Under a steel-gray sky over rocky terrain, they made their way to the crater. They wore thick coats, woolly hats, warm gloves–the would-be widow’s weeds of a group of grieving Icelanders.
The mourners included Iceland’s Prime Minister and Environment Minister, several prominent scientists, and the former Irish president. Clearly, with so many VIPs in attendance, someone—or something—important had passed away.
Finally, they reached the crater. They eulogized with speeches, poems, and moments of silence. They pulled out a copper plaque and hammered it into a rock, the first headstone of its kind in human history.
“Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier,” it reads. “In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”
The plaque then gives the date, Ágúst 2019, and the then-current concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, 415 parts per million.
Technically, Okjökull (the jökull, or glacier, on the volcano named Ok) has been dead since 2014. That’s when Oddur Siggurdsson, an Icelandic glaciologist, hiked the volcano and realized that the glacier was no longer moving. Its levels of snow and ice were too low to create the pressure necessary to push the frozen mass forward.
The ice was dead, but the glacier would have to wait five years for its funeral.
After Okjökull’s funeral in August, Switzerland has also memorialized a glacier. In September, about 250 black-clad people hiked to Pizol, an alpine mass of snow and ice that’s shrunk more than 80 percent in size since 2006. Like Okjökull, there just isn’t enough left to consider it a glacier anymore, so the hikers declared Pizol dead. They staged another funeral as a man played an alphorn.
On that September day, Matthias Huss, a glaciologist from a Zurich-based university, told reporters that after hiking to Pizol many times, the event was “like the dying of a good friend.”
This association—the link between death and climate change, personal lamentation and planetary loss — is hardly new. In 2016, Outside Magazine published a hauntingly beautiful obituary for the Great Barrier Reef, only to realize later that the reef, though dangerously bleached, hadn’t officially died.
The publication updated the online obituary by replacing the death date with a place-holding ellipsis: “The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in … after a long illness. It was 25 million years old.” The implication? That the reef’s death was only a matter of time.
Today, the Great Barrier Reef is still alive, but for all we know, its remaining days are few.
Of course, climate change has claimed many other victims in recent years. The planet is currently undergoing the most widespread loss of life since the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, and the Center for Biological Diversity estimates that dozens of species go extinct every single day. Even for the species that aren’t going extinct, the usual alternative—population decline—isn’t very promising either. One recent landmark study provides shocking evidence of this, indicating that the number of birds in the United States and Canada has decreased by nearly three billion since 1970.
At the same time, people are dying, too. Thousands of Puerto Ricans lost their lives after Hurricane Maria struck in 2017: some as the hurricane made landfall and others months later, often due to the lack of clean water, electricity, and health care available after the storm. Since then, cyclones, typhoons, and hurricanes have continued to wreak havoc and take lives in places like Mozambique, Japan, and the Bahamas.
Other wild weather has wreaked havoc elsewhere in recent years, from raging wildfires in California to incinerating heatwaves in Europe and desiccating droughts in India. These climate catastrophes have already made their mark, and in the coming years, they’ll just keep killing people, starting with society’s most vulnerable and least protected groups: the homeless, the Indigenous, the elderly, the young, the disabled, the sick.
Climate change is terrifying. It’s disturbing. And it gives us cause after cause for a worldwide wake, whether we’re mourning people, animals, or something else entirely.
As a human race, we carry the weight of climate change on our shoulders. Yet when glaciers recede, coral reefs become skeletal, or people suffer excruciating deaths, many of us can only assume the role of their pallbearers, grief-stricken mourners who can do no more than symbolically carry their caskets. We wish we could bring them back, but it’s too late, so we tweet and protest and beg for political action instead.
Then, in the aftermath of their deaths, we squabble. We disagree over how we should go on—whether it’s more important for individuals and families, or corporations and governments, to change their ways. We argue over meat consumption, carbon offsets, plastic usage. We plead with our leaders to do something drastic, to do it now. They respond that they’re proud of us for standing up for our beliefs, or that we’re crazy for thinking that humans are making the Earth increasingly unlivable.
Maybe our reactions are normal: families fight after deaths, and friends break down after loss. It’s unbelievably painful to watch the climate crisis change the face of our planet, so it’s only natural that more and more people are experiencing climate anxiety as the bad news just keeps coming.
The Earth is 4.5 billion years old—so old that its birthdays shouldn’t mean much anymore, that the planet’s time isn’t nearly as relevant as it used to be. It’s ridiculous to guess at the exact day that the Earth entered into existence, because that’s how humans think, not how the universe works.
But you shouldn’t talk about death without also talking about life, and if mourning the planet’s demise is as exhausting for you as it is for me, it might be time to celebrate the Earth a bit more. We should rejoice in the fact that millions of people are taking to the streets to demand change (with young activists and Indigenous people often leading the way). Let us appreciate the whales and turtles that swim in the depths of our oceans, marvel at the lions and elephants that roam the savannah, and cheer for the forests that are making comebacks and the people that are helping them.
Beginning now, I want to treat Earth Day as the planet’s 4.5-billionth-and-some-odd birthday, then treat every day like Earth Day. I’d like to hold the planet’s hand, tell her that everything is going to be okay, let her lean on me the way that I’ve always leaned on her.
What’s the best way to do that? It seems like everyone who cares has a different idea. Some of them are little more than wishes: many of them are expertly designed plans. Virtually all of them are well-intentioned.
But whatever we do, we need to act fast toward vast, sweeping, and fundamental change. We need to work together to hold the global temperature increase to 3°F above pre-industrial levels. We need to do it because we love the Earth, because we want the best for every living thing that calls this planet home.
The Earth and its people, animals, plants, and ecosystems deserve every chance at life that we can give them, so let’s make the most of those chances while we can. Let’s act now. Let’s limit the number of funerals we need to hold for glaciers, obituaries we need to write for coral reefs, death tolls we need to calculate after catastrophes. It’s a meager gift to offer the planet that has given us life, but it’s also the best way to celebrate a world we love so much that we can barely fathom what would happen if she got even sicker.
Because here’s the most frightening truth of all: as the Earth gets sicker, so will we. I want the planet to outlive me.
How has climate change made you think about travel?
Header photo by Anders Jilden.