It’s Not Too Late to Take Action on Climate Change

I ❤ Climate Voices
4 min readFeb 12, 2021
Dr. Heidi Steltzer in the mountains and hillslopes
Photo courtesy of Dr. Heidi Steltzer

I rang in 2021 a little differently than past years, going to Crested Butte, the mountain town in Colorado where I was inspired to study the mountains and began doing research in 1993. Though I know many people there, I didn’t make plans to see friends. But late in the day on December 31, 2020, a neighbor invited my husband and I to a bonfire in the back alley. A few other neighbors would join to socialize safely outside and welcome the new year. I expect I’m not alone this year to find myself part of conversations with new neighbors.

Then, and often, in rural America where I live, work and play, I’m the only scientist who studies the impacts of climate change in the room — or in this case the back alley. Folks tell me their ideas, and many ask questions. Under a clear night sky, surrounded by massive piles of plowed snow, a neighbor asked me “is it too late?”. “It is not too late,” I stated. It wasn’t a moment to talk science, though the question was posed to me because of my expertise on climate change. In stating this, I imparted what is in my heart.

It is not too late to make choices that save lives. Individuals and nations can in 2021 choose renewables for energy and biodegradable materials for products. Funding can be provided to transform industrial agricultural systems to regenerative, like those of Indigenous Peoples around the world. Policy and practices can ensure that by 2030 we protect 30% of the land and seas, so the wealth of life on Earth can be safe and the ecosystem benefits for people sustained.

These actions are important, but there are other actions that are also critical. When I prepared to testify on the climate crisis in January last year, a very different venue for my advice, I thought that my recommendations to U.S. Congress should go beyond what is important to do as our planet warms and ice melts. I asked myself, what can we do individually and as a nation to prepare for whatever may be next?

We can be good neighbors. The U.S. is not the most vulnerable nation to climate change, though we might have expected to fare better in a global pandemic. For these and for many issues, including those of economic disparity and racism, a golden rule of many creeds to treat people as you want to be treated can be our guide, with a provision.

We should not assume our actions are the right ones. Instead, policymakers and each of us should listen closely to the people with whom we share Country and planet, especially those who face greater uncertainty due to wealth, race and gender inequities. We should listen to understand how we can choose to act in ways that honor them, respecting their right to well-being and their humanity.

The pandemic has changed our lives, and revealed strengths and weaknesses of how the U.S. currently faces crisis. I had long thought that the barrier to greater climate action was the lack of immediacy of deaths and damages, that loss of life due to climate change might not be traceable back to the burning of fossil fuels. The pandemic has exposed how wrong I was about this. Hundreds of thousands of deaths in the U.S. as a consequence of a virus have been normalized, and many deny the cause, object to the solutions and are casting blame.

It’s heartbreaking though not surprising. We can and must do better.

What lies before us in 2021, 2050 and 2100 is up to us. The future we want is in our hands and in our hearts. Most importantly, it is in our power, nearly in our grasp.

Watershed moments cannot be forecast. They are only visible in hindsight. They are a turning point in history or in our lives when meaningful, enduring change takes place. There is every reason to see the year for a watershed moment, in hindsight, was 2020.

Dr. Heidi Steltzer has 26 years of experience in environmental research, education and science communication. She has conducted field studies on mountain and Arctic hillslopes in Colorado, and the Arctic to understand how healthy ecosystems provide for human well-being. She is a lead author on High Mountain Areas in a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and in 2020 testified before US Congress on the climate crisis. She is a professor in the Department of Environment and Sustainability at Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado. Find her on social media @heidimountains.

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I ❤ Climate Voices

I Heart Climate Voices is a blog about the people and scientists who stand up for our climate. #StandUpforScience #ClimateJustice