Updated: Sep 14, 2020
By Arian Tomar
Image via Lu Guang, Contact Press Images
Estimates from the World Health Organization suggest that between “2030 and 2050, climate change will cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year.” Over this twenty year period, up to five million people’s lives are at risk due to changes in global climate alone. In conjunction to these five million deaths, the World Bank projects that by 2050, “over 143 million people” will become climate migrants.
Climate change poses one of the greatest threats to human wellbeing, and if the trends are correct, things are only going to get worse. Despite increasingly horrific odds, there may be hope in something as quintessentially human as Coca-Cola: fear. Historically, communities have come together when faced with a common threat. Considering the global scale of climate change, there is an immense opportunity to shed our pride, acknowledge the damage done to the environment, and work across our differences as a world to salvage what remains of our planet.
To understand the complexity of addressing climate change, the psychology of having a common enemy must be addressed first. In a study performed by social psychologists Daniel Sullivan, Mark J. Landau, and Zachary K. Rothschild, it was found that participants felt more control when “attributing more influence to a personal enemy.” By shifting the blame to an enemy, people feel more control over their situation which allows them to simplify the complex reality of the world. An article from Psychology Today examines that when there was a common enemy, people felt that they could “ignore divisions across party lines and unite” to face it. In a study cited by the same Psychology Today article, it was found that a shared negative experience is “particularly effective” in bringing people together. Creating a common enemy serves a number of purposes: it creates a feeling of control, breaks down divisions, and fosters connectedness.
The second World War is an example of the kinds of partnerships that form in the face of a great threat. It’s no secret that the “Big Three” Allies — the United States, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union — had a precarious relationship. Stalin seemed to be acutely aware of the ideological tension which inevitably led to a rooted suspicion of Roosevelt and Churchill. Despite the evident differences amongst the Allied Powers, together they were able to defeat Hitler’s immediate threat against the world. The power of a common enemy is enough to bring diametrically opposed nations together but in the fight against climate change, something extra is necessary to ensure that those connections last longer then after the war’s end. The divisions overcome by the Allies would be the same that broke them up after the common enemy was defeated.
The difference in the divisions of today is that they are crucial in saving or destroying our world. Here in Minnesota, I’ve seen firsthand just how complex modern ideological differences have become. Discussions on racial justice, generational cooperation, the role of the upper class, and science have become intertwined. Pull on one issue and across this interconnected web, five more issues are drawn in. One cannot discuss climate change without acknowledging that impoverished communities will be affected disproportionately. One cannot discuss poverty without acknowledging that historical, systemic oppression plays a significant role in defining class lines.
The fact of the matter is that for far too long, humanity has viewed global issues from a sectional perspective that neglects various relevant intersections. In the United States, it feels that every day sets a new record in terms of being divided. We’re seeing every day that our world is much more connected than many are willing to believe and it is this close minded, sectional perspective that poses the greatest threat to our world. It will be difficult to unite humanity against climate change when so many people have a greater common enemy elsewhere.
To address climate change as a danger to humanity’s way of life, it is imperative to heal and address the other current divisions we are seeing. There are a number of ways to contribute to the lengthy, laborious, worthwhile process of healing. All it takes is one step to begin breaking down these divisive barriers.
Fear and prejudice often stem from a lack of understanding and by engaging with diverse perspectives and taking an interest in learning about those voices, there lies an opportunity to build intersectional connections. Connecting and contextualizing the complexities that certain communities face with a basis in understanding and empathy will be instrumental in creating lasting change for all.
By leading with empathy, by opening spaces for the voiceless, and by listening, we can address the divisions that would destroy humanity. Generation Z has an unprecedented opportunity to really take charge in this respect. By leveraging the technology and resources at our fingertips, access to new ideas is nearly limitless. I would challenge all of Gen Z to do better than previous generations. The fight for equality and climate action is not ours to take on alone, but where previous generations have preferred ignorance over understanding, we can lead with listening and empathy to ensure that we don’t repeat the mistakes that led to the world we inhabit.
Climate change poses one of the greatest threats to human existence. In some ways, this has the potential to be a force that unites all of humanity, but for it to be successful, our generation must be advocates for understanding the divisions that make us human. If we fail to understand the complexities of our communities, we will fail to address climate change. It’s up to us to do better than the generations who have come before. We’re the best chance to save the world but none of that matters, if we aren’t willing to be creative.
Written by writer Arian Tomar