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.
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.
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.
Probably the number one question people ask when they learn I’m a climate solutions advocate is, What is the most important thing I can do? It’s a difficult question, because there is no single solution to the climate crisis. We know that individuals alone cannot solve this, and that we need big, ambitious government action soon for any chance of containing climate change to adaptable levels. So where should governments start, and how can you help?
There’s actually a simple answer. We need a price on carbon. This is the overwhelming consensus from UN climate experts, 27 Nobel laureates and 3500 of the U.S.’s top economists, political leaders including Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, James Baker, George Schultz, EPA chiefs under 4 Republican presidents, leading climate scientists Michael Mann, James Hansen, and Katherine Hayhoe, a growing number of business leaders, and most recently the IMF. Increasingly, experts also agree that a good way to do this is with carbon fee and dividend, collecting a rising fee from polluters and giving the money back to households to protect low- and middle-income families through a clean energy transition.
And today, even as this administration tries to dismantle every bit of climate progress we’ve made, we are closer than ever before to enacting this key policy solution. Right now, there is a bill in the United States Congress, The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (HR 763), to put a rising price on carbon, return all the money as a monthly dividend to households, and enact a border carbon adjustment. This bill, the strongest climate bill introduced into Congress in a decade, would reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and currently has 69 co-sponsors, more than any other major climate policy ever. Learn more about how HR 763 works.
I believe that the most important thing you can do right now for the climate is to work for passage of this bill. Carbon pricing alone will not solve the climate crisis–but without it, solving the climate crisis is unimaginable.
Almost daily, we experience more of the terrible costs and risks of not acting. As I write this, California is again fighting extraordinarily destructive and massive wildfires. Hawaii’s corals are dying from a new ocean heat wave. Some business, religious, and political leaders are speaking out about the need for action, and a global youth climate movement is demanding climate justice for the marginalized and vulnerable around the world who are least responsible for this crisis and are suffering most. And the IMF, tasked with keeping the global economy functioning, has just urged countries to enact a substantial carbon price. Canada has passed a national carbon tax, and we in the U.S. now have a good bill, which has led to a flurry of other bills being introduced.
So if you want to do something that matters, ask your members of Congress to co-sponsor, support, and pass this bill. (Citizens’ Climate Lobby has made it easy to email or write your members of Congressin support of this bill). I believe a groundswell of support from individual voters is needed to overcome the powerful forces fighting climate action. Push Congress to pass this bill, so that it can be signed into law on the first day we have a president who accepts the facts and values protecting a livable world. Let’s be sure that’s January 1, 2021, at the very latest.
The kids are not all right: The student climate strikes, Greta Thunberg’s message and where to go from here
What a week it’s been! On September 20th, I went to the Corvallis school climate strike to support high school students as they marched to City Hall to demand action on climate change. It was a first in our town, and the kids were mad. They didn’t care that most of the adults there have been working for climate action for years. They were telling us all that we’ve failed them. And they have a point.
A stunningly-illustrated spread in the September 19th issue of Nature shows the hard truths about climate change: the continued growth of emissions world-wide, the dramatically steep reductions necessary to have a chance of preventing catastrophic climate warming, the billions of people at risk from heat waves, water stress, and other threats, and the largest producer of cumulative emissions (the United States).
On September 25th, the IPCC released a report on threats to the world’s oceans and cryosphere from climate change. The report, written by more than 100 of the world’s leading ocean and climate scientists, states that climate change is warming the oceans and changing their chemistry so dramatically that it is threatening seafood supplies, fueling more destructive cyclones, worsening floods, and threatening hundreds of millions of people who live in coastal areas. Without immediate, steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, impacts to the oceans and humanity will soon be world-wide, catastrophic and irreversible.
What a week it’s been! I’m rattled because listening to Greta Thunberg, the student protesters, and the latest scientific assessments, I’ve thought about what has happened in the 13 years since I became truly alarmed about climate change and began down the path to becoming a climate solutions advocate.
The science has advanced. Technological solutions have made giant strides. Public concern has been growing, although not nearly as quickly as the facts demand. Now Greta, the student strikers, and the scientists are stating what I know to be true: we’ve run out of time.
An immediate global transition away from fossil fuel burning and forest destruction, and toward renewable energy, conservation, and sustainable agriculture might allow us to bring emissions down quickly enough to prevent the worst, most catastrophic climate harms, if this transition moves at a breathtaking pace. (For a good simple explanation of the science, see “What does ’12 years to act on climate change’ (now 11 years) really mean?” )
We have the technology and resources to do it, but we haven’t demonstrated the will. We lack the kinds of functioning political systems to make solving climate change seem possible. As David Roberts said way back in 2013, we are caught between the impossible (acting) and the unthinkable (failing to act). To avoid the unthinkable, we have to be all in, everywhere; we have to make the impossible (a rapid and complete transition to a zero carbon emissions world) possible. All of us, governments, businesses, communities, and individuals. That is what Greta, the student strikers, and even now the climate scientists, are begging us to do.
