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There Will Never Be a Perfect Moment to Act on Climate Change

Greece’s wildfires are a reminder that the failure to act is first a failure of imagination.

People stand in front of a raging wildfire.
Volunteers gather in an open field and wait to support firefighters during a wildfire next to the village of Kamatriades on the Greek island of Evia on August 9, 2021.

Ash is settling across the Mediterranean, where wildfires have raged for the better part of August. As extreme heat scorched Europe, the mercury in some regions of Greece soared past 115 degrees—the country’s worst heat wave since 1987. Hundreds of fires broke out across the coastal nation, accelerated by strong winds and drought. Volunteers and authorities scrambled to fight the fires, evacuate locals, and protect heritage sites, amid flames estimated to have consumed up to 10 percent of Greece’s forests.

One photo, of an older woman standing in front of the flames, clutching her chest, her eyes closed and mouth open in what looks like grief, circled the globe. On the heels of yet another apocalyptic United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the image “personified collective fear,” Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott wrote. “What she is suffering, we will suffer; what she has lost, we will lose.” Or as one resident of northern Evia island, one of the areas hardest hit, told The New York Times: “We lived in paradise. Now it’s hell.”

It’s an understandable sentiment, but one that obscures a more complicated truth that might better serve this pivotal moment: Earth is neither heaven nor hell; it’s an ever-shifting middle ground and always has been. While many people are still looking for the ideal emotional or material conditions to take action, most of our biggest challenges will have no discernible start or stop, and they are always evolving. As such, they must be addressed in motion.

Nowhere is that more evident than Greece, which has experienced continuous climate change throughout its history. In one particularly profound cooling period from 1,200 to 800 BCE, the temperature in parts of the region dipped between three and five degrees Celsius “in the span of a century,” Ruben Post, a senior research fellow in the school of classics at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told me. Rainfall declined, prompting drought, food shortages, and perhaps even societal collapse. While Mediterranean humanity ultimately recovered to become the so-called cradle of Western civilization, local environmental challenges persisted well into the Classical and Hellenistic periods, and even into the Roman era. For example, many of these idealized ancient communities struggled with deforestation and consequent soil erosion. The environment we think of as classically Greek, which the fires are now destroying, is itself an environment radically different from that of the Neolithic period or across multiple Little Ice Ages.

The climate crisis today differs from anything experienced in human history. It’s a global, perhaps even existential, threat, not a local one. And unlike ancient Greeks, we know we’re causing the problem—and how to stop it. But studying the complicated relationships between humans and their environments across time challenges our commonly held beliefs about the contemporary crises and their possible solutions—in ways, Post said, that may “open up your political imagination.”

Back in May, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis promised his fellow citizens they would find “great opportunity” in the climate crisis. In August, he again used the term, saying the wildfires provided an “opportunity for consensus.” It’s a common trope from politicians post-disaster: Now, they say, we have the opportunity to “build back better.” From the ashes, we have been trained to expect a phoenix.

Management science calls this the fresh-start effect: People change their behavior—or attempt to—on a birthday or at the start of a new year, because these “mental accounting periods” help to “relegate past imperfections to a previous period, induce people to take a big-picture view of their lives, and thus motivate aspirational behaviors,” according to one 2013 study.

The broader impulse to see a blank slate as a prerequisite for action pervades numerous disciplines. In architecture and urban planning, legendary figures like Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who redesigned Paris in the 1850s, and Le Corbusier, who wanted to recraft Addis Ababa as part of a fascist project for Mussolini over 80 years later, premised their plans on the demolition of entire communities. This destructive outlook has been nurtured by the logic of disaster capitalism, which seeks to exploit the vulnerabilities of others in order to extract profit. Politicians often play along as a way of attracting new “opportunity” to a community down on its luck. In reality, change is always possible before a hurricane hits or a wildfire tears through town—and it doesn’t require bulldozing existing neighborhoods or laying off half of a company’s employees.

The fresh-start effect is often portrayed as a life hack: Researchers suggest we can harness it to motivate ourselves to reach for our goals again tomorrow. That may make sense with personal ambition, including work-related projects or exercise plans. But with issues as big as climate change, it often feels as though the lust for a fresh start works against us: If we are the virus,” and always have been—as a questionable line of environmental rhetoric claimed in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic—how could we ever fix this?

With the slate muddied by roughly two million years of human history, many people now turn to hope for a better, perhaps even more pristine, future. While shame, despair, and rage are all reasonable responses to the challenges we face, many scientists insist that optimism is mandatory if we are to address the climate crisis. Some research suggests that journalists would be well advised to focus on opportunities for climate action, but the interpretation often seems to be that writers should more actively manage their readersfeelings: “Americans get overwhelmed by too much negative information,” former EPA director Gina McCarthy wrote in Nieman Reports, a journalism trade publication, in 2019. “Scary climate scenarios cause apathy.” When reporters lay out the worst cases anyway, they’re labeled doomists.”

But hope can be overemphasized, whether in the context of climate change or any other contemporary issue. Perhaps hope’s most vocal critic has been writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who spent much of the last decade pointing out that hope might not be enough in the face of entrenched white supremacy and institutionalized racism. “I have to be open to things falling apart,” Coates wrote in 2015. “Indeed, much of our history is the story of things just not working out.” Yet he has remained committed to imagining a new country—and working to realize it.

That’s instructive for the climate fight: “We don’t need to have hope to begin to act,” Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and the author of Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, recently wrote. “Instead, action engenders hope.” For in truth, there are no ideal conditions for change, no qualifications for action. While unnatural disasters are wiping out communities left and right, waiting for them to do so—so that we can start fresh—won’t make our problems any easier. As Greece’s environmental history so clearly shows, the world has been ending since it began. What matters is that today is still up for grabs.