The world as we knew it is coming to an end, and it’s up to us how it ends and what comes after. It’s the end of the age of fossil fuel, but if the fossil-fuel corporations have their way the ending will be delayed as long as possible, with as much carbon burned as possible. If the rest of us win, we will dramatically reduce our use by 2030, and almost entirely by 2050, if they are defeated. We will respond to climate change with real change and end the fossil fuel industry within the next nine year.
If we succeed, the people who follow us will remember the age before fossil fuel as one of corruption and death. Children’s grandchildren will be horrified to hear about the horror stories of how people used poisonous stuff from the earth. This made them sick, birds die, and made the planet heat up.
We can remake the world. The Covid-19 pandemic is a reminder that if we treat a crisis seriously, it is possible to change the way we live almost instantly. We can also make huge amounts of money from nothing, such as the $3tn that the US initially spent on the pandemic.
The climate summit that just concluded in Glasgow didn’t get us there, though many good and even remarkable things happened. Many leaders (even if they hardly deserve the term “leader”) were held back by the vested interests and their own attachment to the status quo and the profit to be made off continued destruction. As the ever-acute David Roberts put it: “Whether and how fast India phases out coal has nothing at all to do with what its diplomat says in Glasgow and everything to do with domestic Indian politics, which have their own logic and are only faintly affected by international politics.”
Six months ago, the usually cautious International Energy Agency called for a stop to investment in new fossil-fuel projects, declaring: “The world has a viable pathway to building a global energy sector with net-zero emissions in 2050, but it is narrow and requires an unprecedented transformation of how energy is produced, transported and used globally.” Pressure from activists pushed and prodded the IEA to this point, and 20 nations committed at Cop26Stop subsidies for fossil fuel projects overseas
The climate crisis has made it a serious crisis for the emotional toll. It’s best met, I believe, by both being well grounded in the facts, and working towards achieving a decent future – and by acknowledging there are grounds for fear, anxiety and depression in both the looming possibilities and in institutional inaction. What follows is a set of tools I’ve found useful both for the inward business of attending to my state of mind, and for the outward work of trying to do something about the climate crisis – which are not necessarily separate jobs.
1. Facts can feed your emotions
Beware of feelings that aren’t based on facts. There are many emotional responses that lead to an inaccurate assessment of the situation. Sometimes these are responses to nothing more than a vague apprehension that we’re doomed.
One of the curious things about the climate crisis is that the uninformed are often more grim and fatalistic than the experts in the field – the scientists, organisers and policymakers who are deep in the data and the politics. Too many people like to spread their despair, saying: “It’s too late” and “There’s nothing we can do”. These are excuses to do nothing and a way to get rid of those who are doing something. That’s not what the experts say. There are so many things we can and should do.
There is still time to choose the best scenario. However, the longer we wait, the more difficult it becomes and the more drastic the measures required. We know what to do and this knowledge is becoming more precise and creative. The only obstacles are politics and imagination.
2. Pay attention to what’s already Happening
Another oft-heard complaint is “nobody is doing anything about this”. People who don’t see the passion and effectiveness of what others are doing are often guilty of this complaint. The climate movement has gained power, sophistication, and inclusion and won many battles. I have been around long enough to remember when the movement against what was then called “global warming” was small and mild-mannered, preaching the gospel of Priuses and compact fluorescent lightbulbs, and mostly being ignored.
One of the victories of climate activism – and consequences of dire climate events – is that a lot more people are concerned about climate than they were even a few years years ago, from ordinary citizens to powerful politicians. The climate movement – which is really thousands of movements with thousands of campaigns around the world – has had enormous impact.
There are many things happening at the federal, state, and local levels in the United States, where I live. While local measures may seem small, they can often be significant. Berkeley, California, for example, banned the installation of gas appliances into new buildings a few years back. Berkeley is one small city, so it would be easy to dismiss the impact – but now more than 50 California municipalities have followedAll-electric could be the standard in the future. Insulate Britain, a UK group, has staged blockadesWhile demanding that the government improve building insulation standard, which is something I never envisioned people would protest about. Insulation is a survival issue and justice issue in this winter of rising fuel costs, scarcity, and climate change.
There are many organizations, initiatives, and legislation at different scales. And there is one scale that is right. Sometimes it’s getting your college to divest, or your city to change building regulations, or your state to adopt an aggressive clean-energy plan (as Oregon did this summer) or ban fracking (as New York State did a few years ago) or protect an old-growth forest.
If some past victories are hard to see, it’s because there’s nothing left behind to see: the coal-fired plant that was never built, the pipeline that was stopped, the drilling that was banned, the trees that weren’t chopped down. Daniel Jubelirer is my friend and the author of The Sunrise ProjectAccording to the advice, if you find overwhelming the sheer volume of data or issues, you can join up and learn as you go, and maybe pick a specific area to master.
