I’ve long admired Rebecca Solnit’s writing, and today I want to share some excerpts from her essay in The Guardian, “Climate change, Covid–our hearts ache. But a new era is possible. We can do it,” to inspire you. If you want more, you can read the full article here.
As a human and a climate advocate, I feel like I’m holding my breath. Climate chaos is here. Our chance of preserving a climate compatible with thriving human societies depends on electing climate champions in November and compelling them to enact transformative climate policies immediately. We may already be too late. The question Solnit addresses is, with compounding crises causing so much suffering, how do we keep hope alive and act on it?
She acknowledges that in this moment, it is tempting to give up: “The last four years have been a long, rough road for people who care about the fate of the earth and the rights of ordinary people, and I understand the temptation to feel that what is wrong now will be wrong forever, to feel that it is too much to face and more than we can change.”
But, Solnit says, “anguish and hope–hope as ferocious will to continue, and not trust the odds but to change them–can coexist.”
At this crucial moment for humanity, Solnit makes the case for hope along with anguish, and for acting on that hope; “In the US we are facing a crucial election. As humanity, we are facing even a larger one: to respond to the climate crisis by choosing the best-case scenario rather than letting the worst unfold.”
As I’ve written about here and here, we are rapidly developing viable and affordable policy and technology pathways to move us toward the best-case scenario. These pathways are becoming more attainable all the time. For example, Solnit notes that the left is converging around a set of climate policies originally associated with the Green New Deal, and these policies are gaining wide acceptance:
“In the USA, the Green New Deal is among the ideas that were only recently regarded as almost outrageously radical – ie a disruption of the status quo – that are now widely accepted by politicians and the public as necessary. ‘The climate plan is a jobs plan,’ Biden’s spokesperson told the Guardian. Julian Noisecat wrote that Biden has accepted the Green New Deal in all but name.”
Other viable and effective climate policies are gaining momentum as well. We now know that taking climate action will have a host of other benefits. Solnit quotes Senator and climate champion Brian Schatz (HI) about the benefits of bold climate action:
“Responding could bring about a more just society, Hawaii senator Brian Schatz recently tweeted: ‘Too much of the climate movement of the past was about what climate change is doing to us, and not about what climate action will do for us. Taking action does not require austerity and scarcity. Done well, it will result in more wealth, more fairness, and better jobs. We already have many of the technologies needed to avert catastrophe. We just need the American optimism and the political will to deploy them on an unprecedented scale. What we are describing is a future with an improved quality of life, more fairness, and better products. If we do this right, the people and communities that have been treated unfairly, exposed to chronic pollution, and left out of progress in the past stand to gain the most.’”
The heart of Solnit’s message is this: at this most critical moment, whatever pain you are in, choose hope too. Do all you can to elect climate champions, then do all you can to get them to act on climate. Hope is not optimism. Hope is a commitment to the future, and must be manifest in action. Hope matters most when it’s hardest and when the stakes are the highest. This is our moment.
With catastrophic fires again raging in California and hurricane Laura devastating the Gulf Coast, the urgency of the climate crisis is painfully clear. You may wonder if it’s too late to do anything meaningful to avert climate chaos. A new analysis finds we can still eliminate 70-80% of US carbon emissions by 2035 with existing technologies and tools, getting this country on a 1.5° C pathway while creating millions of jobs and lowering energy costs. And this isn’t some fly-by-night study: it was done by MacArthur Genius grant recipient Saul Griffith and colleagues, after analyzing all the available data on how energy is used in the US.
This new report, available from “Rewiring America,” shows how the US can quickly and fully decarbonize our economy with proven technologies and existing resources. David Roberts, writing about the report in Vox, describes it’s findings as “oddly optimistic.” Here are the major bombshells, as summarized by Roberts:
“In a nutshell, (the analysis shows) that it’s possible to eliminate 70 percent to 80 percent of US carbon emissions by 2035 through rapid deployment of existing electrification technologies, with little-to-no carbon capture and sequestration. Doing so would slash US energy demand by about half, save consumers money, and keep the country on a 1.5° pathway without requiring particular behavior changes. Everyone could still have their same cars and houses–they would just need to be electric.”
