We Can't Solve The Problem If We Don't Talk About the Problem
(We're talking about the climate emergency)
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The most painful feeling I know is the feeling I get when I look at my kid and imagine the future of the planet she’s set to inherit.
(Let me say right now that this ends on an up note. So please, even though we are talking about the climate, stay with me.)
When I first started trying to wrap my head around climate impacts, and what the possible responses were, I felt my throat get tight, my mouth get dry and my temperature rise. I was like my own personal warming planet. The issue seemed intractable, insurmountable, and frankly too damn depressing to spend time talking about.
But here’s the good news: In researching this, I’ve learned that one of the best things we can do about the climate emergency is to start *talking about the climate emergency.*
I know it may not feel like much, but a study released in March 2021 from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications found that the majority of Americans are either “alarmed” (26%) or “concerned” (28%) about the threat of climate change. These numbers are double what they were when they began asking about it back in 2014.
This is good news, of course. There are fewer people who think climate change is a hoax (only 7% surveyed in 2020, compared to 11% in 2014).
Still, it’s not exactly the kind of good news that makes you feel good. But there’s something important to be learned here, and it’s worth digging into Yale’s research on this a bit more, because it points to the importance of just starting to talk about the climate.
Yale researchers also found, in a 2018 study, that even for folks who were concerned about climate change, conversations about the climate rarely come up.
This phenomenon is part of a “spiral of silence”: a situation in which “people concerned about the climate avoid voicing their worry because they rarely hear others discussing the topic,” according to the researchers. People are worried, but don’t say anything about it, because no one else is talking about it.
Interestingly though, the Yale Center’s research has found that it is “family and friends who have the greatest ability to convince us to take action on climate change.”
Asked who could convince them to take action to reduce global warming, Americans are most likely to say it would be those closest to them--their significant other (27%), child (21%), followed by a close friend, parent, or sibling.
So it boils down to this: It’s up to us to talk to each other about the climate emergency and its impacts, and our fears about it.
But talking about climate change is hard, and even though we know that our young people are going to inherit ever more dangerous impacts, it can still be paralyzing to address.
There are a lot of people with ideas about how to do this, and at the end of this post, I list a few of my favorite books, newsletters and podcasts about climate solutions.
But here’s one approach that I thought was particularly interesting.
A few months before we went into lockdown, back in January 2020, I had a conversation with Jill Kubit, who I heard speak at an event about parenting and climate change.
DearTomorrow wants people to connect environmental or climate concerns to the things they already care about: the values of parenting or caring for the next generation.
Through their website, DearTomorrow allows people to write letters, post videos and photos, while imagining their friends and family living in the future. The messages range from promises to ride bikes more, use fewer plastic straws, and stop littering to urgent pleas to vote for climate-focused policies. DearTomorrow posts the messages on their website, and on social media, and before Covid, they held public events where visitors could read and share messages with a wider group.
“What we're trying to do is change people's relationship to an issue that's been difficult for people to connect with,” Kubit told me.
DearTomorrow features letters from parents and grandparents to their kids and grandkids, and also messages from people who care for children in other ways. Here’s one letter from a teacher to his students.
My favorite time of the school day is probably the same as yours–recess. I love going out into our field, looking toward Mt. Tabor and the sky above it, feeling the fresh air, and watching you laugh and play.
I am sad and worried that, not only will future generations not have the opportunity to enjoy being part of the Earth as I have, but that their very survival is at stake due to climate change. The Earth has given me everything, and while I’ve tried to give back and have not taken more than necessary, I have to do more. My act of love will be to use all the power I have, during the rest of my life, to stop climate change.
“What we hear from people is that they didn't really have a way of talking about climate change,” Kubit said. DearTomorrow encourages people to talk about climate through their own emotions and feelings, “as a way to influence other people and to have deep conversations about why this is meaningful,” Kubit said.
People take the messages they write for DearTomorrow, and bring them to political events, or read them at rallies, or as part of community exhibits. Kubit said that people continue to find new ways to use the material, to “tell the story, and retell the story.”
Because you're having a conversation with someone you care about, Kubit said, it doesn't allow you to give in to feeling overwhelmed, and tends to galvanize people around action. The act of reflection "draws from people the desire to say that they're going to do something."
“Making those decisions that you're going to be actively engaged helps people work through concerns and emotions about the climate crisis, including feeling overwhelmed or hopeless,” she said.
And if only a fraction of us commit to action, that’s actually good news. Research by Harvard public policy professor Erica Chenoweth found that it only takes 3.5% of a population to make a social movement explode. That’s just a few million Americans.
Having a hopeful vision for the future is critical to building powerful social movements. Part of what DearTomorrow is doing, I think, is giving people a chance to articulate to themselves, and those they love, what that hopeful vision is.
My top 5 give picks for keeping up with -- and taking action around -- climate solutions.
The How to Save a Planet podcast
This is hands-down my favorite climate podcast, which includes great interviews focused on solving the crisis, including a running list of actions we can all take today. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and co-host of the podcast, described her own strategy for taking action. Ask yourself: 1. What brings you joy? 2. What is the work that needs doing? 3. What are you good at? Notice what’s at the center and then do that thing.
allwecansave @allwecansave@ayanaeliza's framework for figuring out what you should do about the climate crisis: Make a Venn diagram and notice what's at the center: 1. What brings you joy? 2. What is the work that needs doing? 3. What are you good at? (from this week's @how2saveaplanet) https://t.co/QVNwPLAN2v https://t.co/L0oM0i45Vk
Heated by Emily Atkin
Atkin’s newsletter is chock full of great reporting, as well rage and attitude. From the “meat wars” to the way the climate crisis connects with the movement for Black lives, Atkin has a 360-degree view on what’s happening and what needs to happen to address the emergency.
This book is everything and I am here for all of it. I have long thought that just focusing on the problem is a luxury we just don’t have anymore. All We Can Save is a collection of essays by women scientists, activists, politicians and poets, focused on solutions to the crisis. When I read it, I feel like it’s possible that we’re going to be ok (as long as we do something.)
Holthaus is a longtime climate writer who makes the science crystal clear. I love how personal his newsletter can be, especially in addressing his own climate anxiety.
My cousin is listening to this beautiful book on audio while she walks her dog Rosie, and I am reading a little bit of it for five minutes everyday (or trying to). Robin Wall Kimmerer is a poet and a scientist. This isn’t a book about the climate emergency. It’s a book about how very lucky we are to have the Earth as our home.