Ten ways to confront the climate crisis without losing hope
Reconstruction after Covid: a new series of long reads
It’s easy to despair at the climate crisis, or to decide it’s already too late – but it’s not. Here’s how to keep the fight alive
The world as we knew it is coming to an end, and it’s up to us how it ends and what comes after. It’s the end of the age of fossil fuel, but if the fossil-fuel corporations have their way the ending will be delayed as long as possible, with as much carbon burned as possible. If the rest of us prevail, we will radically reduce our use of those fuels by 2030, and almost entirely by 2050. We will meet climate change with real change, and defeat the fossil-fuel industry in the next nine years.
If we succeed, those who come after will look back on the age of fossil fuel as an age of corruption and poison. The grandchildren of those who are young now will hear horror stories about how people once burned great mountains of poisonous stuff dug up from deep underground that made children sick and birds die and the air filthy and the planet heat up.
We must remake the world, and we can remake it better. The Covid-19 pandemic is proof that if we take a crisis seriously, we can change how we live, almost overnight, dramatically, globally, digging up great piles of money from nowhere, like the $3tn the US initially threw at the pandemic.
The climate summit that just concluded in Glasgow didn’t get us there, though many good and even remarkable things happened. Those people who in many cases hardly deserve the term “leader” were pulled forward by what activists and real leaders from climate-vulnerable countries demanded; they were held back by the vested interests and their own attachment to the status quo and the profit to be made from continued destruction. As the ever-acute David Roberts put it: “Whether and how fast India phases out coal has nothing at all to do with what its diplomat says in Glasgow and everything to do with domestic Indian politics, which have their own logic and are only faintly affected by international politics.”
Six months ago, the usually cautious International Energy Agency called for a stop to investment in new fossil-fuel projects, declaring: “The world has a viable pathway to building a global energy sector with net-zero emissions in 2050, but it is narrow and requires an unprecedented transformation of how energy is produced, transported and used globally.” Pressure from activists pushed and prodded the IEA to this point, and 20 nations committed at Cop26 to stop subsidies for overseas fossil fuel projects.
The emotional toll of the climate crisis has become an urgent crisis of its own. It’s best met, I believe, by both being well grounded in the facts, and working towards achieving a decent future – and by acknowledging there are grounds for fear, anxiety and depression in both the looming possibilities and in institutional inaction. What follows is a set of tools I’ve found useful both for the inward business of attending to my state of mind, and for the outward work of trying to do something about the climate crisis – which are not necessarily separate jobs.
1. Feed your feelings on facts
Beware of feelings that aren’t based on facts. I run across a lot of emotional responses to inaccurate analysis of the situation. Sometimes these are responses to nothing more than a vague apprehension that we’re doomed.
One of the curious things about the climate crisis is that the uninformed are often more grim and fatalistic than the experts in the field – the scientists, organisers and policymakers who are deep in the data and the politics. Too many people like to spread their despair, saying: “It’s too late” and “There’s nothing we can do”. These are excuses for doing nothing, and erase those doing something. That’s not what the experts say.
We still have time to choose the best rather than the worst scenarios, though the longer we wait the harder it gets, and the more dramatic the measures are required. We know what to do, and that knowledge is getting more refined and precise, but also more creative, all the time. The only obstacles are political and imaginative.
2. Pay attention to what’s already happening
Another oft-heard complaint is “nobody is doing anything about this”. But this is said by people who are not looking at what so many others are doing so passionately and often effectively. The climate movement has grown in power, sophistication and inclusiveness, and has won many battles. I have been around long enough to remember when the movement against what was then called “global warming” was small and mild-mannered, preaching the gospel of Priuses and compact fluorescent lightbulbs, and mostly being ignored.
One of the victories of climate activism – and consequences of dire climate events – is that a lot more people are concerned about climate than they were even a few years years ago, from ordinary citizens to powerful politicians. The climate movement – which is really thousands of movements with thousands of campaigns around the world – has had enormous impact.
In the US, where I live, a lot is happening at the local, state and federal levels. Local measures can seem insignificant, but often they scale up. For example, a few years ago the Californian city of Berkeley decided to ban the installation of gas appliances in new buildings. Berkeley is one small city, so it would be easy to dismiss the impact – but now more than 50 California municipalities have followed suit, and all-electric could become standard far beyond the state. In the UK, the group Insulate Britain has staged blockades while demanding that the government improve building insulation standards, which is something I never imagined people would protest about. But insulation is a survival and justice issue in this coming winter of rising fuel costs and scarcity, as well as a climate issue.
There are organisations, initiatives and legislation on various scales, and there is a scale that is right for everyone. Sometimes it’s getting your college to divest, or your city to change building regulations, or your state to adopt an aggressive clean-energy plan (as Oregon did this summer) or ban fracking (as New York State did a few years ago) or protect an old-growth forest.
If some past victories are hard to see, it’s because there’s nothing left behind to see: the coal-fired plant that was never built, the pipeline that was stopped, the drilling that was banned, the trees that weren’t chopped down. As my friend Daniel Jubelirer of the Sunrise Project advises, if you find the sheer volume of data and issues overwhelming, join up, learn as you go and perhaps pick an area to master.