How is this possible? First, burning fossil fuels for energy is incredibly wasteful. Electric motors are much more efficient at converting energy into useful work. So much more efficient, in fact, that electrifying everything would cut US energy demand in half, according to Rewiring America’s report. Second, our clean energy technologies have advanced to the point where we can use them to get most of the way to full decarbonization. The five key existing and well-proven technologies we need, according to Griffith’s work, are wind and solar power plants, rooftop solar, electric vehicles, heat pumps, and batteries.
Of course, in order to get on this 1.5° C pathway, we have to commit, and mobilize on a scale we haven’t done since World War II. Such a mobilization would ramp up clean energy and electrification as fast as possible. Within 3 to 5 years, we need to increase our electricity grid three to four fold, our EV production four fold, our wind turbines 12 fold, and our solar modules 12 fold. Then, after this initial period of mobilization, every time a diesel or gas car gets replaced, it has to be with an EV. Every time an oil or gas furnace goes out, it is replaced with a heat pump, and so on. Talk about a green recovery jobs program!
Two other gems I want to mention from this report: First, the benefits of following this plan are extraordinary even without the potential to protect a climate compatible with human societies thriving. Clean air, good jobs, cheaper energy, quieter roads and cities, and on and on. Second, this analysis doesn’t rely on, or even consider, the carbon emissions that are possible with traditional efficiency measures such as insulating buildings, double-glazing windows, driving less, or downsizing homes. Adding any of these would only increase our chances of decarbonizing in time to do our part to get on a 1.5° C pathway and protect a livable climate.
If you want to dig deeper into this, you can download the full report here. What this compelling study shows is that it’s still within our capabilities to tackle the climate crisis while creating a green recovery from the economic devastation of the pandemic. If you needed any more motivation to help elect climate champions this November, maybe this will be it.
In just six weeks, we’ve seen three major climate proposals indicating that the factions of the Democratic Party are aligning on climate policy after a decade of disarray and disagreement. This policy platform on climate shows how much interest groups and politicians agree on and lays critical groundwork for enacting a transformative green recovery and a just transition to a clean energy future. It illuminates a path to finally passing big, bold climate policy solutions at the national level.
If you aren’t someone who spends time in the weeds of climate change news, you may have no idea what I’m talking about. With the pandemic raging, the economy destabilizing, and a rational racial justice/policing crisis, unification of the left on climate policy hardly made headlines. Yet if you are hoping that after the next election we will enact a green recovery and a just transition to a clean energy future, take a moment to celebrate, because such action just got a lot more likely.
Here’s a quick summary: On June 30th, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis issued its report . This included a detailed Climate Crisis Action Plan put together by House Democrats. On July 8, the Biden-Sanders unity task force on climate (chaired by John Kerry and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) issued its policy recommendations. Finally, on July 14, Joe Biden released his Build Back Better proposal on climate, a $2 trillion proposal for clean energy investments, economic stimulus, and a transition to net-zero emissions by 2050.
Here’s how journalist David Roberts summarized this in Vox: “For the first time in memory, there’s a broad alignment forming around a climate policy platform that is both ambitious enough to address the problem and politically potent enough to unite all the left’s various interest groups.”
These plans have a lot in common: they all set standards for net-zero emissions by 2050 (or sooner), they all focus on climate justice, and they all include large-scale public investment.
- Setting standards: Two-thirds of US emissions come from sectors where clean alternatives are already available–cars, electricity, and buildings. Details vary, but the plans agree on a common core of strong performance standards and incentives for these big three emitters to make rapid progress on emissions in the next ten years. Doing so can get us a long way toward meeting the 2030 emissions reduction goals the IPCC says are critical to prevent the worst, most catastrophic climate change impacts.
- Climate justice: Unions, fossil fuel workers, and frontline communities helped develop these plans. They include polices such as coal worker transition programs, equity mapping to identify vulnerable communities and send public investment there first, and incentives that favor union workers for clean energy jobs.
- Large public investment: Support for green industries, manufacturing, research, and job creation is in these proposals, as are a number of ideas for combining recovery from the COVID-10 economic crisis with transformative climate solutions.
