Here in the Bay Area, we are greatly saddened by the immense loss of lives, homes and buildings in the recent North Bay fires. So soon after the hurricanes that caused heavy damage in Texas and theCaribbean and devastation to islands like Puerto Rico, anticipation of more severe weather events weighs on all of us. Climate scientists have been warning for years, and even decades, that with increasing global temperatures and climate change, weather events will become more frequent, severe and devastating to human communities. This is hard to process cognitively and emotionally. For now, our North Bay neighbors need significant resources and time to heal and rebuild in resilient ways. In addition to helping communities impacted by severe weather events, how do we respond to climate change?
Climate change is a complex, abstract issue and in the past decade, has grown into a source of controversy across political and cultural divides in America. With these recent devastating weather events and other changes in local weather and conditions, climate change is becoming a more concrete and directly experienced phenomenon. Nonetheless, controversy and debate over the nature and extent of it may remain along partisan lines in our country with different identities, worldviews and political beliefs lined up on each side. How can we find ways to not get stuck in the tribalism of you either believe in climate science or you don’t and move towards action?
We can start by considering 3 fundamental responses people can have to climate change. Climate change skepticism is one response representing a range from denying climate change is taking place to accepting climate change but questioning its extent or the role of anthropogenic, or human, causes. This response allows an individual to oppose policy or action that seeks to explicitly address the anthropogenic causes of climate change. Another response and a common one is climate change ignoring. In this case, an individual accepts climate change and its anthropogenic causes but lives everyday life largely as if climate change is not happening. With a problem as large as climate change and the presence of other everyday life priorities, this response is understandable. Our brains, in fact, are largely wired to ignore problems such as climate change. The third response is climate action– accepting the science and increasing urgency of the problem and taking action to address it. This action may be modifying lifestyle choices to reduce one’s carbon footprint, engaging in the political process to push for change and/or working to make changes at your workplace, school or other settings.
We’ve come to a point where taking action is urgently needed but that doesn’t mean the third response is the only way to approach it. Someone who generally falls into the climate change ignoring (again our brains are wired this way) and leads a resource/energy intensive lifestyle may be contributing far more to climate change than someone who is more of a climate change skeptic but conserves for other reasons and consumes less. In such a case, a climate change skeptic is doing more to mitigate climate change than someone who accepts climate science but has not shifted their lifestyle or choices to reduce his or her carbon footprint. Given such dynamics, can we focus on making lifestyle changes (and related policy and systemic changes) that address the root causes of climate change but tap into a variety of values, perspectives and beliefs?
Lifestyle choices (and related policies and systems) that most support climate action involve use of energy at home and in the workplace, personal transportation, diet choices, food waste and overall consumption of items, especially disposable products. Many values, worldviews and beliefs can support motivation for ‘climate action’ in these areas at the individual level. A sense of appreciation for the work of others in making products, coupled with pride in taking care of material possessions, can lead one to consume less material goods. A value for building community can engage people in participating in reusing goods through community swaps and events (such as above picture). A desire to spend time outside and in one’s community can lead one to bike, walk or take transit rather than drive whenever possible. An interest in personal health supports one choosing a more plant-based diet and reducing consumption of meat, dairy and processed foods. The need or desire to save money can motivate one to save energy at home. A desire and appreciation for fresh, seasonal food can encourage one to buy local produce and not waste it. And for those concerned about climate change and ready to take action, any of the above lifestyle choices will help one be a part of a world that will be less ravaged by climate change. However, to move the many of us who are climate change ignoring to climate action will require motivations, such as ones outlined above, beyond a concern for climate change and environment.
Let’s find common ground in living in ways that promote individual, community and environmental well-being. People with varying perspectives and belief systems can engage in actions that will provide them with satisfaction and also reduce the threat of climate change. We can move from a narrow focus on climate-motivated action to an approach that utilizes a variety of benefits to individuals to motivate action and drive an effective response to climate change.