Earth and stethoscope

Life makes us wake up to needed changes.

A visit to the doctor’s office and accompanied tests indicate you have been diagnosed as pre-diabetic. Your doctor indicates two pathways to addressing the condition before things get worse. You can change your lifestyle, or you can take medication with possible side effects. If you accept the medical facts and adopt the first recommendation, then you will set a goal.

For example, “I will lose 20 pounds over the next three months and diligently monitor my glucose levels.” You talk with health and wellness experts and come up with a plan to reach those goals. Up to this point you have been in the stages of symptom diagnosis and receiving expert advice. Now, the hard work begins: You actually have to change the way you have been living your life.


You need to eat differently and exercise more, and you need to do these things every day for the rest of your life. You also need to monitor your progress to ensure you are meeting your goals. Initially, you may even question the accuracy of the diagnosis, or your doctor’s conclusion. You may even seek a second opinion. You wonder how long you can wait to change the way you have been living.

Of course, in any life-threatening situation, the answer to the question of “How long can I wait?” is obvious: You can’t, can’t wait. You must make changes in your lifestyle immediately. You must overcome any and all resistances to act.

Doing so, you discover that you lose weight and your glucose levels dramatically decline. You may even obtain a new diagnosis that you are no longer “pre-diabetic.” These are not easy goals to accomplish. Overcoming years of lifestyle behaviors is hard work. You will need encouragement and help from others, but it is possible. The other challenging part of this journey is to stick with the plan even after you have achieved your goals. Complacency will lead you back to the “at risk” category.

Climate prescription: ’12 years left’ to cut emissions

We find ourselves in a similar, but even more challenging, situation, regarding climate change. Over the past eight months, since an October report from leading global scientists, we hear repeated warnings that we have “12 years left” to address climate change. Specifically, we have 12 years left to significantly reduce global carbon emissions if we are to have more than a 50 percent chance of keeping global warming below 1.5°C (about 2.7°F).

Over the past few months the warnings have become more dire, indicating that we will exceed 1.5°C much earlier than thought and that even a 2°C target will be challenging to meet. Although the difference between 1.5° and 2.0° may not sound important, in terms of global warming, it is quite significant. It is the difference between moderate to very high risk of heatwave deaths, agricultural collapse, and extreme weather damages. A very recent study indicates that when one considers national emissions rather than global emissions, the U.S. will be unable to meet the Paris accords goal by 2100. Couple these projections with observed accelerating changes in the cryosphere, and extreme weather events, ocean warming, melting permafrost … and things are quite dire.

‘Time for a new clinical diagnosis: global climate anxiety disorder’

My clinical colleagues report more people are coming to them with what can be best described as severe climate change anxiety and distress. They suffer from symptoms of severe anxiety in response to learning about climate change and reading or listening to online stories about it.

Perhaps it is time for a new clinical diagnosis: global climate anxiety disorder (GCAD). But let’s not pathologize what some people are feeling, as we should all be disturbed by what is happening to the climate system. We should fear for the future of our children and grandchildren.

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And rather than reaching a point that precludes our acting, we must resolve to do all that is possible to reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, personally and collectively.

We have a fact-based diagnosis. We have expert advice on what we need to do to avoid the worst consequences of elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide. And as with the safe levels of glucose for a healthy body, we know the safe levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide for a healthy planet. As with a physician’s advice to a pre-diabetic, experts have even provided pathways to reach these levels.

The patient asks the doctor:

  • How much time do I have to deal with this problem?
  • How long can I wait before I make the recommended changes in lifestyle?
  • Do I really have to reduce my carbohydrates?
  • Can’t I live reasonably well with higher glucose levels?

We ask similar questions concerning climate change. The well-publicized statements that we have “12 years left” before we miss the target of holding global temperatures below 1.5° (or 25 years left to limit warming to 2.0°C) can be interpreted as a plan of waiting and then acting. The truth of the matter is we need to act now. Adding another 0.5°C warming to the present 1.0°C comes with significant disruption to planetary and human health. Adding an additional 0.5° to 1.5°C pushes symptoms like heatwave deaths, displacement of millions driven away from populated coastlines by sea-level rise, and high risks to agricultural productivity into the extreme danger range.

Giving up unhealthy lifestyles leads to ‘personal wellness’

And as with our personal health situation, we (and our planet) move from a condition of pre-diabetes to untreated diabetes … with all of its deadly health consequences.

It really comes down to how willing we are as individuals and societies to change our lifestyle. Interestingly, when you ask people how they feel after reducing their carbs, losing that weight and increasing their daily exercise leads them to appreciate how much better they feel. They have more energy, feel better about themselves, and enjoy life more. The seeming “sacrifice of giving up” has turned into improved personal wellness.

It is quite likely we will discover similar improvements to our wellness once we resolve to live a low-carbon lifestyle. Indeed, people who have made this transition already express such experiences.

We need to support one another in making the required changes to limit global warming. We need to convey the benefits of giving up our old unhealthy lifestyles to create a healthy environment for all of us.

Jeffrey Kiehl, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the Department of Earth & Planetary Science, and an adjunct faculty member of Pacifica Graduate Institute,...