Pre-pandemic, when I used to give in-person talks about climate solutions, I sometimes ended with this quote attributed to Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it is done.” This summer, the left’s new unity on climate policy makes transformative climate progress seep a little less impossible.
If you are interested in more details about these plans, see links below.
Carlie Clarcq, “Biden’s clean energy plan proposes economic recovery through green investments,” Climate Change, July 23, 2020.
David Roberts, “At last, a climate policy platform that can unite the left,” Vox, July 9, 2020.
I bet you could use some good news today. I’ve been following three climate progress stories this month that illustrate movement toward a safer climate and a better world. Below are quick summaries of each of them with links you can use to learn more. I hope these stories encourage and inspire you!
One: The fossil fuel sector is increasingly losing its social license to operate. This month, the Vatican urged the 1.2 billion Catholics on earth to divest from fossil fuel investments. This is the latest in a string of increasingly big wins for the fossil fuel divestment movement. Since January, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, and others have pledged to stop investing in the dirtiest fossil fuels. Many faith groups, universities and pension funds have declared that it is unethical (and unwise) to invest in the destruction of the earth’s climate. If the financial sector stops financing fossil fuel extraction refining and transport, the chances of preventing a runaway climate catastrophe increase.
Two: More businesses with deep pockets and vast resources are announcing plans and beginning to act to decarbonize their energy systems and contribute to climate solutions. This month Lyft committed to transitioning to 100% EVs (electric vehicles) by 2030. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the U.S., as well as a huge contributor to local air pollution. Lyft’s commitment will help reduce these impacts, and it will also increase trust in EVs, which is a critical step for widespread adoption. Ford Motors announced plans for carbon neutrality by 2050, which will require a huge commitment to EVs and other climate-friendly changes. Other companies that have recently upped their commitments to climate action include Unilever, (one of the biggest consumer goods companies in the world), Amazon, Microsoft, and Ikea.
Three: Renewable energy is taking over the U.S. electricity grid, even without help from the federal government. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated this trend, and a grid that’s powered by clean energy is rapidly becoming both technically feasible and economically competitive. A new study shows that falling costs combined with breakthroughs in storage have made it feasible to get to 90% renewable electricity in the U.S. in just 15 years while lowering costs. This level of technological progress and economic viability for renewables was unimaginable ten or even five years ago, but today, we have the ability to quickly transition our electrical grid to renewables affordably.
Working from home, I look out my window at the altered world. No cars pass for long stretches but walkers are always about, and I hear bird songs I’ve never noticed before. I drive so rarely that I haven’t charged my electric car since mid-March. Of all the changes (many of them painful) brought by the pandemic, road traffic decline might be the one I like most. This quieting down of our engines, it turns out, might also be providing us with a precious gift–a little bit more time to avert the full-scale climate catastrophe we are heading for.
As you’ve probably heard, COVID-19 restrictions have caused a worldwide decline in carbon emissions. According to an analysis by the scientists who track the annual Global Carbon Budget, at the peak of COVID-19 restrictions in early April, global CO2 emissions were down 17%. A whopping 43% of lowered emissions came from road traffic decline. Depending on the lifting of restrictions and our behavior in the coming months, this analysis predicts a 4-7% decline in overall greenhouse gas emissions for the entire year.
Many pundits have already weighed in on the meaning of this carbon drop—some framing the emissions decline as impressively large, others as surprisingly small. But what I see in this pause in greenhouse gas emissions growth is possibility. In all likelihood, this pandemic moment presents our very last real chance to preserve a livable climate.
As a climate advocate, I think a lot about how we might still bring greenhouse gas emissions down fast enough to prevent the full-scale climate catastrophe we are hurtling toward. According to the UN’s most recent scientific report, this requires us to begin steep emissions reductions by 2020 to get on a pathway to 50% emissions reductions by 2030 and zero emissions by 2050. Few people have really taken onboard what this means or what the stakes are. I believe many in the youth climate movement do understand the science and the stakes. That’s why they are so angry and so scared.
