It’s no secret that the environmental health of the planet is in dire straits right now. The Earth was its hottest in recorded history in 2023. Our winters are shorter, our summers hotter, and our natural disasters more extreme.
The doom and gloom around climate change is understandable when you take it all into account. Global governments struggled to stay under the goal of 1.5 Celsius temperature increase last year, meaning we could be barreling toward even worse outcomes. There’s a sense of existential dread, a feeling that we’ve gone too far and that there’s no stopping the inevitable demise of Earth and all the creatures that inhabit it, including us.
But one expert says it doesn’t have to be that way. Hannah Ritchie — deputy editor at Our World in Data — argues that climate “doomerism” leads people astray from meaningful action. In her debut book, Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet, she says we should reframe the way we talk about climate change. Hope, informed by data, can be a helpful tool for mobilizing the masses, who range from climate deniers to the most devoted of environmentalists.
“I think tailoring messaging to different audiences is really, really crucial,” the Future Perfect 50 honoree says. “I think some people do actually just respond to the fear or the catastrophic messages. But I think there’s also a big group of people that don’t like that. I’m trying to bridge that ground a little bit and get people that might be on the fence or a bit disengaged to engage a bit more.”
In this episode of The Weeds, we sit down with Ritchie to discuss the current state of climate change, why the planet has actually never been “sustainable” for all of human history, and why shifting toward an optimistic (but realistic) narrative can help keep the planet from warming.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. You can listen to The Weeds on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get podcasts.
I want to get into something you spend time in the book discussing, and that’s what you consider ineffective policies like that around plastic straws, for instance. I’m curious why you think it’s ineffective, and also why there’s so much focus on these policies that aren’t maybe the most effective.
There are two reasons to counter some of the ineffective stuff. One is that some of this stuff that people think makes a positive difference actually makes a negative difference. We should just call that out.
But the other dimension to this is that people often become so overwhelmed with the number of decisions they should be making about environmental stuff. They go through their day questioning every little decision. That can become overwhelming. There are probably like five big decisions that make a big impact on your carbon footprint. Then the rest of the decisions really make very little difference at all, and you can do those if you want.
But there’s also this effect, which is called moral licensing, where if you have done a behavior that you think has made a positive difference, often you kind of let other things fall by the wayside. So you might think, “Oh, I used a paper straw at dinner. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that I take the car or I take the flight or I eat the meat because I’ve done my bit because I used a paper straw.” The impact of the paper straw is so incredibly small compared to the other decisions.
What are some of those things that we think have a positive impact but actually are not helpful at all?
One that comes up a lot is local food. If you ask people, “What’s the best way to reduce the carbon footprint of your diet?” they’ll often say, “Eat local.” The rationale for that makes sense: Transporting stuff obviously emits CO2 emissions, whether on a truck or on a plane or by boat.
But the key thing when you break down the data on emissions from food is that what you’re eating matters more than how far it’s traveled to reach you. If you look at the carbon footprint of different foods across the world, the average percentage that the transport part makes up is just 5 percent.
Most of the impacts of your food are coming from a land use change, or they’re coming from emissions on the farm. You’ll often hear people say, “My local beef is obviously much lower carbon than your avocados shipped in from a given country.” And actually, that’s just not true. The beef versus the avocados matters much, much more than whether it’s local.
There are reasons why someone would want to eat local, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s just not necessarily the best way to reduce your carbon footprint. So if there’s other reasons to eat local, like supporting your local community, then go ahead and do that.
What are some of the things we could be doing that are actually helpful?
On energy, it’s largely about travel: walking, cycling, and public transport is best. If you have a car — if you need a car, then an electric car is definitely better than a [gas] car. And then in your home, it’s not necessarily stuff like your lights or plugging your phone charger, [but] often heating and cooking.
What’s really effective is an electric heat pump that tends to be much better than a boiler. And then putting in a solar panel on your roof massively reduces your energy footprint.
It’s very easy to spiral when you think about the state that the world is in, and I’m wondering how you keep from spiraling. Because it’s very easy to start panicking. It’s understandable why the doom-and-gloom messaging takes over.
I’m definitely not saying that you’re going to be okay. It depends on what we do.
It’s not like we’re going to have no impact and things are all going to be fine. But the gradient of how okay things will be will depend on our actions. We have this opportunity here to really take strong action.
The balance there is really important. You do need to not necessarily panic, but you do need concern and you need a sense of urgency. It’s also important to focus on the solutions. If you just tell people this is a massive problem and leave them with it, what are they supposed to do with that?
I often try to highlight signs of progress, and that’s not necessarily to congratulate ourselves about how well we’ve done. But it’s all often about building momentum and showing people this can change.
It’s this idea of celebrating small wins so that people don’t feel despondent.
You can relate it to even really small personal stuff in your own life, like, say, training for a marathon and you’ve never been a runner. The most demotivating thing ever is if you’ve been training for three months and you’ve made no progress. Then you just stop because you think, “I’ve been doing this for three months. I’m wasting my time. I’m just going to stop.”
If you’ve been training for three months, you’re not at the marathon-level standard. And that’s where we are on climate change. But you have gotten fitter over that period of time and you can now run a 10k. It’s about building on that momentum to say, “Okay, if I can build up to 10k, then with more training and with much more effort, then I can get to the marathon distance.” It’s about using momentum to drive more progress rather than just clapping and saying, “That’s kind of where we are.”
I think for a lot of people who care about the environment, these small actions matter. It offers a sense of control in a world where so much feels out of our control. These are small steps that we can take without the backing of companies or federal governments.
What advice do you have for people who you know want to make a change but aren’t in power or don’t have proximity to power?
We often envision this as very top-down, but I think many of the successes on this have come from more community efforts.
[Efforts like] building wind power in Texas, for example, have come from small communities saying, “We’re going to build a wind farm for our community.” So often, it can start to come from the grassroots and build up.
There’s a lot of that in environmentalism where it’s often pointing fingers, and I think that’s really ineffective at getting people to change. But change in yourself can often be really infectious and people get interested.
What do you think the role of optimism is in our climate future?
It needs to be balanced with a sense of urgency and the need to act.
A lot of people are feeling quite paralyzed at the moment. I think they are, in some sense, disengaging because they feel like we’re making no progress and we probably won’t make any progress. And this is such a critical time. We need to really get moving on this stuff. This is the worst time for people to disengage and look away. So, for me, the role of optimism is to drive people to actually take action.