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People rest at a cooling station in Portland, Oregon, on June 28.
Kathryn Elsesser/AFP via Getty Images

How to fight climate despair

We’re not powerless, even if it feels that way.

Summer 2021 has been a season of disasters.

In June, a heat dome descended over the Pacific Northwest, sending temperatures soaring 30 to 40 degrees above normal. It was so hot that plants scorched in the soil, roads cracked, and streetcar cables melted in temperatures that reached over 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

Then, in July, extreme floods ripped through northwest Europe, leaving at least 199 dead. The same happened in China’s Henan province, where subways flooded, roads collapsed, and at least 99 people died. And last week, yet another heat dome swept the US, putting 17 states under some form of heat advisory.

Scientists and activists have been warning about climate change for decades — and plenty of people around the world have experienced its effects long before now. John Paul Mejia, for example, became a climate organizer as a Miami high school student, after seeing what Hurricane Irma did to “people who both looked like me, and came from the same background as I did.” (Climate change didn’t cause Hurricane Irma, but it did worsen its impacts.)

“These are the harbingers of climate change that have now arrived in Germany,” said German Minister of the Environment Svenja Schulze in response to the flooding in northwest Europe earlier this year.
Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

“I understood the climate fight through the justice lens from experience, not from an article,” Mejia, now a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, which mobilizes youth to fight climate change, told Vox.

But through the events of this summer, many Americans — including those from more affluent communities that have been insulated so far — have seen more direct and devastating impacts of climate change on their own lives. For a lot of people, that can come with a sense of despair: What can one person possibly do to save a world literally on fire?

“What happens is, when people first realize how bad it is, they feel powerless,” Mary Annaïse Heglar, a climate writer and co-creator of the podcast Hot Take, told Vox. With the extreme weather this year, “there’s a new wave of new people realizing how bad it is.”

Indeed, 40 percent of Americans feel helpless about climate change, and 29 percent feel hopeless, according to a December 2020 survey. It’s also no surprise that these emotions are coming up during a devastating pandemic — yet another global disaster over which individual humans have seemingly little control.

To help stop climate change, we’ve sometimes been told to change our personal habits: recycle, reuse, take shorter showers, etc. But these individual choices are dwarfed by the actions of corporations and countries. Just 100 companies are responsible for 70 percent of the world’s carbon emissions since 1988, according to one study, and sweeping changes aren’t possible without government intervention. Not to mention the fact that poverty and other factors constrain the choices many people can make in the first place.

Given all this, it’s no surprise that “all of a sudden, everybody’s going into nihilism,” as Heglar puts it.

But experts say we’re not completely powerless, and there’s a way to live in an age of climate change without giving up or sticking your head in the sand. It’s not necessarily about going vegan or making your home zero-waste, either.

The idea of reducing your personal carbon footprint, while not inherently wrong, has often been used as a distraction, “pitting working people against each other with morality choices about how sustainable you are,” rather than “realizing how much you actually have in common,” Mejia said.

Instead, many say the key to fighting despair is to think beyond the individual and seek community support and solutions — especially those that put pressure on governments and companies to make the large-scale changes that are necessary to truly curtail emissions. As Heglar put it, “the most detrimental thing to climate action is this feeling that we’re all in it alone.”

Many Americans are recognizing the reality of climate change

Climate anxiety and despair are far from new phenomena. But this disastrous summer has driven home the message that the changing climate “is not something we can avoid,” Sarah Jaquette Ray, leader of the Environmental Studies Program at Humboldt State University, told Vox. “I’m literally talking to you from the smoke right now.”

That message is showing up in polling. About a third of Americans (and two-thirds of Republicans) still don’t believe that humans are causing climate change, but a lot of people have been growing more concerned in recent years. This year, for example, 50 percent of participants in a Morning Consult poll said the changing climate poses a “critical threat” to American interests, up 6 percentage points from 2019 and 10 points from 2017.

American attitudes about what to do about climate change are evolving too. Carbon emissions have often been treated as a problem to be solved by changing our personal consumption habits, with an explosion of green products aimed at capitalizing on people’s desire to be environmentally friendly. Aside from the irony of getting people to buy more stuff as a way of reducing their environmental impact, this approach also obscured the real culprits, many say: companies that produce or use large amounts of fossil fuels, and governments that have been far too slow to curb emissions.

