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How to Lift the Paralysis of Climate Change Despair

A shift in mindset to keep you activated in the face of an insurmountable challenge

Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

WWhen it comes to climate change, it’s easy to feel paralyzed. You’re just a single person staring down an inevitable force, one that’s being driven in large part by massive institutions and governmental failures.

It’s glaringly, urgently true that larger systemic change is necessary, requiring buy-in from both government and industry. (Just 100 companies have been responsible for more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, according to the Carbon Majors Report of 2017.) It’s equally true that no one person’s individual actions can make much difference. (Residential energy consumption accounts for just 6% of all energy consumed in the United States each year.)

They’re numbing statistics that leave one feeling helpless, a feeling exacerbated by the steady stream of apocalyptic predictions: about mass extinctions, extreme weather, new diseases, toxic air, cities slipping underwater. You can vote for officials who make climate change a priority, but the day-to-day things, like recycling your cans or taking shorter showers, can seem almost laughably futile, done more to make yourself feel better than for any real impact.

Of course, ignoring the problem doesn’t accomplish anything, either. That’s why environmentalists and journalists work so hard to drive home the point that climate change is a crisis that requires collective action. But the state of high alert around the issue may actually be counterproductive: Research has shown that fear-inducing descriptions of climate change can backfire, making people feel disengaged from the problem.

“The problem with the current approach of scaring us into action,” says environmental activist Karen Thurman, “is that it leaves us overwhelmed with the size of the problem and paralyzed into inaction.”

The challenge, then, is finding a way to stay energized in the face of a slowly unfolding disaster.

Stay motivated

“Silent smugness” — the feeling that you’ve made enough of an effort to feel like the problem is no longer your responsibility — is one thing to avoid, wrote Steve Westlake, a U.K.-based environmental psychology researcher, in a recent blog post. In some cases, he wrote, “individual action becomes a way of disengaging from the larger problem.”

In other words: Don’t recycle your orange juice carton in the morning, then dust off your hands and call it a day.

With a mental shift, however, small gestures can become a way to stay engaged, rather than an excuse not to be. Instead of letting them be a naive delusion, think of them as a gesture of hope: You wouldn’t be buying energy-efficient lightbulbs or using cloth diapers instead of disposable ones if you truly believed we are already doomed.

And studies have shown that hope, as long as it’s not a form of denial, can be a powerful motivating force, pushing people to adopt a more future- and action-oriented mindset. Hope can be what that gets you to attend a rally, volunteer for a candidate, or donate to a cause. Starting small propels you toward the big things.

Lead by example

Mitigating the effects of climate change is a little like the community responsibility to vaccinate: It works best if everyone buys in, but the most you can do is your share.

Doing your share, though, can have a ripple effect. One study, for example, found that just knowing someone who has cut down on air travel can be a powerfully influential factor in encouraging people to do the same.

“People like to have awareness of new trends and horizons, especially for their health and well-being,” Westlake wrote. “So demonstrating a new ‘right’ way of doing things is a topic of automatic curiosity and interest: Is this what we should all be doing? Can we learn how it is done? Can we try it out?”

Even if your actions reach only your immediate network, the difference can add up to something significant. To use the air travel example, aviation accounts for about 12% of transportation emissions, and the typical nonstop flight from New York to Los Angeles sends more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger into the air. In other words, one flight can emit more pollutants than the average driver produces commuting each year, by a long shot.

Choose your changes

On a daily basis, most of us have limited time and mental energy to devote to being more environmentally conscious. So, when you’re deciding the tweaks you want to make in your life, what should you focus on?

A recent paper by the directors of the Climate Change Research Network, a consortium of professors and researchers out of Vanderbilt University, outlined seven “low-hanging fruit” lifestyle tweaks that, undertaken en masse, would have a significant payoff for the planet:

  1. Don’t sit in your car with the motor idling.
  2. Unplug appliances you aren’t using.
  3. Replace your lightbulbs with energy-efficient versions.
  4. Go easy on the air-conditioning and the heat.
  5. Lower your water heater settings.
  6. Keep your vehicle maintained, and don’t forget about tire pressure.
  7. Remember to change your car’s air filter.

Be a more mindful consumer

Choosing a product from an environmentally conscious company is better than buying the same thing from a less eco-friendly competitor, but it can also lead to what the authors of one recent study called “climate compensation,” or freely engaging in environmentally harmful behaviors because you’re doing them in a less harmful way. Driving more because you have a hybrid car is one example. Buying more because you’re supporting socially conscious businesses is another.

“Consuming more of something is never the best way to reduce one’s own environmental impact, even if the product is marketed as ‘environmentally friendly,’” the study authors wrote. “The best thing for the environment would of course be to consume less overall.”

Similar research from 2012 examining the consumption habits of “green” consumers found that their carbon footprints are no smaller, mainly because, as the researchers put it, “consumers offset the impact of their environmental behaviour by consuming more.”

Contribute your money or time

If you want to use your money for climate-related good, consider instead donating to an environmental or political organization whose mission aligns with your values. Use sites like Charity Navigator to research options, and create a giving strategy to ensure that your donations have maximum impact.

Or you might consider contributing your energy to a project that’s already underway, like ISeeChange. Through the ISeeChange app, you can share how climate change is affecting your community. Public officials, engineers, and designers can use the information you collect to help cities adapt.

Being part of a communal effort like this is a perfect metaphor for individual action overall: Your own contribution is extremely minor, but it’s a data point that puts the bigger picture into focus.

In the same way, climate-conscious gestures that feel insignificant given the scale of the problem can still serve a larger purpose, reminding you — and the people around you — to hope for and work toward systemic change.

Journalist and fiction writer. Bylines: the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Paris Review, Tin House, The Guardian, National Geographic, etc.

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