3. Look beyond the person to find good people
When I ask people what they’re doing about the climate crisis, they often cite virtuous lifestyle choices, such as being vegan or not flying. Those are excellent things to do. These are also good for individual actions. relatively insignificant. The world must change, but it won’t happen because one person does or does not consume something – and I would prefer we not imagine ourselves primarily as consumers. I want us to see ourselves as citizens of the Earth. Not just the human world, but the entire living system, the biosphere.
Citizens have a responsibility as citizens to take part. We have the power to make change happen when we all work together as citizens. Individual choices can slowly scale up, or sometimes be catalysts, but we’ve run out of time for the slow. It is not what we put off, but what we do together that matters most. Individual change is not independent of collective change. For example, everyone in a municipality that is powered by clean energy is a clean-energy user.
If you live on a diet of mainstream news – which focuses on celebrities and elected politicians, and reserves the term “powerful” for high-profile and wealthy individuals – you will be told in a thousand ways that you have no role in the fate of the Earth, beyond your consumer choices.
Movements, campaigns, organisations, alliances and networks are how ordinary people become powerful – so powerful that you can see they inspire terror in elites, governments and corporations alike, who devote themselves to trying to stifle and undermine them. But these places are also where you meet dreamers, idealists, altruists – people who believe in living by principle. People who are optimistic or more than hopeful meet you. Great movements often start with people fighting for things that seem impossible at first, such as voting for women, ending slavery, and rights for LGTBQ+ persons.
Values and emotions are contagious, and that applies whether you’re hanging out with the Zapatistas or the Kardashians. I have often met people who think the time I have spent around progressive movements was pure dutifulness or dues-paying, when in fact it was a reward in itself – because to find idealistm amid indifference and cynicism is that good.
4. The future is still unknown
People who claim that something is or will not happen are merely promoting their own self-esteem and sabotaging your belief in what is possible. Conventional wisdom says that there was never going be marriage equality in Ireland, Spain, or the US. honouringTrans visibility day, Canada ceding 20% its land mass to Indigenous Self-Governance as Nunavute.g., Britain’s end of coal-fired power or Costa Rica going 100% clean. The historical record tells us that the unexpected happens regularly – and by unexpected, I mean by people who thought they knew what was going to happen.
Christiana Figueres was the leader of 192 countries to a Paris-based global climate treaty in 2015. When she was asked to do the job, she said it was impossible. She accepted it anyway. Even though it was impossible to do, I was still surrounded by people who believed it was impossible and prepared for failure the night before the treaty was made public. Then it succeeded – not in finishing the job, but in moving it forward.
The future is yet to be written. We are writing the future now.
5. Indirect consequences matter
Harvard University announced in September that it would be closing its doors. divest from fossil fuel. It took 10 years for the organizers to make this happen. You could have considered the campaign unsuccessful for nine years, even though it was part in a global movement which made billions of dollars out fossil-fuel investments. Bloomberg News published this month. reported that the “cost of capital” for fossil fuel and renewable energy projects used to be comparable, but thanks largely to shareholder and divestment activists, the cost for fossil projects is now about 20%, while that for renewables is between 3% and 5%. This impacts what gets funded and is profitable.
The campaign against the Keystone XL oil pipeline was, for many years, the scene of wins and losses and stalls and setbacks – and then finally the pipeline was completely halted when Joe Biden came into office. This was not Biden’s gift; it was a debt that was being paid to climate activists, who had made it a key goal. Patience is important because change is not always linear. It radiates outwards like ripples from stones thrown into a lake. It is important in ways that no one could have predicted. The most important outcomes can be indirect.
The Keystone XL campaign took a long time and was hard. But the heroes who fought it did a lot more than stop one pipeline. They made the Alberta tar sands – one of the filthiest fossil fuel operations on Earth – far better recognised as an environmental atrocity and a global climate bomb that had to be defused. The organizers formed beautiful alliances among farmers, Native landholders as well as local communities and an international movement. They showed us why pipelines are important and inspired us to fight for other pipeline battles.
The Keystone XL campaign may be what inspired Standing Rock’s Lakota leaders to resist the campaign. Dakota Access pipeline2016 That struggle didn’t stop the pipeline but it may yet. It’s not over. It did so many other things. Standing Rock friend told me that it gave Native youth there and around the world hope and a sense they had agency and value. It led to many remarkable things, including a huge intertribal gathering, the healing of old wounds – notably when hundreds of former US soldiers got down on their knees to apologise for what the US army did to Native Americans.
One young woman, who had traveled from New York to be with her friends, decided to run for office. You wouldn’t have heard of her then, but you have now: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She was a congresswoman and did so much in promoting a Green New Deal. The deal hasn’t passed Congress, but it did change the sense of what is possible, and it undid the old false divide between jobs and the environment. It seems to have shaped the Biden administration’s emphasis on green jobs as part of an energy transition, and as such it’s out there in the world now in the form of the Build Back BetterLegislation plan
If you follow the ripples from Standing Rock, to a young woman’s decision to run for Congress, and the Sunrise Movement’s espousal of a new framework on climate action, you can see indirect change – which proves that our actions matter, even when we don’t achieve our primary goal immediately. Even if we do achieve our primary goal, the impact may be more complicated than we thought.
