Can We Talk About Climate Change?

In the midst of the Australian wildfires, Alice Tivarovsky wakes up to climate change and seeks the advice of a Columbia Mailman School expert.

February 28, 2020

Some have dubbed 2019 as the year the public woke up to climate change. Some still argue that it’s not driven by human activity, citing cyclical cooling and heating periods of prehistory and ignoring the scientific merits of the greenhouse effect. Others continue to maintain it’s a myth. And many simply don’t see why young people, academics, and hemp-wearers alike are up in arms about the earth warming 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

For me, 2019 was not the year I “woke up” to climate change. I’ve been concerned for a long time. But 2019 was the year I became actively angry about it.

Rewind to December 2019. I couldn’t wait to get finals over with and get fully into holiday mode. I kept a countdown of days until I could fly home to California, wake up whenever I wanted, live in my pajamas, lounge around with the dog, and eat homemade cookies every day. But from the beginning, my winter break was somewhat less than idyllic. I had been out of touch with the news for several weeks, and when I caught up, I was horrified to see astronomical numbers of animals burned alive in the Australia wildfires. Surely these were overestimated. How could 500 million animals perish that quickly? Several days later, it was a billion.

I couldn’t sleep. Every morning I scrolled through headlines hoping that it had stopped or that it was a bad dream. But all I saw were horrific fiery orange photos. Above all, I couldn’t comprehend why there wasn’t more outrage. The failures of the Australian government aside, why weren’t people taking to the streets to demand international action on climate change? And the most absolutely heartbreaking addition of insult to injury, at the height of the bushfires was the Trump administration announcing unprecedented rollbacks to domestic environmental protections, including, among many others, the Endangered Species Act and further rollbacks to the Obama-era Clean Water Act.

I understand that not all Americans feel the same level of bleeding-heart empathy for animals and nature, but why on earth would any constituent be ok with chemicals in their water?

Things didn’t add up. I remembered being 7 or 8, scolding the other kids in my apartment building for tearing the little leaves off a succulent bush and throwing them in the swimming pool. “You’re killing nature!” I would shout. (Needless to say, I was not a popular child). One morning, I remember walking out to find the bush completely barren. This past December felt a lot like that. I realize, of course, that media attention and public discourse surrounding climate change are growing. Yet somehow, I couldn’t help feeling like I was completely alone and powerless.

At the root of the issue was the feeling that any small thing I did to “help” wasn’t much help at all. The plane would fly whether or not I was on it, right? Fast fashion (which consumes enormous resources and mostly winds up in landfills) would clog America’s malls whether or not I bought a sweater at H&M. Temperatures would still rise whether or not I ordered takeout. So what was I actually supposed to be doing to combat climate change? Was protesting a more potent action? Even more frustrating was the feeling that there were certain social circles where I couldn’t discuss these questions without inciting political heat. This continues to perplex me – the fact that how a person votes somehow dictate whether or not they believe science has never made much sense.

Upon returning to school in January, I reached out to Dr. Lewis Ziska, a trained plant physiologist, who joined Mailman’s Environmental Health Sciences department last year. Dr. Ziska has spent decades studying the effects of environmental changes on agriculture and food security. I was curious about his work, but more urgently, I wanted to get some clarity on the “what am I supposed to be doing” question. As I had imagined, Dr. Ziska’s scientific standpoint is unique. While we often hear about extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and forced migration, we rarely discuss the impact of climate change on our food supply.

Simply put, the agriculture system, largely in place since the green revolution of the 1950s and 60s, is not designed for the changes in CO2 levels, temperature, and flooding/drought patterns that we’re already experiencing.

And as is often the case in public health, the most vulnerable populations are the hardest hit – particularly those who depend on a single crop for most of their sustenance. Dr. Ziska explores the fragility of our food supply and quality elegantly in his book, Our Daily Bread, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in understanding climate change more deeply. With regard to the question of what I’m supposed to do to make a difference, he had a simple answer: “Vote.” Which brings me to the last thing Dr. Ziska said as I was leaving his office: “One person can make a difference.” And coming from someone who has studied the bleakness of climate change for decades, we have no choice but to believe him.

And so, I’ve come full circle. On one hand, I openly criticize the excessive consumerism that led us here in the first place. On the other, it feels counterproductive to feel guilt and hypocrisy over every non-green choice I make. While I feel that I do my part for the environment 95 percent of the time, I also shy away from discussing it publicly because of the political controversy it seems to incite. Above all, I want to maintain hope that human-kind will adopt more altruistic tendencies for the sake of our future, that states and continents won’t continue to burn, that hurricanes and tsunamis won’t continue to grow, and that our home will be habitable for generations to come. But it’s difficult to do so when I see global leaders continuing to prioritize short-term economic gain over the integrity of our planet.

I still haven’t achieved much clarity on the “what should I be doing” matter. But the one conclusion I have come to is that keeping quiet is not the answer. We are given the privilege of our voice, our education, our influence for a reason.

Alice Tivarovsky is a 2020 MPH candidate in the Department of Epidemiology. She received her BS in Chemical Engineering from UCLA. If you are interested in joining a Fridays for Future Protest, contact Alice

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