Seeing Double: Seizing the Silver Lining

Seeing Double columnist Thomas Brodey ’22 spotlights the potential positive byproducts of climate change and argues that it is necessary to shift our perspectives, adjusting to the changing realities of our lives.

The global effort to stop climate change is not going well. Despite numerous international agreements, global CO2 emissions continue to rise. Already, wildfires ravage our forests and hurricanes pummel the coastline. Scientists predict disappearing ice caps, rising sea levels and temperature increases of three to five degrees Fahrenheit within the next few decades.

Given all the dire news, preventative measures like reducing carbon emissions are no longer sufficient. Many governments have begun the task of adapting to the inevitable effects of climate change. We will need seawalls, disaster relief and other measures if we are to deal with the changing world in which we already live.

With all this talk about mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change, commentators and leaders tend to miss one point: not all of the effects of climate change will be bad. Any event as universal and significant as climate change will inevitably bring positive effects, even if the net outcome is overwhelmingly negative. If we are to cope with the challenges brought on by climate change, we must anticipate the positive changes as well as the negative.

Take the state of Massachusetts. Over the last sixty years, millions of Americans have moved to the warm climate of the sun belt, largely at the expense of cold regions like Massachusetts. As temperatures rise and the sun belt scorches, Massachusetts will become a far more appealing location, and will attract businesses and people. If we anticipate these new arrivals by building new houses, easing relocation rules and improving our infrastructure, Massachusetts can smooth the transition, and even benefit from the influx of arrivals.

Similarly, we should start expanding agriculture in the northern United States. Climatologists predict that climate change will benefit agriculture in colder regions by expanding the range of certain crops, and lengthening the growing season. Higher CO2 levels are also having a positive effect on plant growth. Climate change as a whole will likely be bad for global agriculture, but that makes it all the more important that we tap into the new opportunities it offers.

Preparing for the positive byproducts of climate change even involves adjusting medical priorities. In the United States, about 10 percent more people die each day in the winter compared with the summer, largely because conditions like influenza and heart disease kill far more people in the cold months than in the warm. With global warming, it is likely that we will see fewer cases. Doctors should start shifting training and equipment to deal with less influenza and more summer-related afflictions like malaria.

Other potential benefits include the opening of sea routes through the arctic and a reduction in overall energy use, since home heating uses four times as much energy as air conditioning. All of these changes have the potential to dramatically improve the way we live our lives, but only if we adequately prepare to utilize them.

All of this is not to say that preventative measures aren’t also important– they are vital. But if past experience is anything to judge by, we will have to wait decades before even the most ambitious preventative efforts can curb climate change itself.

Climate change activists have understandably downplayed or ignored the positive effects of climate change. Why focus on small positives when the negatives are so much greater? When the BBC listed several positive effects of climate change on its website, it faced a firestorm of criticism. Yet it is entirely possible to argue that climate change is an enormous danger while also acknowledging its potential positives. In fact, the severity of climate change makes tapping into its positives all the more important: we need all the advantages we can get.

Amherst College is one of the many institutions to lack a realistic approach to climate change. While our Climate Action Plan includes the commendable goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2030, it does not provide any guidance for how to cope with the inevitable effects of climate change as they arrive. The fact that not all dorms have air conditioning is one obvious problem, as is the fact that climate change will reshape the Book and Plow Farm. Amherst can also anticipate the good side of climate change, by preparing for more applicants and adjusting its farming practices to take advantage of the longer growing season.

Acknowledging the positive effects of climate change will have other advantages. Right now, many Americans are unwilling to take action on climate change because they see action as wasteful and destructive. In one speech, former President Donald Trump described the Paris Accord as a “self-inflicted major economic wound.” So long as activists advocate for purely preventative action, their proposals seem unappealing. After all, in the best-case scenario, most preventative measures only maintain the status quo.

If activists also acknowledge the ways particular areas and groups might benefit from climate change, self interest might motivate people to take more active measures to anticipate climate change. Positive messages are far more inspirational than negative ones.

The pandemic has taught the world that sometimes, it’s not just enough to prevent disaster — you also have to make the most of it when it occurs. No one would have ever chosen to take classes remotely, but many students have done their best to capitalize on it by helping their local communities, traveling or starting new hobbies.

We all try to make the best of imperfect circumstances. Amid all the doom and gloom about climate change, it’s important to remember that no change is entirely bad and disregarding the silver lining makes the whole world darker.