Four Steps to Empowerment About the Climate Crisis

by Wahhab Baldwin

November 2019

Are you feeling overwhelmed, fatalistic, or despairing about the climate crisis? You’re certainly not alone. I have met young adults deciding not to have children because of their concern about the world they would be born into. Lots of children are feeling anxiety and depression about climate, and many of their parents are, as well. After all, the upcoming crisis is so huge, and our sense of agency, of ability to have an impact, feels so tiny. It is like watching a slow-motion train wreck.

But there are steps you can take to help you move out of these feelings. They are good for you, and good for the planet, as well. Here are four of the steps you can take to change your perspective.

STEP ONE: Take a small action.

You have probably heard the starfish story, but in case it doesn’t spring to mind, here it is:

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?” The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” “Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said…” I made a difference for that one.”

Just because we can’t do enough doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. The important recognition here is, as the Chinese proverb goes, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So pick a small change you can make in your life. One of the best — buy less, or buy used. You’ll not only be reducing the production of greenhouse gasses, but also saving money. We live in a culture that is constantly persuading us to buy, buy, buy. But to live in a sustainable world, we need to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Other simple actions you can take: Insulate your home better. Waste less food. Eat more plant-based food, less meat and highly processed food. Use less plastic (especially single-use plastic).

You don’t need to do all of these. Pick one, and stay with it for a while. Then, perhaps in a couple of months, add another. Within a couple of years, taking small steps, you will have made a big difference. In my own life, I have been taking some of these steps for a long time, and they have built up. In 2007, my wife and I bought a Toyota Prius. Getting 44 miles per gallon was wonderful! Some years later, my wife gave our second car to her son, and we began living as a one-car family. Then last year, it was time for a new car, and we bought a Tesla Model 3. I love it! Our credit union gave us a ridiculously low interest rate on the loan. We also got a great loan on solar panels for our home, with no money down, and a tax credit for both of those from the federal government. Now our electric bill is just $10/month, and with state rebates, we should break even on the solar panels in just a few years.

Now it’s easy to think, “But I’m just one person out of 7.7 billion. What difference do my actions make?” The answer is, they make more difference than you think.

The small savings you are making are just the beginning. First of all, it is psychologically helpful to know you are doing something, even if it is just a start. But more than that, your actions have far more impact than you realize. Other people will see what you are doing and be influenced by it. A single action is a stone thrown into a pond that sends ripples out, covering the whole pond. I have been impacted by others I have met who always carry cloth grocery bags in their car, and now I do that as well. We tend not to realize how much influence we actually have. My son-in-law finally had to let go of that 2001 VW my wife gave him, and he got a Tesla Model 3 as well.

One of the reasons I decided to be an early adopter of the Tesla Model 3 was that not only would I be reducing my own carbon footprint, but I would be helping that technology to be a success. The more electric cars are sold, the better, cheaper, and more mainstream they will become. I wanted to help make that tipping point happen a little sooner. The same can be true with any positive step we take.

STEP TWO: Focus on the positive.

Look. I know that we’re not going to get off scot free from climate change. Global warming is only one degree Celsius so far, and already we are seeing far more extreme weather events, fires, and droughts. But after decades of governments dragging their feet, and the merchants of doubt leading most Americans not to see the climate crisis as a real thing, the world is suddenly waking up.

What a difference four years have made! Climate change was not even an issue during the 2016 election, while in 2020, every Democratic candidate is taking a strong stand on it. A recent Washington Post–Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows that nearly 80% of Americans recognize that human activity is fueling climate change, including 60% of Republicans, and only 8% see it as not a problem at all, while 38% recognize it as a crisis. This is a huge shift over a short period of time.

Meanwhile, more and more countries are taking significant, effective steps to improve the situation. For example, in the last quarter, only 39% of the UK’s energy came from fossil fuels. And although the U.S. federal government has been moving backwards, more and more American cities and states are committing to moving to net zero emissions. We are seeing powerful demonstrations: from young people, from groups like Extinction Rebellion in England and elsewhere. The cost of solar and wind is now lower than the cost of coal or oil power. Many banks and investors are starting to disinvest in fossil fuels.

Look for other sources of good news. The Rocky Mountain Institute is one good source. The Race to Zero on Quartz is another. Or simply search for “climate change good news.” While there is certainly still far to go, realizing the positive things that are happening, that there is movement and it is accelerating, can be an element of empowering hope.

STEP THREE: Influence government.

In a recent report, an International Monetary Fund study found that the United States provided $649 billion in subsidies to fossil fuels in 2015, more than the Pentagon spending of $599 billion. Until our government charges its priorities, making fossil fuels carry the cost of the damage they do to our environment, we won’t stop using them. There are many such changes that must be made at the governmental level.

So speak up! Political leaders get surprisingly few letters. As more and more of us write them, phone them, or speak to them, they will get the message. This needs to happen at every level of government. Contact the President, your congress people, the EPA and other federal agencies. Contact your governor, your state representatives, your public utilities commission. Contact your city and county officials. Just a postcard will do — it doesn’t take long. Or you can send messages through their websites, like congress.gov (find “Contact Your Member” in the sidebar). If you’re so inclined, learn more about specific actions that would be helpful and ask for them. For example, most utilities make money based on how much gas or electricity they sell. If they were rewarded for reducing fossil fuel use instead of promoting it, everyone would win. Utilities Commissions need to hear that from you!

STEP FOUR: Influence the influencers.

This step seems counter-intuitive, but for that very reason, it is powerful. We can work together to change the hearts and minds of those who are most responsible for our carbon pollution.

Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions, with ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron among the highest. Write to them! Encourage them to go green, to move to renewables for the sake of all of us, and for our children and grandchildren.

Write respectful letters to key Republican lawmakers and to right-wing think tanks, recommending actions (such as cap-and-trade on carbon) that are consistent with Republican values. They have grandchildren that they love. They voted for cap-and-trade to eliminate acid rain. They voted to eliminate CFCs to get rid of the ozone hole. They can do it again. As these folks change their minds, the whole logjam blocking sensible climate legislation will be undone.

And beyond this, whom do you know who might make a difference, in business, government, or with the public? Talk with them. Encourage them to use their voice on this critical issue. Well, these are the steps I recommend. None of them has to take a lot of time, effort or money, although you can invest as much of those as you feel called to. But as you do them, you will begin to feel yourself as an empowered part of a solution. Millions or billions of us working together will lead to an end to carbon pollution, and you can know that you are part of that solution.

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