Voting for the climate is absolutely critical. But it’s only the beginning. Creativity, persistence, commitment, imagination, courage, cooperation with people outside your crowd, and unknown other ingredients will all be needed. I’m contemplating how to use my skills and strengths in new ways to heed the call that went out this week. I hope you will watch my website and this blog for ideas and opportunities. And I hope you too are imagining how to step up. We make the path by walking it.
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/
Last fall, I did something I thought I would never, ever do: I leased a brand-new car. I had been driving a used all-electric Nissan Leaf, and its 40-mile range just didn’t work for me anymore. So I leased an all-electric Chevy Bolt. Although I’m not crazy about having a car payment, I feel great about this choice; leasing an electric vehicle passed the test I use to decide which climate actions to take and which climate policies to support.
Where did I get this test? David Roberts, who writes about climate change and energy for Vox, gave it to me in his article “What genuine, no bulls**t ambition on climate change would look like.”
In this article, Roberts discusses three publications examining pathways to the 1.5°C target discussed in the Paris Climate Agreement. He finds that all the scenarios agree there are four things we absolutely must do–and do quickly–to have any reasonable chance of containing runaway climate change before its consequences become catastrophic and it threatens human societies around the world.
First, we need to dramatically increase energy efficiency. How efficient we are is measured as “energy intensity,” defined as the amount of energy required to produce a unit of GDP. In all three scenarios, energy intensity needs to fall quickly and outpace economic growth. In one scenario, energy intensity falls by two thirds by 2050. Polices that raise efficiency standards for buildings, industries, vehicles, and appliances are all effective ways to catalyze this change. So is placing a rising price on carbon emissions.
Second, we need to dramatically increase renewable energy production. All scenarios show renewables—mostly wind and solar—rapidly becoming the dominant sources of electricity. The scenarios range from 85% renewable electricity generation by 2050 to 100% renewable electricity by 2040. Carbon pricing, renewable electricity standard laws, incentivizing renewable energy development, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, and many other policies can speed up the shift to clean electricity generation.
Third, we need to electrify everything.This is where my all-electric Bolt comes in. All scenarios require electrification of all sectors currently running on fossil fuels. Once our economy runs on electricity, we have the technology and the infrastructure to run it on clean energy. Currently, the many issues related to making zero-carbon liquid fuels have not been resolved.
The fourth thing we must do is to sequester carbon, or, as Roberts puts it, pursue negative emissions. Even if we ramp up quickly on global efforts to decarbonize our energy systems, all three scenarios suggest we will also need to remove some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Both forests and soils have the potential to store a lot of carbon. Planting trees, allowing forests to regrow, and changing to agricultural practices that enrich soil carbon have the potential to sequester carbon. A variety of interesting proposals and programs have started to find ways to do this.
David Roberts is my favorite climate journalist. I don’t always agree with his strong opinions or love his sometimes snarky Twitter feed, but he’s a voracious consumer of key climate information and a fantastic big-picture synthesizer of what it all means. I also think he’s really smart. He helped me to see that assessing climate solutions is pretty simple. I’m for any solution or policy that contributes in a big way to these four steps—increasing energy efficiency, increasing renewable energy production, electrifying everything, and sequestering carbon—because we know what we must do and we are out of time.
Even at times when I can’t see a clear path to solving climate change, I find reasons for optimism. No one knows what will happen in the next few years, but a full scale transformation to contain climate change is not impossible. I take heart from the places where we are making progress. Consider these, for example:
Many states have been enacting truly transformative policies. Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Washington have committed to 100% clean electricity by 2050 or sooner, and at least six other states are considering similar legislation.
Twenty-four governors have joined the U.S. climate alliance, committing to implement policies consistent with the Paris Climate Accord. According to the Alliance fact sheet, the Alliance now represents more than half the U.S. population.
In the U.S., Coal-burning power plants continue to shut down, and half of them are already shuttered. Renewable energy continues to advance and become cheaper, and it’s providing more and more electricity, surpassing coal-fired electricity for this first time this year.
Perhaps where I find the most hope is the shift in public understanding. I read about this change in new polling, and I experience it talking to people. A large majority of Americans finally understand that climate change is happening, and many also understand the stakes and urgency of the climate crisis. For the first time, climate change has polled as the top issue among Democrats. The youth climate strikes are gaining momentum and beginning to influence governments. The strike on May 24 reportedly included protests in 1600 towns in over 125 countries. If these indicators reflect a true societal shift, then the possibility for transforming our society off carbon pollution becomes more imaginable.
In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, Auden Schendler and Andrew P. Jones wrote:
“Solving climate is going to be harder, and more improbable, than winning World War II, achieving civil rights, defeating bacterial infection and sending a man to the moon all together.”
I think they are right. Then they say, “Let’s do it!” Because improbable doesn’t mean impossible. So when I feel down about the climate crisis, I pay a little extra attention to the latest good work on climate solutions, and I take action to help it grow. So far, this has cheered me up every time.