Greenhouse gas emissions have been rising 1% per year for the past decade. Now a terrible global event has had the side effect of reversing this upward trend for 2020. This has bought us a bit more time, offering us just one last golden opportunity.
I’m not advocating giving up our modern lifestyles, or living under COVID-19 restrictions any longer than necessary: in fact, just the opposite. I’m searching for a pathway we can take to cut emissions fast enough to have a chance of preventing massive human suffering, preserving modern civilization, and allowing our children a shot at a habitable world.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, tackling the climate crisis is within our technological, policy, and economic capabilities. Advances in clean energy and energy efficiency are continuing to make decarbonizing more feasible and ever cheaper. Capable experts are devising workable plans that combine economic recovery from COVID-19 with rapid decarbonization. Polls show a strong majority of Americans agree it’s time to tackle the climate crisis.
To help this moment become a turning point, we can each stick with those changes that have surprised us by making us happier (for me, this includes less driving, more walking, and giving up the gym). We can advocate for changes in our communities that speed decarbonization and increase well-being (for example, cities making more room for walkers permanent). We can block the bailing out of fossil fuel companies and support clean energy and energy efficiency projects instead. We can give our time, money and votes to elect climate champions in the next election, and each election that follows. Then we can advocate for passing bold policies for a climate-friendly recovery and a livable future.( Here’s one way to help).
This is not a rehearsal. The recovery we choose will determine the fate of our species, so let’s do this!
It’s not usually advisable to speak for others, yet I think I know how many climate experts are feeling right now. There’s this particular twinge I feel as a climate advocate: seeing how humans are mobilizing globally and instantaneously to fight the coronavirus yet we’ve been unable–for three decades–to mobilize against the slower-moving yet ultimately more catastrophic and irreversible threat of climate change. For someone deeply engaged in climate facts, this unequal crisis response feels dizzying. And yet, our global action against the pandemic shows that we are capable of massive, lightning-fast change.
I want to talk about our emerging awareness of the scale and speed of change we are capable of in a crisis. I don’t think any of us born after World War II have seen this capacity before, but we are seeing it now. In our country and around the world, hundreds of millions of people have stopped going to work, school, church, social events, and sporting events. Leisure and work travel has been suspended, skies have cleared, traffic jams are gone, classrooms, sports arenas, and concert halls sit empty, and nearly everything considered “non-essential” that requires being with others has stopped. Along with all the tragedy, fear and insecurity of the pandemic, we are also seeing a tremendous capacity for sacrifice, generosity, and change.
Naomi Oreskes, an historian of science at Harvard I’ve long admired, recently spoke with journalist David Green about the lessons of coronavirus that might help humanity respond to climate change. She highlighted the breathtaking sacrifices people are making in response to COVID-19 that were previously unimaginable:
“I think that the crisis brings into sharp relief the difference between “can’t” and “won’t.” We can act, we know how to mobilize expertise, to mobilize technology. And we now see that the American people and people around the world are great at sacrificing. Whereas, it’s always been said that the problem with solving climate change is that people are not willing to sacrifice.”
And here’s the kicker:
“People not only can, but will, sacrifice, if they’re given the right information and leadership.” (emphasis mine)
This is the hopeful heart of her message. Because, as Oreskes points out, what most people need to sacrifice to solve the climate crisis is a whole lot less than what they are sacrificing during this pandemic. Decarbonizing quickly is achievable: we have the technology, resources, and policy tools to do it without widespread harm. In fact, most experts believe a well-organized clean energy transition will lead to widespread health benefits, a surge in good jobs and economic benefits for most people.
So as we navigate this crisis, let’s keep our eye on this prize: an economic recovery that builds clean energy and decarbonizes our economy at the same time. To get there, Oreskes says, we need two key ingredients: the right information and leadership, and breaking the control the fossil fuel industry has over our country and our politics. If the last four months illustrate anything, it’s that once we commit, we can get there quickly.
Like many of you, I’m working from home, going out only to grocery shop and take walks. I’m trying to keep what I can of my schedule, which means posting my monthly blog by the end of March. But I’ve been unsure about what to say during this disorienting time. Is there a constructive way to talk about the connections between the coronavirus pandemic and the slower-moving catastrophe of climate change?