Indeed, oil companies like ExxonMobil have used sophisticated PR campaigns to make climate change seem like an issue of personal responsibility, and deflect blame away from their own actions, as Rebecca Leber reported for Vox. “A lot of the individualist solutions that have propagated across society and across our discourse, such as the carbon footprint and the idea of self-sacrifice in order to save the planet, really have the fingerprints of a few oil companies,” Mejia said.

In truth, the biggest contributors to carbon emissions in the United States, transportation, electricity, and industry, are only partly under individuals’ control. People can choose to use less energy in their homes, but household electricity use only accounts for about 10 percent of CO2 emissions in the US — even getting rid of it entirely wouldn’t be enough to stop climate change. And while some people can choose to drive an electric car or go car-free, they can’t individually shut down coal plants or redesign America’s public transit systems to make that an option for everyone.

A pie chart showing the sources of greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector, with transportation and electricity the largest slices of the pie. US Environmental Protection Agency

That’s why it will take government action, not just individual sacrifice, to meaningfully rein in emissions. For example, Congress could pass a nationwide clean electricity standard, requiring utilities to get their electricity from renewable sources like solar, rather than fossil fuels. Without that, even supposedly environmentally-friendly individual decisions like driving an electric car may not mean much, since that electricity could still come from burning coal. And only governments have the money and authority for the improvements to public transit and other infrastructure that are needed to dramatically reduce emissions over the long term.

In recent years, there’s been growing awareness of the outsize role that big companies and government entities play in climate change. “We’ve really changed the conversation around climate change away from individual action, which I think we really needed to do,” Heglar said. However, now we’re “in danger of the pendulum swinging too far,” she said, with people thinking “they can’t do anything at all.”

Here are some ways Americans can think about — and act on — climate change

Giving up on our climate is not an option, experts and advocates say. As Mejia puts it, “cynicism serves no purpose but to uphold the status quo.”

Instead, people who’ve been steeped in climate action for years or decades have some advice for those who might feeling powerless today in the face of the problem.

Don’t try to do everything. Do what you can.

Individual “green” behaviors aren’t enough to stop climate change on their own. And not all people have the same ability to reduce their carbon footprints. Many Americans can’t afford solar panels or insulation for their hot water heaters — many others don’t live in places where they can control such things. Time is also a factor — reducing waste in a society designed to produce a lot of it is labor-intensive, and that labor often falls disproportionately on women, as Alden Wicker reported at Vox.

So rather than beating ourselves up when we fall short of environmental perfection — or criticizing others when they do — we can choose the most meaningful actions that are doable for us. Things like reducing consumption of animal products, driving less, and taking fewer airplane flights likely have the biggest impact on our personal carbon use.

Everyone’s capabilities are different. Overall, “it’s important to find the ways that you can reduce your consumption, that work for your lifestyle and within your means,” Heglar said.

And it’s important to remember that those consumption decisions are just the beginning. “It’s a good starting point, but it’s a really dangerous stopping point,” Heglar said. People need to exercise their power as consumers, but remember that they have power as citizens and community members, too.

Think communally

The most important step, many say, is collective action. In America, “we have such a myth of individualism,” said Humboldt State’s Ray, also the author of A Field Guide to Climate Change: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet. That myth can make people feel “that they have no power, because they can’t do anything against such as something so big as climate change.” For many in climate movements, the antidote to that feeling — and the way to build real power — is to band together.

At the Sunrise Movement, for example, that means advocating for a Green New Deal, alongside other priorities like climate investment in the infrastructure deal currently before Congress. The movement has hosted marches across the country in recent months to bring the Biden administration’s attention to the problem, as well as reaching out to more than 6.5 million voters in the 2020 election. “Since the winds of change are blowing,” Mejia says, “why don’t we make them sail in our direction?”

