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!
April 22, 2020 is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, and this year’s theme is climate action! In the face of the global coronavirus pandemic, a mighty coalition of Earth Day groups and climate advocates have been planning and creating a new way to unite to support climate action while cancelling or postponing physical gatherings. This month’s action is to join this effort. Sign up with Earth Day Live for three days of livestreaming and virtual actions April 22-24th!JOIN EARTH DAY LIVE
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’
Editor’s note: The views expressed here are those of the authors and not necessarily of Ensia. We present them to further discussion around important topics. We encourage you to respond with a comment below following our commenting guidelines, which can be found on this page, or submit a Voices piece of your own. See Ensia’s Contact page for submission guidelines. The author is a associate at the Institute on the Environment (IonE) at the University of Minnesota, where Ensia is based and which provides funding to Ensia. Ensia is an independent publication of IonE. To learn more, please see our Code of Ethics.
Perhaps you have read that The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom has decided to use the terms climate emergency, crisis or breakdown instead of climate change in its news stories; and global heating instead of global warming. As social and cultural circumstances alter, words and their power change their meanings and impact, and the public in the end may have to adapt by using new words.
Or sometimes we can try to refine or redefine old words to fit new circumstances. For instance, hope, which as verb and noun has long implied both desire and expectation: “I hope [desire] that we can solve the climate problem” or “I have little hope [don’t expect] that our civilization will survive this existential climate crisis.” But what happens when desire outstrips results, and then discouragement leads to hopelessness, despair, cynicism, paralysis? When hope starts to sound passive and empty?
Here, from some leading thinkers, writers, philosophers, and educators, are a few useful, maybe even inspiring, ways to rethink hope. Click on the links for more good words.
Amory Lovins: “Many of us here stir and strive in the spirit of applied hope. We work to make the world better, not from some airy theoretical hope, but in the pragmatic and grounded conviction that starting with hope and acting out of hope can cultivate a different kind of world worth being hopeful about, reinforcing itself in a virtuous spiral. Applied hope is not about some vague, far-off future but is expressed and created moment by moment through our choices. … Applied hope is a deliberate choice of heart and head. … Applied hope requires fearlessness.”
Joanna Macy: “Active Hope involves identifying the outcomes we hope for and then playing an active role in bringing them about. We don’t wait until we are sure of success. We don’t limit our choices to the outcomes that seem likely. Instead, we focus on what we truly, deeply long for, and then we proceed to take determined steps in that direction.”
Michael P. Nelson: “I want us to replace ‘I hope’ with ‘I resolve to do the work’ or ‘I will be this kind of person, I will live this kind of life’ or any sort of utterance that focuses on virtue rather than on consequence. … I am suggesting … that our obligation to the future is most properly satisfied when we act rightly and virtuously, and when our motivation stands stubbornly apart from, not held hostage to, the consequences of our actions.”
David W. Orr: “Optimism has this confident look, feet up on the table. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”
Maria Popova: “Today, the soul is in dire need of stewardship and protection from cynicism. The best defense against it is vigorous, intelligent, sincere hope – not blind optimism, because that too is a form of resignation, to believe that everything will work out just fine and we need not apply ourselves. I mean hope bolstered by critical thinking that is clear-headed in identifying what is lacking, in ourselves or the world, but then envisions ways to create it and endeavors to do that. In its passivity and resignation, cynicism is a hardening, a calcification of the soul. Hope is a stretching of its ligaments, a limber reach for something greater.”
Carl Safina: “Hope is the ability to see how things could be better. The world of human affairs has long been a shadowy place, but always backlit by the light of hope. Each person can add hope to the world. A resigned person subtracts hope. The more people strive, the more change becomes likely. Far better, then, that good people do the striving.”
Rebecca Solnit: “Hope is not about what we expect. It’s an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world. Hope is not a door but a sense that there might be a door”; “It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand”; “It’s important to emphasize that hope is only a beginning; it’s not a substitute for action, only a basis for it.
Written by retired Colorado State University English professor and close climate change watcher SueEllen Campbell of Colorado, with permission of author and Yale Climate Connections. Link to original post: https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/07/redefining-hope-in-a-world-threatened-by-climate-change/
With all the chaos and distraction the Congress faces, it’s up to us to keep their focus on climate action!
The more they hear from voters that our top priority is climate change solutions, the more likely it is they will work constructively on enacting them. Find ways to tell your Members of Congress to make climate action their top priority!