One of the reasons it’s so daunting to engage in climate action is the sheer volume of information and opinions. Even the first tentative steps into climate politics require bravery. So why try?
Some of my climate activist colleagues would argue that if you don’t help address climate change, you are sentencing younger generations to an unlivable future. Many would be incredulous that you don’t want to help save the planet — if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. I would argue that ultimatums don’t help.
Everyone can be part of the climate solution without giving up who they are.
Let’s back up a second. A basic understanding of climate change is the first step. All we really need to know is that humanity’s excessive use of fossil fuels beginning in the 18th and escalating dramatically into the late 20th and early 21st century is the key cause of climate change.
Our emissions have accumulated in earth’s atmosphere to a point where it’s holding in the sun’s heat in, like a blanket. Less and less of the sun’s energy is being reflected back into space as it normally does. The end result is global warming, which is causing rapid changes in weather patterns, droughts in some areas, floods in others, increase in the intensity and frequency of hurricanes, typhoons and tornadoes.
But, let’s be clear on what’s at stake. This is not about ‘saving the planet.’ Earth has existed for over four billion years and will continue to exist in some form for billions more. Nor does climate change spell the end of humanity on earth.
Climate change is an existential threat because it will determine the degree to which humans will flourish in the future – the nature of our existence. We’re facing the possibility of another Dark Ages, one in which most of the human population will be living on the edge, barely surviving.
How many of us will be left after portions of earth become uninhabitable, after the death toll of global tensions and armed conflicts in the face of massive global migration?
The quality of humanity’s future dependents on the continued momentum of the climate movement. Most importantly, it depends on our ability to counteract our ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions. We have the means, but our transition to clean energy is still way too slow. Atmospheric CO2 levels are still on the rise.
We need more people to listen, learn and act against fossil fuels and in favor of clean energy. We need to promote, support and invest in wind, solar, geothermal, tidal energy and all the emerging forms of sustainable energy. We need to rally against government policies that continue to subsidize the fossil fuel industry and those that inhibit global green energy grids.
Greta Thunberg said recently, “Politicians are not going to solve the climate.”
I agree with her. I have yet to encounter a single politician at the local, state or federal who claims that addressing climate change is their number one priority. Even proponents of the Green New Deal, like Bernie Sanders, Ed Markey and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have other issues to address. It’s their job.
I’m confident that climate champions like Al Gore, Christiana Figueres, Greta Thunberg, Vanessa Nakate and the millions of climate scientists, activists and local leaders around the globe will continue to inspire new leaders. I’m hopeful that one or more will emerge that will galvanize the climate movement into a global juggernaut.
We need a Martin Luther King, Jr. We need a Gandhi.
Or, we need millions more paying attention to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. In 2022 at COP27 he said, “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.
The momentum is building. In the past five years climate stories aren’t just the occasional catastrophe headline. Serious articles about climate science, clean energy solutions, political initiatives like the Green New Deal, climate strikes, species extinction and rising sea levels are everywhere you look. No serious news outlet – the Associated Press, New York Times, TIME magazine, CNN, Reuters, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, etc. — is without a climate department staffed with journalists reporting exclusively on climate.
But we have yet to surmount people’s latent fear of climate action. I mentioned climate change to old college friend recently – one of those overdue re-connections that happen a lot during the Holidays. I told Sally that I’ve been spending a lot of time working on climate change issues.
“Yeah,” she said, “Climate is always changing, the world is always changing.”
I navigated away from a head-to-head climate debate with her, but I ended the call with a sense that Sally had put a wall up. In college, she was an active feminist and anti-war protestor. She then became a business woman, parlaying her MBA into a moneyed career in the tech business. We had stayed in touch and she did not seem to have lost her moral compass. So, why would she be unwilling to discuss the reality of climate change?
Is it fear, or lack of fear?
Imminent threat results in one of two responses: fight or flight. But we humans don’t seem wired for a sustained response to dangers that are less imminent. In her 2016 book, Michele Wucker coined the term, the gray rhino. The climate crisis is like a charging rhino off in the distance. It’s big. It’s dangerous. And it’s coming straight at you. But the gray merges into the background and the animal’s speed is uncertain. It takes concentration to keep it in focus.
Out of sight, out of mind.
My generation grew up with the threat of nuclear war. In grade school, we were taught to hide under our desks. In college, we marched for peace. When Reagan declared an end to the Cold War, we started families and ploughed into our careers. We learned to ignore the fact that the U.S., Russia and China still maintain enough nuclear weaponry to assure mutual thermonuclear annihilation.
With the threat of climate catastrophe sitting on the horizon, the first salvos of its destructive power already being felt around the globe, many, like Sally, seem to be operating by the same post-Cold War playbook. They are mistaking what was, and is, a strong possibility with something that is inevitable.
Perhaps it’s an inability to process ever-present fear.
FDR said, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” He wanted to head-off wide-spread panic. But I’m certain fear was a constant companion to those living through the Great Depression and WWII. They learned to channel it into action, which is exactly what we need to do.
We should be afraid of people who say there’s nothing to worry about. We should be afraid of reaching 2ºC of global warming. Our fear of political inaction is warranted. But, there’s no reason to be afraid of becoming a climate activist. You can do it your way. You can stay inside your comfort zone or let the urgency of the issue push you outside it.
In her 2020 book, A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety, Sarah Jaquette Ray, makes a strong case for the relationship between, “narrative, emotion, and individual decision-making.”
When we read about climate change, we cannot help but react emotionally. This is not a math equation to be solved. It is life. It is the world changing around us that threatens humanity’s future for generations to come.
Summarizing a chapter about ‘Finding Your Climate Action Thing and Doing it Well,’ Ray suggests a few keys:
- Examine your spheres of influence. This can be as intimate as your circle of friends & family or as outsized and impersonal as social media.
- Resist measuring. Quit asking, ‘what difference did I make?’
- Accept messiness. Don’t expect every move you make to be perfect, some might even be embarrassing. So what?
- Slow down. Stoking your climate work with positive stories and experiences is essential. Cultivate slow hope.
- Know what to say no to. You cannot do it all. Find your focus.
- Value quality over quantity.
My climate action experiences have also be buoyed by finding colleagues I can trust — people like me who want to make a difference and understand the importance of mutual support but who also understand that we can’t all do everything.
My favorite Sarah Jaquette Ray line, “Find ways to engage that honor your true capacities and passions, rather than some standard defined by the IPCC, your family, your best friend, or Leonardo DiCaprio.”
The first step to start thinking of yourself as a climate activist. Or simply channel your love of nature, or your respect for Indigenous wisdom. Once you anchor yourself in it, your heart will follow. You will begin to assess life through a new lens. You will, especially when climate news is bad, feel relieved to know that you’ve become part of the solution.
Sooner or later, everyone will address the climate crisis. Whatever motivates you – fear, hope or common sense – the climate movement could use your help sooner rather than later.
Me – I’ve always believed in being happy. Nothing has ever made me happier than a smart beautiful woman at my side and the feeling that I’m making a difference. She calls me her ‘climate warrior’ though in my eyes, I’m more of a ‘climate worrier.’
Great article, Dave. I really enjoyed it!
Thank you. Your opinion means a great deal to me.
Great article, Dave. I encourage the climate activists I mentor through the Climate Reality Project to accept that climate change is not their problem to solve alone, and to focus their activism on one area related to the climate crisis that makes the best use of their time and talents, be it organizing school strikes, lobbying for local/federal legislation, campaigning for environmental-justice initiatives (like banning extractive industries in low-income neighborhoods), etc. There are so many ways we can get involved, and all efforts great and small make a difference. Activism is optimism.