We Are Failing the Future on Climate Change
Social work has failed to meaningfully engage climate change. I would love to say we dropped the ball on climate change, but that would suggest we had picked the ball up to begin with. We haven’t. I am currently working on the beginning of my dissertation in climate change and its impact on forced displacement in our own country and I can’t tell you how many times colleagues in the field ask me “what does social work have to do with climate change?”. I used to list off several reasons in response, but now my response is much more succinct: I would like to know one reason why social work does not relate to climate change. I can’t find an end to all the reasons social works matters, but I have not found one single, valid reason that it does not.
This Futures Lab has brought me into a new world of thinking and language, engaging game theory and data visualizations as a method to excite audiences with climate data. To show them what it looks like when children don’t have access to clean freshwater and how susceptible they are to disease if their water sources flood. Or if there’s no water because the ice melt is gone, and it won’t snow. Then there’s drought, where farmers lose all their income and way of life due to catastrophic crop failure. That then hits food supply systems and those who relied upon food staples can’t get them, pushing another area into instability and social conflict as residents go hungry and mad their government didn’t respond. Then there’s the raging wildfires, catastrophic loss of life, and air pollution causing respiratory illness hundreds of miles away. That’s just California. I haven’t even started on any other state, like Appalachian region enteric disease outbreaks due to compromised water sources. Or being evicted from your family’s multigenerational home in Little Havana, Miami because property taxes in your historically lower-income neighborhood skyrocketed because rich people’s condos are going under water at the shoreline and now your ground is valued more, and they come in to gentrify. Call it green, make homes that are way too expensive for most people to afford, have everyone applaud your solar panels and leave the poor people to drown, I guess. Who cares, right? Did you see my reverse osmosis self-contained water filtration system run off the tears of those who used to live here? Zero waste. Progressive. Nailed it.
One useful skill I learned in this lab was the power of visualization exercises. So, let’s do one quick. Imagine waking up one morning to sounds of screams, you look outside, and the sky is hazy, and everything feels hot. You hear cars desperately flying down the street to get down the mountain, but it’s gridlocked because no one planned for this. No one imagined this could happen one day. You get a text on your phone-it’s the only emergency warning you will receive. There’s a raging wildfire headed right to you and if you don’t get out now, you won’t make it. You smell the smoke the same time you get your text. Do you have a car? It’s gridlocked-can you get out? Let’s say you make it, but everything you own was destroyed. No emergency services came. No social workers. You land in a Walmart parking lot with the rest of your survived, traumatized community and build a temporary tent city. No one comes. Then a flu outbreak. No one comes. Then secondary flood, due to climate change, moves you again. You are now one of 20,000 people without a home, without help, and without healing. That happened to Paradise, California in 2018. One fire. Did you know about that Walmart camp? Be honest.
The U.S. is just as susceptible to climate change catastrophes as any other country, including forced displacement and disease spread. In addition to vulnerability, we are the second largest emitter of carbon on Earth. The entire rest of the planet could do everything they need to lower carbon emissions, China included, and it won’t be enough if we don’t. We take that big of a bite. Yet, we keep kicking the responsibility for “green energy” and sustainable infrastructure to poorer, smaller countries that emit less carbon and feel the impacts of our carbon greed first.
I am so tired of seeing another climate summit. They don’t work. Please stop. It’s optics, it’s a good feeling and false anxiety relief-that our leaders really do care, and they really are working to make it right. They aren’t. And neither are we. Social work has really lost sight of its activism and policy advocacy, but it can change. We have been siloed into academic research arms, formal departments, and clinical milieus that get increasingly more specific. All that work is valid and noble, but it can’t come at the expense of systems change. We really don’t have any time left to talk about talking about climate change. And then talk about what we may talk about to talk about doing something about it. Just do it already. It’s not lack of resources or knowledge, it’s because at the end of the day it means we must give up crap that we like that makes our lives comfortable. We all like green energy until someone says maybe eat the bean burger not the beef. Like regularly, not that one time in front of people at a luncheon. Like you eat it when no one is looking.
We have data, amazing data. We can visualize it. We have virtual reality labs in places like Stanford making simulations of cutting down old growth trees to help reduce single use paper products. We know what policies work when funded. We know what people need. We know what is hurting people. We are sending billionaires to space on the weekend with Star Trek actors. Why do we keep acting like we don’t know what to do about climate change? Reusable water bottles and straws are great, but they’ve become more fashion and status. Be honest. It’s shameful to use single use plastics in a lot of academic spaces now, we know better. I’m so glad we have Nalgene bottles but who cares when we keep cranking out papers or workshops or conferences that are just another reusable tote bag of self-congratulatory crap. We talked about a paper I wrote. It didn’t change the world. It made me money. It gave me a career. Cool.
I cringe at the sentence coming next but I’m keeping it brutally honest. I have spent countless hours in my doctoral studies examining increasingly complex theoretical models, statistical designs, and complicated data animation software. I kept trying to find a better, newer way to combat climate, advocate for those who are dying, and get my field to move on this issue. But it was David Attenborough’s response to the big question of how to solve climate change that stuck with me. “Let the Earth be wild”. Biodiversity. The earth does its own thing, we just allow it to be. We quit digging massive holes into it to pull out liquified dinosaur bones to light a controlled combustion inside a transportation device that could RUN ON SOLAR POWER INSTEAD OR VEGETABLE OIL FROM RESTAURANTS. Quit building rockets, it’s not rocket science. It’s compassion. That’s what we need. We got people trying to colonize Mars so we can keep digging up liquid dinosaurs. You built a rocket for that? That’s so stupid. Mars looks like a bummer man, I’m not going. We have the coolest planet we have found in the universe, and you would just rather dig holes and light it on fire, than not? What is going on?
If you have compassion towards another human, animal, or plant-you value their existence. You believe their right to exist is just a right as your own. If you hold that in your mind, knowing that over consumption denies that right, you may consume less. It’s not a new gadget, a new diet (but for real cut back on animal byproducts until we get this under control), or a new technology. The future I envision is one where we get out of those silos. Because climate change is not going to be solved by climate researchers. It’s going to come from all of us recognizing how interconnected we are and that the oppression of one group is directly tied to the oppression of another. We know this. If climate change is the existential threat to us all, we must all be impacted. Don’t tell me again you don’t understand how or why social work relates to climate change. We don’t make the connection because we lost our way. We forgot the advocacy, the activism, the policy shift, the systems change. Admittedly, this may not be the best statement to put out in my early career, but it is honest. I am committed to building a better future, but right now I’m worried if the future is even a thing. I am just so very tired of listening to one more metal straw clink in another reusable bottle.
Be creative, be bold, but keep it simple. Demand government fund food assistance programs that ensure sustainable agriculture. Keep narratives of immigration on the political forces, rather than blame those fleeing floods and brutal deaths as a plague itself. We don’t need another coalition-we have one. It’s our damn field! There are thousands of us all working on different social issues, identities, populations that are all going to be hit by climate change because we all already are. What do your people need? It’s simple. I am done with the narrative of it’s too hard. That’s a lie. The will to do it wasn’t there. It really is simple to just cut back on eating beef. It really is simple to not buy that extra half off item. It really is that simple to ensure that residents in your community are cared for, have access to transportation, and build a working emergency warning system that doesn’t rely on a single text.
I’m not sure what others feel, but from where I sit-that’s a great opportunity for social work. If you really can’t see why social work directly relates to climate change, it’s not because you don’t understand climate change. You don’t understand social work.
Written by Anderson Al Wazni