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Climate Nihilism is a privilege young Americans can’t afford

Climate Nihilism is a privilege young Americans can’t afford

November is the month of kindness, but its message may fall flat this year. A stressful climate future and a realization that things will get even worse have driven many young people to climate nihilism. In its simplest form, climate nihilism is an acceptance of the catastrophic future state of the world—and the belief that climate action is futile and meaningless. This acceptance manifests into inaction, creating further climate problems.

Similar to climate nihilism, climate dread is an overwhelming stress about our climate future that is growing among young adults. For frontline minority and low-income communities across America, the climate crisis has become an issue of life or death, and climate inaction is not a choice. They do not have the luxury of climate nihilism—and neither, for that matter, should climate nihilists. If we can get climate nihilists to shift to climate action, we can prevent further climate inaction and potentially save millions of lives.

Nihilism thrives when individuals view the dangers of the climate crisis through a personal lens—what does it mean to me, and what difference I can make. From this perspective, the climate crisis feels daunting, and it is ironic given the climate privileges certain nihilists possess. As a philosophical tradition with strong European roots, nihilism has connections to the despair felt by white people when their perceived reality has shifted. Like the civil rights movement before it, nihilism has grown as white guilt has resulted in white self-loathing and apathy toward progress.

As a group, white people have the most protection from the worst impacts of climate change, as historically, fewer climate financial resources have gone to communities of color. Under climate nihilism, guilt over having climate privileges can hide behind philosophy and result in an overwhelmingly white climate anxiety issue. Privilege is protection, and climate nihilism exists as an excuse for climate crisis compliance.

Unfortunately, nihilism is growing as its European roots have seeped into society. For younger and privileged multicultural climate nihilists, the reality that global and domestic populations do not have the luxury of climate apathy should be a wake-up call that something is wrong. Climate nihilism is a function of climate privilege and should become the norm for younger generations as the climate crisis becomes increasingly unequal.  

We can see the privilege in climate nihilism most clearly when we grasp how the inaction that is a hallmark of climate nihilism affects diverse American communities. Because climate harm is being experienced most strongly along racial and class lines, the climate crisis is a continuation of all previous existential threats. Brown, Black, and Indigenous communities are most vulnerable to the climate crisis, and younger members of these communities are the most worried. Accepting the premise that future climate action is futile when historically excluded communities can still have positive impacts does more harm than good.

Younger Americans’ climate despair is understandable; they will feel the crisis across their lifespans. But understanding that they also have a say in what those next 50 years look like is more important than being nihilistic about the future. Hope exists today because younger Americans are the most active on climate crisis matters. We have seen, for example, young environmentalists successfully sue the state of Montana over climate inaction.

Climate nihilism does not allow for climate progress. We can still mitigate the worst climate realities from occurring as long as we stay vigilant and act. Doing something versus nothing can mean the difference between 40 million people being displaced by rising sea levels and 400 million. Practicing vigilance for those in compromised climate situations can create climate benefits for everyone going forward.

Like many –isms, climate nihilism is rooted in fear. We must be courageous to fight the climate crisis. Yes, people will die because of rising seas, raging fires, pollution, drought, and more in the coming years. However, we can still dramatically reduce the projections of how many people will perish. Reframing the climate crisis from an all-or-nothing proposition to saving as many lives as possible is not defeatist. On the contrary, it creates a sense of achievable purpose.

The climate crisis has arrived, and communities are suffering right now. Already, 40 percent of Americans are feeling the effects of the climate crisis. Sitting on the sidelines is no better than outright denying that climate change is happening.

Climate nihilism and climate dread are not the only paths. There is also climate action. Achieving climate progress will require the effort of all of us, even the most privileged. As a young American, I can understand why someone is a climate nihilist, but I cannot empathize. As climate nihilism grows, the potential for saving lives declines.

The climate crisis is terrifying, but fighting against it is our only option.

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