I’ve Hit My Climate Tipping Point

Understanding global warming intellectually is not the same as feeling its presence in your daily life—or seeing photos of a 50-foot wall of fire.

A forest burning in Turkey on August 6, 2021.
A forest burning in Turkey on August 6, 2021. (Photograph by Yasin Akgul / AFP / Getty)

About the author: Helen Lewis is a London-based staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights.

Last summer the temperature in London, where I live, climbed above 37 degrees Celsius—or 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It was hotter outside my body than it was inside it. To someone raised under the sodden, used-tissue skies of Britain, that felt like an offense against nature. Everywhere I went, I felt the same constricting, breathless sensation. The heat was like a prison; I had been sentenced to 100 degrees. Stuck at home all day because of COVID-19 shutdowns, I worked with my feet in a bucket of cold water, in front of a fan turned up to what I nicknamed the “Shakira setting.”

Britain’s homes and office spaces weren’t designed with high temperatures in mind; unlike in the Mediterranean and other hot climates, our buildings aren’t typically made with thick walls and shutters to keep out sunlight. Mechanical air-conditioning is unusual in private homes because we already have air-conditioning. We call it rain. Britain might be a rich, developed country, but that doesn’t make it ready for climate change.

Last summer was the first time I can remember thinking, before catching myself, that I couldn’t wait for Britain’s weather to go back to normal. A body-heat-level summer will always be normal. This is the world that fossil fuels made, a world where “freak” weather is not freakish. In the past year alone, wildfires in Australia affected 3 billion animals; cities in Pakistan and India surpassed 120 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature so hot that the roads started to melt; people died of heatstroke in Portland, Oregon; the London Underground turned into a log flume; the air in Montana was so full of smoke that, according to one resident, you chewed it rather than breathed it; and killer “megafloods” swept away riverside homes in Germany.

Some of the strange weather that people around the world have experienced recently is just that: weather. Natural variations in temperature and moisture. But you can live through only so many “once in a lifetime” rainstorms or heat waves before concluding that they are not once in a lifetime after all. Something is very wrong. Climate change no longer feels like an abstract problem for the future, like an asteroid hitting the Earth or a super-earthquake wiping out the Pacific Northwest. I am scared now. I’ve reached my personal tipping point.

Understanding a problem intellectually is not the same as feeling its presence in your daily life. Like anyone who reads the news, I’ve been aware of climate change for years, during which the subject bobbed in and out of my field of vision. Like many journalists, I wondered how to make a subject so enormous, and so terrifying, connect with busy people living busy lives. The torrent of disaster footage from around the world has answered that question for me.

“Environmentalism” sounded woolly and tree-hugging when I read it or wrote it. “Climate change” sounded antiseptic and bloodless. “Look at that 50-foot wall of fire” might just do the trick. Every time I listen to blowhard TV presenters waffling about the dire “hockey-stick graph,” or oil executives soliciting praise for their company’s pitiful efforts to address the problem, or politicians falsely telling the public that we can keep consuming as much as we do, I will mentally Photoshop their babbling faces in front of the scenes from Greece, Turkey, or California this past weekend. Let’s see how convincing they sound over B-roll of a literal inferno.

The scientific consensus is clear that climate change is real, and it is equally clear that major action is needed to avoid further catastrophe. A new report from the International Panel on Climate Change warns that rising global temperatures are inevitable, that only a major reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions this decade can prevent climate breakdown, and that some changes may already be “irreversible.” I wince when I read reports like that, because of the danger that such news will prompt apathy rather than action. We’re all doomed, so why bother fighting it?

What has given me hope, oddly enough, is the coronavirus pandemic. In less than two years, scientists have created multiple vaccines against a previously unknown disease, and governments have begun to distribute them worldwide. Yes, the vaccine rollout suffers from the same problems that climate policy does; the richest countries attend to their own needs first. (Constant high temperatures are especially dangerous in countries where people have to work outside and can’t afford air-conditioning to cool themselves at night. Floods are made worse by cheap, unprotected housing. Wildfires rage more fiercely where the local population lacks enough fire trucks to tackle them.) But the lesson of the coronavirus is that proximity to disaster can change minds, even among those who feel that living in a rich country can insulate them from harm.

Contrast the vaccine take-up in Australia and Britain. In the former, the rollout has been sluggish. The government closed the borders early and infections have stayed low, and many Australians have therefore been reluctant to take the AstraZeneca vaccine, because of early concerns about a rare clotting reaction. Why not wait for supplies from Pfizer or Moderna? Here in Britain, which has counted more than 150,000 deaths from COVID-19, most people couldn’t get the vaccine—any vaccine—into their arms fast enough. For us, COVID-19 wasn’t a 30-second news report about terrible things happening overseas. It was a 50-foot wall of fire in our own backyard. In the United States, vaccination rates have picked up quickly in the communities currently being ravaged by infections from the Delta variant. As the global climate becomes more obviously chaotic, the public’s self-interest should accelerate what my colleague Robinson Meyer calls the “green vortex”—the process by which institutions and initiatives tackle challenges such as decarbonization even without strong national climate policies. For businesses, the economic benefits of free-riding on the depletion of natural resources will soon be weighed against the cost and inconvenience of having your data center washed away in a flash flood.

Despair about the climate should also be tempered by the advances we have already seen in the past decade. Here in Britain, stories about “freak” weather now routinely mention climate change, stressing the connection between the two. The BBC documentaries by 95-year-old David Attenborough, a national treasure second only to the Queen, no longer merely show sad, skinny polar bears trying to hunt on melting ice; they explicitly discuss why the bears are so sad and skinny. (Attenborough’s recent Netflix documentary is even more powerful, as he points out that when he was born in 1926, the planet was a full degree cooler.) Even avowedly contrarian publications have less tolerance for climate-change deniers, who were once treated as a spicy provocation to liberal sensibilities. The culture war over climate has burned out as the real world has caught on fire.

I can only hope the United States follows this path too. I no longer feel like the dog in the cartoon, insisting that “this is fine.” This isn’t fine. We have messed up quite badly, for some noble reasons, such as lifting people out of poverty, and some less noble ones, such as enriching the shareholders of fossil-fuel companies. But the same ingenuity that got humanity here, the ingenuity that created the internal-combustion engine and the airplane and the power station and the megafarm, is what can save us.

The impulse to procrastinate is understandable. Anyone who has written a book or cleaned out a garage will know the feeling: Simply by beginning such a project, you have committed yourself to an enormous amount of time and labor, so it’s easier not to start at all. That’s where politicians come in. Individual changes are no substitute for political action. Through subsidies and taxes, governments need to make the greenest option also the easiest one to take. Again, the surprise of the pandemic has been the high levels of compliance with shutdowns and mask mandates, despite isolated instances of rebellion making the news. The coronavirus didn’t cause looting. Society didn’t break down. In the face of existential threats, most of us are cooperative, kind, and resilient. Those qualities are what propelled a bunch of apes through an evolutionary journey that led to humans reaching the moon, splitting the atom, and creating RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The first thing to do is let the fear in, without letting it paralyze us. This isn’t fine.

So what do we do next?