“What can I do to help with climate change?”
It’s a wonderfully common question. Maybe you’ve asked it. I know I have.
Good news/bad news: the evidence points to the answer being both blindingly easy and uncomfortably hard.
The answer? The biggest thing we can do right now to help with climate change is to talk about it.
Super simple, right?
We all have conversations. We talk in person, over text, via email, through DMs, etc.
But, here’s the thing: talking about climate change is uncomfortable.
For starters, climate change makes us anxious. Referred to as an “existential threat,” it’s not exactly a topic we run towards. It has also, unfortunately, become political and, therefore, not something we feel comfortable bringing up in polite company. (This wasn’t always the case. Check out this 2008 ad featuring Gingrich and Pelosi.) In addition, climate change is complicated and science-y, with lots of numbers and acronyms. Many of us feel like we don’t know “enough” to talk about it without looking stupid.
So, if you’re not talking about climate change (and, as a rhetorical exercise: are you?), you’re not alone! Most Americans - 64% according to one study - “rarely or never” talk about climate change.
The media also doesn’t talk much about climate change. Maybe worse, when climate change is in the media, it’s almost always covered as an apocalyptic story.
Like with all scary news coverage, most people initially feel alarmed, but become inured over time.
We have a lot of other sh&t going on in our lives. We can’t possibly solve something like climate change that feels: (a.) far away in both time and space, (b.) beyond our individual control, and (c.) obfuscated with complicated facts and stats.
Yes, we know it’s there. We know it’s scary. But, what would we even talk about? Our fear? Our uncertainty? The apocalyptic news stories we’ve heard? I’m no expert on social graces, but I know that these aren’t exactly winning conversation topics.
Talking is hard when it comes to climate change. It’s so hard that, as a rule, we don’t do it.
So, back to the original question: “what can I do to help with climate change?”
An internet search will bring you to lists suggesting reusable water bottles and bags, plastic-free toiletries, meat-free meals, and more. I love it all! All those things are 100% worth doing.
AND, we need to be clear about why these individual actions are worth doing - and also when they lead to deadends.
They’re worth doing for two big reasons: First, practicing “climate-friendly” behavior strengthens your identity as someone who cares and acts to limit climate change. This strengthening of identity, in turn, can spur you to do even more things that are in-keeping with that identity. “What we water, grows.” Grow that climate-friendly identity!
Second, people are social creatures and we all look to our environment for cues on appropriate behavior. If all my friends start carrying reusable water bottles, I’m going to fall in line with that social norm and do it too. Individual behavior can be contagious.
Unfortunately, though, these individual actions aren’t going to get us all the way to solving the climate crisis. None of us - even Taylor Swift with her private jet (love you, TS) - can individually change our behavior enough to save the planet from climate change.
In fact, BP and its PR firm came up with the idea of an individual carbon footprint calculator back in 2004 as a strategy to simultaneously acknowledge the climate crisis and shift the blame to the consumer. Clever, right? While despising it, I also have to kind of admire the chutzpah of the PR strategy: “the benevolent fossil fuel companies are going to help you recognize your climate sins…oh, and don’t worry about what we’re doing over here with the oil and gas.”
So, again, returning to this question: “what can I do to help with climate change?”
Well, a lot.
Incorporate some individual actions into your life - make your home more energy efficient, reduce food waste, support plastic-free brands, compost - do whatever climate-friendly actions work for you. And, now that you know the individual carbon footprint is a distraction strategy engineered by fossil fuel companies, don’t get paralyzed because your carbon footprint will never perfectly zero. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good, as the saying goes. Instead, let your individual climate-friendly actions strengthen your connection to the issue and catalyze you to do even more. Then, let your climate friendly behavior spread among your social groups as others see what you’re doing.
AND…start talking about climate change.
You may not think of yourself as a climate change denier, but our collective silence is its own brand of denial and denial is not serving us well. Our silence makes it easy for inertia to prevail and for greenhouse gas emissions to continue at an unsustainable rate.
So, let’s change our habit of silence. Let's start talking even though it's hard, even though it's uncomfortable.
Like when building any new habit, start small and don’t hold yourself to the standard of “perfect.” Just start. Maybe commit to reading one climate change related article a week. Maybe join a book club. (Well, yes, I do know of a good book club you could join.) Maybe subscribe to a newsletter. (Here are a few that I enjoy.) Or, listen to a climate podcast. (I’ve got some recommendations for those too).
Then talk about what you learned with someone who feels “safe” - someone who won’t be offended or uncomfortable talking about climate change, someone who won’t judge you for not knowing more. Start to build the habit of talking about climate change.
Talking about climate change may seem like a simple solution on the surface. Maybe so simple, so bland, that it isn’t even worth doing. But, it will take intention and diligence to get conversations around climate change into our culture – and into political and business discourse. It’s the biggest thing we can do. How can we expect politicians and business leaders to listen, if we’re not talking? We better get talking - starting with conversations in our "regular" lives.
Talking about climate change allows us to grapple with the problems - and with the solutions. It’s messy. There is no silver bullet. There is no “to do list” to satisfyingly check off. But, by talking with others, by getting our arms around it, we can start to shift the narrative from the one put out by BP’s PR firm to one that we want. Maybe one that identifies the big causes of climate change and points us toward solutions of healthier air, safer water, and a more stable future. Who knows? We’ll have to see where our collective conversation goes.