6. The superpower of imagination is imagination
This crisis is caused by a sad failure in imagination. Inability to see both the horrible and the wonderful. Inability to see how these things are connected. How our powerplants and cars burn carbon dioxide that rises into the sky. Some people cannot see that the world, once stable for 10,000 years is now unstable and full of new dangers and dangerous feedback loops. Others cannot imagine that we can actually do what is necessary – which is nothing less than building a new and better world. This is one of the most remarkable aspects of this crisis. Although the early climate movement stressed austerity, much of what we need to give is poison, destruction and injustice. The world could be richer by many means if we do what this disaster demands.
7. Be sure to verify the facts (and beware of liars).
The future requires imagination and precision. For decades, waves of climate lies have been washing over the public. The age of climate denial seems to be over. subtle distortionsFacts and false solutions by those who seek stasis.
Oil companies spend a lot of money on advertising that features outright lies, the hyping minor projects, or false solutions. These lies attempt to prevent what must occur, which is that carbon must remain in nature and that everything must change, from food production through transportation.
There is a lot of fuss about carbon capture technologies – and a very nice old joke that the best carbon capture technology of all is called a tree. Many people believe that large-scale, human-made carbon trapping technology is not available. We can’t. GeoengineeringTechnocrats love to distract themselves from this distraction, apparently because they can envision big, centralised technological innovations, but not the impacts of many small, localised ones.
In 2017, Mark Jacobson of Stanford University’s Solutions ProjectIt was concluded that almost all countries on Earth have the natural resources they need to transition to renewable energy. “We have the solutions” read a banner at the huge 2014 New York City climate march, and they have only grown more effective since then.
8. History can help us.
A friend once said that the American left is not good at celebrating its victories. (The same could be true for the left in other nations.) There are victories. Some of these victories are huge and are the reason your life is the way it is. These victories are reminders of our power and that our work does not end in defeat. Although the future is still unwritten, patterns can be seen in the past that can help us shape it.
To remember that things were different, and how they were changed, is to be equipped to make change – and to be hopeful, because hope lies in the possibility of things being different. Depression and despair are often caused by the belief that nothing can be done or that there is no way to change.
Sometimes it helps just to realize that this moment is amazing. We didn’t have an alternative to fossil fuel until the beginning of this century. The cost of solar and wind was high and inefficient. Battery technology was still in its infancy. The energy revolution is the most significant revolution of our time. Solar and wind costs have dropped as new, more efficient designs were invented. They are now widely considered to have more than enough power to power our future.
The magnitude of the changes that have taken place in the last 50 years is a testament to the power of movements. The nation I was born into 60 years ago had tiny lesbian and gay rights movements, nothing resembling a feminist movement, a Black-led civil rights movement whose victories mostly lay ahead, and a small conservation movement that had not yet morphed into an environmental movement – and few recognised the systemic interdependences at the heart of environmentalism. Many assumptions had to be dismantled, and there were many other options.
9. Remember the past
We are the first to be affected by the effects, size and duration of climate changes. We are not the only ones to face some type of threat or fear. I think often of those who stood up for their principles and were brave in the Nazi death camps. My Latin American neighbors are the ones I think about. Some of them braved terrible migrations to escape death squads and dictatorships. I think of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas who lived through the end times of their worlds. Their lands were taken, their populations decimated, and colonial dominance disrupted their lives, cultures, and livelihoods in every way possible. It was almost impossible to imagine how they managed to endure under such conditions.
The climate movement has greatly benefited from the leadership of Indigenous peoples, both in specific campaigns and as a continuing reminder that there are other ways to look at time, nature, wealth, and human roles. A report that came out this summer demonstrated how powerful and crucial Native leadership has been for the climate movement: “Indigenous resistance has stopped or delayed greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to at least one-quarter of annual US and Canadian emissions.”
10. Don’t neglect beauty
We are afraid that climate chaos will lead to the loss of all that is beautiful in this world. I want to say that in 50 years, and 100 years, the moon will rise, and be beautiful, and shine its silvery light across the sea, even if the coastline isn’t where it used to be. In 50 years, the light from the mountains and the way that every raindrop on a leaf of grass reflects light will still be beautiful. Flowers will bloom and be beautiful; children, on the other hand, will be born.
Only after it is over, will we see the ugly side of this era full of fossil fuels, economic inequality, and other inequalities. Beauty is a part of what we are fighting for. This means that you must pay attention to beauty in this moment. If you forget what you’re fighting for, you can become miserable, bitter and lost.
We have been telling horror stories about coral reefs and weather events for a long time to get people to notice that the climate is changing. I have a different fear now – that this chaos will come to seem inevitable, and even normal, as war does to someone who has lived their life in wartime.
I believe that we need to tell stories of how beautiful, rich, and harmonious the Earth we inherited is, its patterns and times, and what we can do to preserve it. To celebrate its beauty and to make it a sacred treasure. We might forget why fighting is important.