words by Willow Defebaugh
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.
In the creation of each edition of Atmos—the second of which has just been sent to print—we try to be conscious of the “despair meter,” balancing out urgency with innovation. As journalists, it’s our responsibility to present the facts, and that job gets grim when the facts themselves are disparaging. So how do we keep people from turning their backs on a problem that at times feels too immense to measure, let alone solve?
Perhaps the first to come up against this question in such a public way was Al Gore, who, after releasing his 2006 climate change film An Inconvenient Truth, was accused of alarmism by conservatives, and presenting a hopeless problem by liberals. But he didn’t stop there: Gore continued to educate future leaders with his Climate Reality Project, and went on to play a critical role in the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement.
Marine conservationist and diving legend Sylvia Earle perhaps said it best in her own documentary, Mission Blue. When asked if she will ever take a day off, the 84-year-old ocean explorer likened the situation to seeing a child falling out of a 10-story window, saying that you wouldn’t just stand there and do nothing—you would scream and shout and do everything in your power to help. “You don’t take a break. You’re there 24-7. You’re there with every ounce of what you’ve got. You want to save that child.”
Another beacon of hope arrived on the shores of New York City this week in the form of Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg, who sailed across the Atlantic on an emission-free ship in order to avoid air travel and participate in the upcoming UN Climate Action Summit. Thunberg was greeted by a wave of activists at Manhattan’s North Cove marina—just blocks away from Wall Street—who could be heard chanting “Sea levels are rising, and so are we!”
This is the Greta effect: since her viral 2018 speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in which she accused a generation of stealing its children’s future, she has catalyzed 53 #FridaysforFuture strikes around the world. For the past year, students have been skipping school to protest, arguing that there’s little point in studying for a future that might not exist. The next global strike will occur on the 20th September, just days before the UN Summit.
Despite her near mythic status in the environmental movement, when asked what she would say to Trump, Thunberg’s answer was surprisingly human: “Everyone always asks me about Donald Trump. My message for him is just to listen to the science, and he obviously doesn’t do that. So, as I always say to this question, if no one has been able to convince him about the climate crisis, why should I be able to do that? I’m just going to focus on spreading awareness, so that people start caring, and realize how big of a crisis this is.”
Speaking of hope, after an international outcry surrounding the fires in the Amazon, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly insisted that the Rainforest be open to development and even refused foreign aid, finally declared a ban on using fire to clear land across the country, and announced that he would be sending 43,000 troops to fight off the inferno. While this is by no means a total victory—the battle to save the Amazon is only just beginning—it points to an important series of events: the public raised its voice, leading to media attention, global government responses, and ultimately, action.
This is the true measure of heroism: not always succeeding in slaying the enemy single-handed, but continuing to fight on, encouraging others to do the same. Having found ourselves facing a beast unlike any other in human history, it is heroes we need now more than ever. We must not falter in the face of forest fires, melting ice, or any other tragedy. We must have hope.