Two climate thinkers I admire have insights about what the coronavirus pandemic shows about what we care about and what we fear. These insights illuminate a possible path forward in our efforts to tackle the climate crisis, offering some inspiration.
Katherine Hayhoe: What matters to all of us is the same: the health and safety of our loved ones and our communities. Climate change and the coronavirus are alike in that they both threaten what matters to all of us.
Climate scientist Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, one of my favorite climate communicators, was asked about the connections between the coronavirus pandemic and climate change by John Schwartz of the New York Times. Here is part of her response:
“This crisis really brings home what matters to all of us. What really matters is the same for all of us. It’s the health and safety of our friends, our family, our loved ones, our communities, our cities and our country. That’s what the coronavirus pandemic threatens, and that’s exactly what climate change does, too.”
Claire Cohen-Norris: A major reason we haven’t yet eliminated fossil fuels is our fear of change and disruption. Now, coronavirus has turned our world upside down. This give us an opening to make the big shifts we need to decarbonize quickly as we navigate the global pandemic.
In a new blog post from climate advocate and biology teacher Claire Cohen-Norris, she says:
“Why have we been slow to eliminate fossil fuels? The short answer is fear of disruption…Well, disruption is here. COVID-19 has made sure of that.”
The pandemic, she argues, has almost instantaneously disrupted our entire society, shifting our expectations for the future. This creates an opening for facing the climate crisis and rapidly decarbonizing our entire economy (I’ve written elsewhere about having the policy tools and knowledge to decarbonize, as soon as we build the social and political will to do so). Our world, Cohen-Norris reasons, is going to be upside down no matter what we do now. So we might as well tackle the climate crisis–a slower moving global catastrophe that threatens everything we care about–as we navigate the global pandemic.
If we can see that the climate crisis, like COVID-19, threatens all we care about, and we accept that total disruption is already here, it becomes more imaginable we can rapidly decarbonize now to protect a livable world. The possibilities are extraordinary.
I often get asked what I think about carbon offsets. Are they a good idea? Do I buy them myself? If so, how do I choose which ones to buy?
So here is my answer: I think carbon offsets are an excellent idea for people who have the financial security to consider them. I do buy them, and there are tools available that allow you to choose good ones. But I object to the name carbon offset and what it implies: According to journalist Emily Chung, “Carbon offsetting is a way to ‘cancel out’ carbon emissions that have been spewed into the atmosphere. It works by letting emitters (including individuals, governments or businesses) fund and take credit for greenhouse gas reductions from a different project or activity elsewhere.”
But we can’t cancel out our carbon emissions, and I don’t want to be absolved of concern for the climate impact of my actions. We are in a climate crisis, and to solve it we need to do everything: bring emissions down and contribute to projects that fund greenhouse gas reductions. So I propose calling them carbon gifts, or alternatively, a personal carbon tax, and buying them, especially when you travel.
I think of carbon gifts as one of the actions I take to help solve the climate crisis. I buy them to support projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which, at their core, are what carbon offsets really are. I buy them because I recognize that I live in and contribute to a fossil-fuel based economy. I buy them as another way to fight climate change. And because there are now tools to evaluate and compare carbon offsets, I can buy ones I feel really good about.
Calling them carbon gifts helps me reimagine them. I believe in facing that if I fly, drive, heat our house, or eat nectarines flown in from Chile, the greenhouse gas emissions I cause contribute to climate change. Best not think I can cancel this out, or get a free pass by buying carbon offsets. I don’t condone living in state of guilt, but I do believe honesty is the best policy. That way, I won’t use offsetting as an excuse to slack off on my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint more every year. But the projects funded by carbon offset/gift purchases are climate solutions projects. So yes, I contribute.
I choose them based on what I know about where the money goes, or I use carbon offset certification tools like green-e. Examples of carbon offsets I’ve bought include Seeds for the Sol, a program in Corvallis, Oregon to help schools and low income homeowners go solar, and Terra Passes’ renewable energy credits.
In a future post I’ll write more about ways to choose high-value carbon offsets/gifts.
Reposted with permission from Ensia.