Rep. Cori Bush (left) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rally hundreds of young climate activists near the White House June 28.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Sunrise Movement is just one of many groups working on climate advocacy today, and for some, getting involved with collective action can seem as daunting as reducing your individual carbon footprint: Where do you even start? For Heglar, the answer is simple: “You do what you’re good at, and you do your best.”

“If you’re good at organizing, organize. If you’re good at taking care of people, take care of people who do other things,” Heglar said. And “no matter who you are, build community.”

Around the world, people are already working on communal solutions to environmental degradation, and have been for generations, whether that’s Indigenous firefighting practices or the fight to protect the rainforest in Colombia. And for Americans looking for ways to join together to help one another and the planet, there are many options, like local mutual aid groups that help communities cope with the impact of climate change, such as by providing water and sunscreen during heat waves. Local Buy Nothing groups can help people reduce waste by giving away and sharing used items.

Putting pressure on elected officials is one of the most important collective actions people can take. People can urge their representatives in Congress, state legislatures, and city governments to support climate investments, public transit, and clean energy standards, for example. The Natural Resources Defense Council has a guide to lobbying your legislator.

Getting involved in communities doesn’t just multiply your impact — it can also stave off despair. Ray has seen this in her classes at Humboldt State, in which she encourages students to build trust, express their feelings about climate change, and essentially practice for going out into the wider world. “The alleviation of anxiety that happens when you’re working towards a common goal, even if it’s a really depressing one, in community is actually very joyful and very fulfilling,” she said.

Think long-term

Just as no one person can fix climate change, the crisis isn’t going to be solved overnight — and it may not be “solved” in a conventional way at all. In order to confront this fact, people need to think of fighting climate change as a long-term process they engage with over time, Heglar said.

We should see the problem “in the same realm that you would see reproductive justice or racial justice or any other justice issue,” she explained. “You would never say, what’s the one thing I can do about racism?”

Especially since the uprisings last summer following the murder of George Floyd, more Americans — especially white people — are beginning to internalize the idea that the fight against racism will be a long-term struggle, one that probably won’t ever be “over,” but that they have a responsibility to keep committing to, again and again. And racial justice activists have experience working for a cause that can seem hopeless, and confronting an existential risk to themselves and their families — but they keep doing the work anyway.

It’s also important to remember that for many communities the world over, facing a major threat to the present and future is nothing new. Anti-colonial and abolitionist movements “have had long traditions of movement resilience that have a lot to teach the climate movement,” Ray noted, including the message that climate change is not “the first and only existential threat we’ve ever faced.”

Indeed, social movements from the opposition to apartheid in South Africa to Indigenous rights activism here in the US have “seen a lot of reason for despair, and no evidence for hope, and have still figured out how to fight the fight,” Ray said.

Seek joy, but allow for grief

The fight against climate change can be slow, difficult, and painful. But in order to stay committed for the long haul, people need to think about the positive too, Ray said, to “actively discipline into your life the cultivation of joy.”

That could mean something as simple as reading news about environmental success stories or successful activism in your local community. Ray is involved in a local group with the Just Transition movement, which works toward an equitable shift away from fossil fuels, and says “the newsletter that they send me is enough to keep me going.”

“The world is awful,” Ray said. “And there’s so much beauty, joy, and delight to be had too.”

Cliff divers spend time at High Rocks Park in Portland during the heat dome that descended over the Pacific Northwest in June.
Nathan Howard/Getty Images

It’s also okay to feel the awfulness of the world. After all, climate change for many Americans today means risk to themselves or their loved ones, or destruction of their homes or places they’ve come to love. And part of acknowledging climate anxiety and grief, for people not yet personally affected by disasters, can be asking yourself, “If I am hurting so much, what is happening to people who are less privileged?” Kritee, a senior climate scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, recently told the New York Times.

People who have been involved in climate science or activism for years still feel sorrow, despair, or rage, Heglar said. In fact, “I feel comforted by the fact I can still feel that way, because it means I’m not desensitized,” she said. “I never want to be that person who can look at the world burn and feel fine.”

But when climate grief or despair become overwhelming, the key is to reach out to others in your community. “You are not the only one feeling this way,” Heglar said, adding that “it benefits the fossil fuel industry when you think you are. So find the other people who are feeling it too.”

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