If you haven’t yet read it, please first check out Part 1.
Global climate change is an unimaginable threat to us, to our descendants, and to our planet. As human beings, our brains evolved to consider the challenges facing us locally, in the present and the immediate future. Our brains find it much more difficult to focus on challenges that feel distant in time, distance, or relationship to us. This biological component of how we evaluate threats helps us better understand why we often delay action to halt global climate change, a topic I explored in my previous essay. Towards the end of that post, I turned from the difficulty of facing the challenge to why, instead of despair, we must strive for the quality of critical hope. This week, I make the case for why and how we must act now, to inspire all of us to move from hope to action.
The narrative of global climate change is one of disaster aversion. If we do this list of things, we can avoid this problem, and just maintain our current way of life. The problem is that asking people to alter their behavior to simply hang on to what they already have doesn’t activate their motivation. Nor does focusing on the negative emotions associated with disaster motivate long-term change. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson writes that “negative emotions function to narrow a person’s momentary thought-action repertoire. They do so by calling to mind and body the time-tested, ancestrally adaptive actions represented by specific action tendencies. This function is without question adaptive in life-threatening situations that require quick and decisive action in order to survive.” Global climate change, however, does not require “quick and decisive action”. Instead, it requires long-term societal and behavioral change. So how, then, do we produce this kind of sustained change? Fredrickson tells us that “positive emotions broaden the momentary thought-action repertoire rather than narrowing it.”
This is the reason that developing a critical hope is so vital, and the reason why I emphasized it in the previous essay. This critical hope — this vision of a world grounded in sustainable relationships with one another and with our planet — is what can motivate us to long-term societal and behavioral change.
If we start with emotions, and if we accept that we must inspire positive emotions if we want long-term change, we must begin by envisioning the new world we want to create. For me, as I have mentioned, this is a world grounded in sustainable relationships with one another and with our planet. That means that we must spend time in one another’s presence, and in the presence of the natural world around us, learning about and from one another. We must give of ourselves and experience the same from others. We each must find or develop our vision of what this world can be, and then we must do the work of stitching those visions together into a whole cloth.
Looking at our current political environment, the Green New Deal starts to sketch out some of those inspirational ideas about the connections between healing climate change, promoting living-wage jobs for people, and ensuring that basic needs are met for people and our planet. Other leaders are going further, such as those proposing a Red Deal, which “places anti-capitalism and decolonization as central to each social justice struggle as well as climate change,” and thus centers the rights of indigenous people. We should support these efforts, and we should consider them as part of our own personal visions for what it would look like for the world to move toward healing.
Once we have a vision, we can begin to explore the steps we can practically take toward a solution, in both the personal and political frames. In our personal lives, there are numerous steps we can take to reduce our carbon footprints, and each of these steps calls for greater or lesser sacrifice depending on the individual. Some of the greatest impacts are:
- Reducing the number of children you have
- Living car-free
- Avoiding flying (especially long-distances)
- Becoming a vegan
Looking at this list, you might be unwilling to contemplate any of these actions. But I think we have to keep in mind that these are not all-or-nothing decisions — you can also take some of them in incremental ways. If you don’t feel you can live car-free at this point, could you start by replacing one car trip, either by not taking it or taking public transportation instead? If you don’t feel you can become a vegan, could you start by eating one less meat-based meal per week, especially less beef (which produces especially large amounts of greenhouse gases in production)? If you don’t believe you can give up flying, could you take one less flight? Every action you take can help.
If we are realistic, however, we know that we cannot depend on individual actions to solve the climate crisis in its entirety. So, let us turn to the political frame — what actions could we take in that realm? Many activists are pushing for the Green New Deal, and I believe that focus is merited. The downside of putting all of our emphasis there is that the Green New Deal is a framework at this point; it is not legislation. But there is specific legislation that has been introduced to Congress that would address the issue of global climate change. There are several bills that would charge fossil fuel companies for all of the fossil fuels they extract from the ground, which would increase the fossil fuel companies’ costs. They, in turn, would pass these increased costs on to other companies and consumers, functioning as a signal and pressure for everyone — companies and individuals alike — to search for lower-carbon alternatives. The legislation that I believe would do this most effectively is the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (HR 763). This legislation would not only push everyone to seek lower-carbon energy and products, it would also return the fees it collects to American households. This dividend would function to make this legislation progressive, as low- and middle-income households would earn more from the dividend than they would pay in increased costs. Studies have found that this policy would reduce carbon emissions by 40% in 12 years and 90% by 2050.
So, what can you as an individual do to combat the crisis of global climate change? I would argue for three simple steps:
- Envision what you want our world to look like in the future — 100 years, 50 years, 20 years. What kind of relationships between people and between people and the planet do you see? That vision can fuel you to positive action.
- Start by taking one small step in your personal life to reduce your carbon footprint. Take public transportation for one trip instead of your car. Eat vegetarian for one meal a week instead of beef. Take one less flight.
- Pick a climate change policy you want to advance, and contact your 1 Representative and 2 Senators. Whether you want to push them to take up the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, the Green New Deal, both, or something else, it is important that we make our voices heard by our government. Start by making 3 calls this week.
Global climate change is an all-encompassing crisis, and one of the key challenges of our time. We must address it holistically, through our ways of living and acting, in our own personal lives and in the political life of our country. Sometimes, I despair that we can truly guide our world back to a more sustainable way of living. When that happens, I must engage critical hope, envision the new world we can encourage together, and commit to concrete actions. I believe we can make this change, because I believe that we must. Here’s to imagining a new world for us to inhabit together.
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