There is one statistic easing pangs of guilt for people who feel they are not doing enough to fight climate change: About 71% of greenhouse gas emissions from 1988 to 2015 came from only 100 companies. Increasingly, the message is: Stop worrying about yourself and take the fight to the corporations and policymakers who refuse to stop them!
But you’re not off the hook yet. Individual action matters for a number of reasons: It stimulates and supports social action. It is central to honoring our moral duties to respect life. And it can be a force for social change in subtle or unexpectedly powerful ways.
Here are four arguments to keep riding your bike and doing all the other green things that each of us should do.
Argument 1: It’s Them and Me
It is disempowering to realize that most of the harm from climate change primarily comes from relatively few actors. In the face of this knowledge, it would seem, our individual actions don’t really change a thing. Social change, on a massive scale, is what we need. As author Derrick Jensen bluntly states in his essay, “Forget Shorter Showers”: “Personal change does not equal social change.”
He’s right, but only to a point. In fact, the individual and the social are intertwined in two crucial ways. First, enough individuals making changes does equal social change. And individual actions can have a ripple effect that we should not discount.
Each of our behaviors affects those close to us. People have a strong desire to fit in and build bonds with like-minded people. Once two of my friends installed solar panels, I did, too. Hopefully, when people see the panels on my roof, they will consider it as well. Everything we do is a signal to others about how we think the world should be.
Second, collective action doesn’t happen without individual action. Jensen is right that, “Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance.” What we really need to do, he argues, is to confront and take down the political systems that have gotten us into such a situation.
Indeed, there is no avoiding the most catastrophic effects of climate change without major changes on a global scale. But that starts with campaigning and voting for politicians who will act on climate change, shopping less and more ethically, and doing what you can to disrupt business as usual. In other words, social change starts with you.
Argument 2: It’s Just the Right Thing to Do
Even if you learned that turning off the lights when leaving a room will not make a measurable difference in reducing climate change, would you then feel free to leave lights on all the time? If you truly believe that doing so is wasteful, then probably not.
Most people’s moral sensibilities tell them that we have an obligation to do the right thing, even if nobody else does it or its impact is small. And the right thing to do is to respect other life forms and not waste resources, as you are able.
Our moral responsibilities may also extend to future generations. Philosophers may quibble about such things, but ask yourself this: Even if your grandchildren aren’t born yet, would they be out of line to blame you for not doing what you could have done to protect our planet?
It is a matter of moral integrity. If you are not willing to live in a way that is true to your convictions and invite others to do so as well, who will? The right thing to do is the right thing to do. Period.
Argument 3: Be a Rock in the River
One hopeful metaphor for thinking about the effects of our actions comes from philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore. Just as particles in a river can combine to change its course, our “small” acts can alter the course of climate change.
In life, as in rivers, everything changes. To quote Moore: “Our work and the work of every person who loves this world — this one — is to make one small deflection in complacency, a small obstruction to profits, a blockage to business-as-usual, then another, and another, to change the energy of the flood.”
The upshot is that our small acts absolutely can make a difference in unexpected and possibly powerful ways. Our individual choices join with others’ choices to disrupt the flow of destructive ways of living. Small acts are a witness, inspiring others and contributing to a momentum of change that can trigger a social change faster than we anticipate. That’s what we need. Soon.
Argument 4: Channel Your Inner Greta Thunberg
Once in a while someone comes along who dispenses with the calculus of whether their sacrifices will amount to a hill of beans and just says, “Enough!” And thank God. One such person is the Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg.
I’m guessing she — or other young activists who came before her — has little time for those who say that individual choices don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Who would have thought that one schoolgirl sitting on the steps of the Swedish parliament building every Friday with a simple sign would change the world? Good thing she didn’t let the “smallness” of her individual act discourage her. The world is changed because she sat — alone.
Some of us choose to bury our heads in the sand and continue shopping. Some of us make halting steps as an increasingly grimmer picture of future life for our children emerges.
But sometimes you just have to shrug off all the moral calculus and just say, “Enough.” Will my solar panels make enough of a difference to justify my sacrifice in buying them? Stop thinking. Just take action now.
