It usually happens after every talk I’ve given on the climate crisis. The talk is over and a few people are gathered up front to make 1:1 comments or ask a question. A person waits politely for other conversations to finish. Their question usually begins with a qualification such as, “I believe in climate change, but….”
This is followed by, “What can I really do about climate change?”
Sometimes there is an inflection in this question that means the climate crisis is too big, what can one individual do? Others are serious about making changes.
Most people want a simple answer. Yet, my answer is not do these 3 specific things. It is simply to ask them a question. What do you think you can do?
Slowly, a conversation breaks out.
The climate crisis is large and urgent, and the solutions are complex. It can seem overwhelming. So there is no one answer. It depends on the individual, their skills, resources, and interests. Yet there are a few things I’ve found that can guide others in answering this question for themselves.
The first is to understand the climate crisis is both an individual and a collective challenge. We show personal and moral leadership in the things we do as individuals, but recycling plastic bags or biking to work will not keep the icecaps from melting. It also requires collective action. Massive action by communities and governments. So while recycling or biking help, it also requires a commitment to bigger collective action.
From a personal standpoint, it is often cognitive dissonance, or motivated reasoning, or any of a dozen other human biases that keep us from acting.
That is why climate deniers and fossil-fuel think tanks often try to shift the blame to individuals. This creates personal shame that keeps people from acting in a concerted or coordinated way. You know, “You live in a big house so you are wasting resources heating it. You can’t lecture me on climate, or impinge on my freedoms, or keep me from driving my Hummer.” Rather, shame is better directed at collective inaction. That is what Greta Thunberg is doing.
Overall, there are four steps to taking climate action. Indeed, the first is acting on a personal level.
This step requires us to move from believing or rationalizing the climate crisis to making a commitment to act. Belief is not sufficient, only actions. From my perspective, belief without action is worse than outright denial. It lulls us into complacency. It creates a silence that is filled by delay, denial and mis- information that threatens our children, our communities, and our planet.
One way to solidify making a commitment is to share that commitment. This re-enforces a path and welcomes support. The climate crisis is a lot like smoking. If I smoke, I know it’s not good for me, and if I want to quit, I need help. The first step is to acknowledge the problem. The second is to make a commitment to quit, and the third is to solidify the commitment with someone else.
Acting on any commitment also has another effect. It reduces climate fatigue, overcomes a sense of helplessness and actually creates a sense of purpose, satisfaction, and mutual identity. Try some small steps and see.
The carbon footprint of the average American Household is upwards of 40 metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year! Less for a single individual. You can find your community’s footprint by Zip Code here. Then try imagining 40 tons of anything sitting in your living room. Clearly some personal action can be helpful.
There are lots of resources to help you reduce your personal carbon footprint. Here are three resources out of dozens.
For me, I’ve started with a commitment not to fly, followed by going from two family cars to one, and finally, changing my diet. There are many others things I do as well.
The second step is to ask family and friends for help. My friends know I’m a climate and energy activist. But I’ve tried to avoid telling anyone what to do. Telling and shaming don’t work. I have some friends that have come to me and asked for advice on how they can help fight climate change. Mostly, I tell them what I’ve done and thank them. I have one friend who did research and bought into a community solar program. Progress is always one step at a time.
Each of us will choose what works for us. But it’s not enough. Even if we achieve dozens of these steps, there is one more thing each of must do. That is to act to change our collective strategies, policies and actions. We must show up to defend the commons.
“The commons is the cultural and natural world accessible to all members of a society, including our air, water, land, and a livable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately.”
The moral code of the commons dates back thousands of years and also seems universal among indigenous peoples of the world. This code states that we cannot ruin the commons, or deprive others of the life’s requirements for individual gain. We live in a society that measures well-being by ownership of property and wealth, often created through the exploitation of “natural resources.” We cannot pollute the water, the air or the land that others use to survive. We cannot use the air or our oceans and rivers sewers, because it endangers the health and survival of all of us. Nowhere is this more urgent than with the climate crisis.
This leads us to the third step. Showing up for local community action.
Showing up means meeting our representatives and community leaders, voting, marching, boycotting, and even getting arrested. It means picking a project or an organization and actually working to achieve its goals. We must join with others. All of us. Conservatives, liberals, people of color, capitalists, socialists, different faiths, ages, origins, no matter our labels. Because all of our health and survival is dependent on our air, water, land and climate. We are all connected. Our air, water and earth connect us.
There are lots of organizations and groups working on climate in your community, city and state from local clean energy groups to conservation and farming groups. Literally dozens. Try one.
Lastly, there is a fourth step that requires me to show up at the state, national, and even global level. As an example, testifying before your Public Services Commission on renewable energy or energy equity, or contacting your representatives on climate legislation. Acting at this level seems a slow process, but it is accelerating.
For me, action, not hope, is the antidote to feeling overwhelmed and getting started.
What you do is incredibly important and significant. Thank you all for the work you do. A better world is possible. One that is equitable. One that is powered by clean renewable energy. One where our first responsibility is not serving ourselves, but in how we serve others. One where our children are assured a safe future. The pursuit of this world bonds us together in appreciating the earth, nature, and wonderful web of life of which we are a part. It provides us with collective safety. One where we are all connected.