What I’m Going to Have to Do to Face Climate Change: First Steps

I’m still just beginning to get informed about climate change, especially about very recent information that makes it clear that things are much worse–and happening much more quickly–than we all thought. I’m not looking forward to finding out what changes I might have to make in my life. I already drive literally the most fuel-efficient car I can get my hands on, but I have a 35 minute commute each way every day. How crucial is it for me to cut down on car use? Do we have to somehow come up with the money to change our household heating system? Do we need to stop buying electronics or something? Where is the biggest impact going to be made?

You’re welcome to disagree, but the ease-into-it-by-starting-small approach doesn’t seem to me like it’s going to work. Based on what I’m reading, pre-industrial revolution carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were 275 parts per million (ppm). The highest safe level used to be thought to be about 550 ppm, but it turns out based on more recent findings that it’s more like 350 ppm. Our current carbon level? 392. We don’t need to slow down: we need to roll back, and hard.

So I need to get fully immersed in the kinds of solutions that can turn this problem around, and I don’t think a few minor adjustments to a typical American heavy-consumption lifestyle–even the eco-sensitive version of that lifestyle–are going to cut it.

But since I don’t yet know what will cut it, I have some work to do first. Here are my initial assignments for myself.

  1. Learn, and then learn some more. I’m only beginning to understand the scope of the problem, and once I get a handle on it, I need to understand better what the different pieces of the puzzle are and what I can do to change things. Doing this is painful. Reading Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet so far, for instance, has been like standing in a boxing ring and letting someone punch me over and over in the gut–but at least once the beating is over, I have most of the bad news and can try moving forward. If facing the bad news were comfortable, that would defeat the purpose: negative emotions (fear, anger, etc.) are the system we’ve naturally evolved to wake ourselves up when we need to take action: see “The Benefits of Feeling Bad.” The good news is that getting through that painful part to actually taking action feels good. There is a short-term payoff.
  2. Build up some serious motivation.It’s too easy to pretend that we can just continue with business as usual. After all, practically everyone else is doing that, and aren’t there plenty of smart, responsible people in the population? Why don’t we just wait to see what they do? Oh yeah … that’s usWe’re the ones who have to lead the way, along with the many others who are already doing it. We have to transform this movement, though, from a marginal effort by a small percentage of people to a massive, popularized common goal.
  3. Get family buy-in. I can’t take action in a vacuum: I share a household and need to work together with the rest of my family, which means offering them everything I’ve got on the subject and looking to them to voluntarily join in.
  4. Tackle the biggest-impact items first. I’ll need to make a list and find out what’s going to give me the biggest impact for my effort in my own life, then start with that thing. You could argue that getting other people involved (see the next point) makes the biggest impact, but to make a difference, we have to actually do something and then get other people involved in doing it to. Just getting a bunch of likes on Facebook isn’t going to solve anything.
  5. Connect, inform, and support. It is true, though, that if we’re already taking the necessary steps ourselves, the next important thing to do is to make the movement larger–much larger. I’m trying to do this even as I try to change my own life.

I know these items are general. You might reasonable ask, How do we do these things? What exactly will we be doing? That’s what I’m figuring out. As always, I’m grateful for your suggestions.

Photo by Robert Torzynski

How Learning More Makes Bad News Easier to Hear

This morning I was listening to the news on the radio, and I heard a story about shellfish dying off as the ocean becomes more acidic. This is something I found out about only in the last week or two, as I’ve started paying more attention to climate change and learning more about it: the oceans naturally sucks up a lot of carbon that we release into the atmosphere, though we haven’t noticed it much because the world’s oceans are so vast. Unfortunately, absorbing all that carbon makes the water more acidic–30 percent more acidic since the start of the industrial revolution. Shellfish, whose shells are made of materials very vulnerable to acidity, are having trouble coping: they’re dying off faster than they can adapt.

This is really distressing news, and in the past I would have felt deeply worried to hear about it and would have probably tried to distract myself from this problem, considering how little I can do to directly affect it.

The difference lately is that I’ve been facing these problems more, so hearing the news story just made me think “Yup, I’m glad they’re covering that and helping tell people about it.” I haven’t lost any of my resolve to try to help fix the problem of climate change, yet hearing about the damage we’re doing didn’t bother me in the way it has before.

Based on what I’ve learned about emotional responses, I think there are two reasons for this.

