working on two major pieces of legislation, the infrastructure bill and budget reconciliation, that have huge environmental implications and present opportunities for large-scale, meaningful change we desperately need. Maybe the scorching undeniability of climate change is getting those wheels turning. On a micro-scale I’ve experienced what I believe is the hottest summer of my living memory. Stepping outside in either DC or St. Louis lately has meant getting hit by a wall of heat and humidity.

Online work has allowed me to be inside, mercifully, but my friends who are camp counselors or teacher’s assistants report back to me the difficulties and safety issues that arise around getting kids to play outside on those ninety or one hundred-degree days. I have my own daily little moment of cognitive dissonance when I run up my AC while tweeting about global warming, or eat an avocado while making an infographic about droughts and fires in California. And then, making even small personal sacrifices like giving up my air con or avocados seems so futile as I read about yet another corporation refusing to do the bare minimum to create a livable future or outright denying and obscuring climate science vis-à-vis Exxon or Ameren, in calculated, cynical moves that have ceased to be surprising even as they somehow never fail to disappoint.

That sense of personal responsibility is hard to hold on to also, when we see climate denialism in some of the highest offices of our government. How, I find myself asking after reporting on deadly flooding in Tennessee, raging fires that destroy American lives and livelihoods in California, pollution that’s poisoning kids in West Virginia, and rising seas threatening to swallow up the homes of so many, how is this still a debate? How are we still engaged in a tooth and nail fight to convince some elected leaders to drive climate progress that will save human lives and businesses alike? Why is fixing this still a controversy in some circles?

Those are naïve questions asked by an overly-optimistic college student that have long, complicated answers that have to do with reelection and lobbying and party allegiances, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s just not that convoluted. Either we’re accepting that the climate crisis is an existential threat to humanity that we helped engineer and need to be active in dismantling, or we aren’t. There’s no halfway, no path without sacrifice, no watered-down action — changing now is going to be tough and often painful. Large scale societal shifts almost always are. But those growing pains will be nothing compared to the outcome that awaits us, especially our most vulnerable communities, if we fail to act now.

I’m still young, still in college, and I get stuck often thinking about the future. The alarmist in me sees a broiling earth being overrun by disease and Tesla-bots while billionaires escape to Mars in space yachts. It’s a defeatist vision, one that makes you want to stay in bed.

If there’s one thing I learned from working at Defend Our Future this summer, it’s that if we’re in the position to act, we don’t get to give up. I met a whole team of people working tirelessly to educate and engage a new generation of climate activists, and was introduced to a powerful, well-funded, well-connected organization seeking climate justice in the shape of the Environmental Defense Fund. Reading headlines on climate change, and seeing the work of politicians like Bernie Sanders, calling for bold, immediate action has also been reassuring. Even if it took us a long time and too many deaths to get to this point, climate change is being recognized as a serious issue. More to the point, there are a lot of good people willing to devote a whole lot of time and energy to facing it head on. This is an ongoing struggle, and it’s worth fighting for every small win because those small wins can have a whole lot of real meaning to a whole lot of real people. Getting rid of lead piping, stopping a company like Ameren (one last dig before I go) from poisoning the communities they claim to serve, making sure neighborhoods have equal access to clean air and water regardless of their median income — any of those things are causes worth dedicating a lifetime to. We’ve got a long way to go, but things are changing. I hope I can be part of that change. If nothing else about the future is clear, I know I’m at least going to try.