We all must do what we can — in our homes, our communities and our countries. Writing in Orion Magazine years ago, author and climate activist Bill McKibben captured the “both-and” approach we need: “If 10 percent of people, once they’ve changed the light bulbs, work all-out to change the system? That’s enough. That’s more than enough.”
So change your lightbulbs. Walk or bike instead of drive. We are all responsible, individually and together.
Reposted with permission from ENSIA.
Instead of wasting time trying to convert opponents, we should invest it in motivating passive allies to act.
November 20, 2019 — “How do you convince people that climate change is real?” is a question I’m invariably asked after I give a talk on climate change and health. Even as wildfires incinerate communities in California; hurricanes decimate islands, taking thousands of lives; and Qatar starts to air condition its outdoors from scorching heat, some continue to “not believe” in climate change.
I have struggled to come up with a convincing answer. Should I show them the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report? Share gut-wrenching facts on the mass extinction of species? Offer statements from trusted medical organizations?
But I know none of this would work. Research shows us that presenting scientific facts, the “information deficit model” of communication, is often not effective in changing deeply held beliefs about climate change.
So instead of asking myself how I should convince someone of climate change, I started asking why instead. The answer is simple, isn’t it? If they “believe” in climate change, they will want to take action. They will cut down their carbon footprint, vote …
I lost confidence in what I was saying halfway through that sentence. As a physician, I know how difficult behavior change is. Smokers, who are well aware of the harms of cigarettes, take a long time to move from the stage of “pre-contemplation,” where they are not considering quitting smoking, to the “action” phase of quitting smoking.
When we look at climate-behavior change, an analysis by Yale Climate Communications in 2018 might give us an insight into the tedious nature of the task. The study estimated that 70% of respondents believe in climate change. But only 57% believe humans cause it. So, first, we need to convince people it’s real. Then we need to convince them it’s man-made. Then we need to motivate them to take action — action that essentially requires changing every aspect of their lives.
Well, if we don’t convince everyone that climate change is real, how do we fix it? A common misconception is that to create change, everyone needs to act. However, the data show otherwise. According to the Washington Post, a Gallup Poll in 1961 showed only 28% of respondents in a U.S. survey approved of the lunch counter sit-ins and freedom buses during the Civil Rights movement. Only 57% supported same-sex marriage when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in its favor in 2015. Erica Chenoweth from Harvard University analyzed hundreds of nonviolent campaigns over the course of a century. She found that it takes only around 3.5% of the population actively participating in civil protests to cause real political change.
In other words, the efficient move now is to take the time and energy we want to expend on convincing deniers and use it instead to assemble the critical mass to turn the tide.
With a few exceptions — speaking truth to leaders in power and helping loved ones recognize the magnitude of the threat — we need to shift our way of approaching climate communication from changing minds to giving people already on board concrete tasks on which to take action.
An excellent way to visualize this is an advocacy tool called “Spectrum of Allies.” This tool is based on the premise that the most effective way to create social change is to convince, not vehement opponents, but people who are neutral about an issue or passively agree with you to support your cause.
The “Global Warming’s Six Americas” 2018 survey on climate attitudes of Americans showed that 29% are “alarmed” and are taking action. Another 30% are “concerned,” and 17% are “cautious” but not taking action. The Spectrum of Allies framework suggests that for greatest impact we should focus action-oriented climate communication on the latter two groups rather than trying to convince the 18% who fall in the “doubtful” and “dismissive” categories that they’re wrong.
So, what should you do when your uncle calls climate change a liberal hoax over the Thanksgiving dinner table?
Here’s my suggestion. Estimate how many minutes you would likely invest in this “discussion.” Then — don’t. Engage about something else that connects you on shared values. And once you’re done with the interaction, use the time you didn’t spend arguing about climate change to call your legislator or write a letter to the editor. Better yet, mobilize a friend who already believes climate change is a problem. Help them set up an in-person meeting with their representative, join a protest or build a relationship with a local environmental nonprofit.
We are past the time for convincing. It’s time to act.
Listen to a Climate Cast interview with Laalitha Surapaneni: Doctor’s advice: Forget the climate change deniers, focus on the ‘passive allies’
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