First, I’d heard the news recently and was remembering it. In the past, I had probably heard about ocean acidification and not let myself dwell on it, so I hadn’t remembered, but now the news didn’t feel like anything new to me: it wasn’t a new problem to worry about. Confirmation of things we already think we know tends to have a confidence-building effect: it feels good to hear people confirm our knowledge or beliefs, even if the confirmation is about problems or dangers.

Second, while I’m just barely getting started and am hardly doing anything yet, I am taking action, both in terms of educating myself and in terms of trying to spread the word. Actually doing something about a problem, even if what we’re doing is pretty minor, tends to make us feel much better about those problems.

There’s a tricky distinction here: I want to feel better about the climate change catastrophe to the point where I’m not paralyzed by anxiety about it. We can act more intelligently and effectively when we aren’t dragged down by too many negative emotions. At the same time, I don’t want to become complacent–I don’t want to just relax about the whole thing. I need to be working on this problem, not distracting myself to feel good.

Yet I don’t think I need to worry: as long as my coping methods are things like learning more and taking action, I know my improved emotional state is based on facing the problem rather than blocking it from my mind.

You would think that after seven years studying human habits, motivation, and emotions, all of this would have been clear to me long since, that I would realize that if I’m worried about something, facing it is usually the best thing I could possibly do. At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to be too hard on myself for being slow to pick up on this. After all, we’re programmed to fight or flee when something scary comes along. Stepping up and facing the danger is a skill we have to learn to assert, and that can take some time.

Photo by Boogies with Fish

Where We’ll Find the Power to Fight Climate Change

I would love to ignore climate change. Love to. The problems and nightmare scenarios are too huge, the solutions too convoluted and unlikely, the attention in our culture mostly just not there. Climate change is a room-darkening subject, an uncomfortable truth that we’ll consider just as soon as we figure out how to pay off the credit cards, a problem that surely we can put off for just a little bit longer (right)?

Please, stick with me through this post. I bet you don’t enjoy this stuff any more than I do, but there is a bright spot for us at the end, and I’ll keep this brief.

The worst thing for me is imagining my children starving. I’ll only spend a minute on this, but consider that climate change is melting mountain glaciers that are an absolute requirement to irrigating huge tracts of farmland around the world, tracts that are essential to feeding billions of people. Without these glaciers to supply water in summer, that land will stop producing food, and there won’t be other land to cultivate in its place. In the mean time, our oceans are changing in temperature and chemical composition as they absorb more carbon, becoming more acidic and threatening shellfish and other essential links in oceanic food chains. Climate change also creates drought, multiplies forest fires, and makes storms bigger to wipe out crops that would otherwise grow to maturity … and while all this is happening, we’re letting our population grow.

At some point, unless we make enormous changes, things are going to start getting very nasty.

Human civilizations unfortunately do not have a good record of facing and reversing catastrophes, and there’s good reason for this: it’s painful to face these catastrophes, so we go to great lengths not to. Maybe we try to argue that they aren’t happening, or that we can’t do anything about them, or that it’s not our job, or that we still have plenty of time.

Yet climate change is happening, we can do something about it, it’s everybody’s job, and time is up. We’re already suffering the damages of a disturbed climate. Let’s stop the bleeding and then see if we can rehabilitate the patient a little.

What will this take? I’m the first one to admit that I’m not expert–at least not at the moment–on what physical changes we need to make. I do know that renewable energy, recycling, reducing consumption and waste, energy conservation, and sustainable agriculture all factor in, along with other parts. Regardless, there are two challenges we have to face no matter what we need to do with our hands:

1. We have to find a way to face climate change with open eyes and uncrushed hearts. This is difficult. It’s easy to ignore it or to be overwhelmed by it. We can’t afford to do either one.

2. We have to learn how to change our habits.

This is where I am an expert. I’ve been studying happiness, habit formation, motivation, and management of thoughts and emotions for years, and I write and speak about those topics all the time. I have a successful blog on all that (with some writing posts thrown in) at LucReid.com. I can teach people how to break old habits, how to form new habits, how to face unpleasant truths without being broken by them, and a lot more.

And now I need to apply that knowledge to climate change, which is what I plan to do here. I could use your help: comments, suggestions of resources, criticisms, concerns, links, support … whatever you’ve got. If you’re working on climate change somewhere, tell me about it so that I can read and link. If you need to know something about climate change, let me know so I can research it and write about it. We can’t afford to make climate change a side-taking issue any more. We’ll either learn to face it together, or it will roll right over us and leave us wishing we’d pulled together when we had the chance.

Photo by Marianne O’Leary