Want the good news? Or the more good news?
I’ll give it to you straight:
The good news is: you can make a difference for climate justice.
The even more good news? It’s not all about giving up things you like and becoming an ascetic.
The reality is (bear with me, because this actually does become good news) none of our individual actions are going to move the needle on climate change by themselves. If I never ate another ounce of meat, never flew on another plane, always biked to the farmer’s market (carrying my reusable bags, of course), and powered my house with only solar and wind, nothing would change. Extreme weather would continue to increase in frequency and severity. Sea levels would keep rising. Our individual actions are tiny, insignificant drops in the ocean.
Admittedly, this seems depressing. Also, unmotivating.
So, where is the good news, you ask?
The good news is that what you do actually matters. It matters a lot. A lot, a lot. And, what you need to do is simple: you need to talk about climate change. You need to talk about it, because we need to build some momentum for large-scale, meaningful system change.
If talking seems way too easy, I challenge you to actually do it.
And, if it seems too ephemeral and loosey-goosey, let me explain.
The majority of Americans are worried about climate change - BUT we rarely talk about it. To cite one study, a poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 64% of Americans “rarely or never” talk about global warming. The same poll found that almost the same number (63% of Americans) are also “greatly or moderately worried” about global warming.
Worrying about something and not talking about it…um, that is a surefire recipe for anxiety.
So, first of all, we could just do ourselves a favor by acknowledging the elephant in the room. Climate change is real. The vast majority of us know it and are worried about it.
Second, and, to state the obvious, when we shove a problem off to the side - not talking about it and not really even letting it be part of our consciousness - we’re not doing much to alleviate the problem that is causing the anxiety in the first place.
It’s a vicious cycle starting with a sense of low personal-efficacy, leading to inaction, which leads to worsening conditions and worsening anxiety. And, as the problem gets bigger, we feel less and less efficacious, starting the cycle all over again.
So here is what we are going to do:
We are going to bring our collective worrying about climate change out of the shadows and into the forefront of our conversations. We’re going to mull it over together. We’re going to be creative and curious. We’re going to be intentional. And, mostly, we’re going to be loud enough that our leaders hear the conversations.
If the call to “get loud” makes you worried that you need to be Jane Fonda in a red coat with a bullhorn, rest easy. When I say “get loud,” I don’t mean it in a “go chain yourself to a tree” sort of way. I mean it in a much more mundane, simpler way. I’m just asking that you talk about climate change in your day-to-day life.
Large-scale system change is what we need. But, if we don’t ask for it - if we can’t even bring it up in polite conversation - we aren’t going to get what we want - or what we need.
Have you heard of the 3.5% rule? Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, has looked at hundreds of protest campaigns, around the world, fighting for change. She found that “it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change.” (Quoted from bbc.com.) Three-point-five percent is not much - especially considering that 63% of Americans are "greatly or moderately" worried about climate change. But, we have to start talking about it. We have to get it into the national conversations so that politicians and corporations are motivated to make changes that really do move the needle.
Just like NOT talking about climate change creates a vicious cycle of things getting worse and increasing anxiety, the good news is that on the flipside, actually talking about climate change creates a virtuous cycle. Here's how the cycle works:
The more talk about it, the more we move climate change into our consciousness. We start to take more intentional, productive action. Aligning our words and actions with our values feels good. (And, feeling good is good.) Aligning our words and actions with our values, also probably lowers our carbon footprint, however infinitesimally small.
It likely also motivates us to “vote” (either literally or with our money) for large-scale changes, which have bigger impacts.
Further, the talking, acting, and “voting” ripples out to those around us →
Social science shows that the behavior change needed for helping the climate - like talking about climate change, adopting new climate-friendly actions, and demanding climate change from our leaders - spreads over “wide, short bridges.”
In other words, people change their behavior when they see people that they are close to (i.e., are connected to by a “short bridge”) doing the behavior. If your best friend tells you she’s started composting, you’re going to listen.
The behavior change happens even faster when people see many close connections (the more connections, the "wider" the bridge) making changes. If you notice that every other house on your block is composting, you start to feel like it must be easy enough and you should try it also.
So, when you show that you are engaging with climate change, you’re not just changing your own words and actions. You’re also starting someone else off on the virtuous cycle of bringing their worry about climate change out of the shadows and into their consciousness and putting them on the path of "step 1."
Change will keep rippling out, travelling over shorter and wider bridges, until there is real, system-wide change.
In contrast to my example at the start of this post of carrying my reusable bags on my bike to the farmers market, as an individual, which is just a drop in the bucket, system-wide changes are the big improvements we need to keep global warming to a safer, more manageable level for humanity.
Many of these needed system-wide changes are already fully understood and possible. Others are in development. Either way, they need support to get implemented. Some of these system-wide changes include:
Requiring energy companies to prioritize renewable energy over fossil fuels
Incentivizing regenerative agriculture practices
Investing in electric and other sustainable forms of transportation - including funding more research into aviation
Encouraging green building practices
But, if we don’t ask for it - if we don’t even talk about it with our friends - it’s not going to happen. We have to transform the majority of us who are worrying about climate change, into a majority of people who are also talking and pressuring - in small and large ways - the government and corporations to change.
Talking might seem easy - almost not worth doing. But, talking starts a virtuous cycle, like a snowball rolling downhill. Talking might start the avalanche.