There’s a name for the mental or existential distress of our environment being changed in unwelcome ways. It’s solastalgia, and I heard it again and again as I traveled through Alaska, from people who could see their home changing literally before their eyes.Katharine Hayhoe, “Saving Us”
Divisions of Opinion About Climate Change
You might think there are two kinds of people in the world—those who are concerned about climate change and those who aren’t—but this is an inaccurate oversimplification, and completely understandable. I used to think the same thing—us vs. them—and it was so frustrating to try to understand why so many of them simply refused to accept the reality that our climate is changing, and that we have something to do with it.
Our minds are great at bifurcating our world because the simplest distinctions are binaries and our brains evolved to lighten our cognitive load at every opportunity. The truth is a little more complicated—and much more optimistic.
According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, there are really six positions on the reality of climate change, and they are not split 50/50 by any means.
In order of percentage, these categories can be loosely understood like this:
- Concerned individuals (27% of Americans) think that human-caused global warming is happening and is a serious threat, but sees it as a more distant problem when compared to other priorities like socio-political issues.
- Alarmed individuals (26% of Americans) think global warming is happening, it’s caused by humans, and it’s an urgent threat. They support climate policies, but often don’t know what to do to solve the problem.
- Cautious individuals (17% of Americans) understand the concept of global warming, but haven’t made up their minds as to whether it’s happening, whether it’s caused by human action, or whether it’s cause for alarm just yet.
- Doubtful individuals (11% of Americans) think global warming either isn’t happening or is happening as part of the planet’s natural temperature cycles. In either case, they doubt it’s a real threat.
- Dismissive individuals (11% of Americans) think global warming isn’t happening, wouldn’t be affected by humans, and is likely a conspiracy.
- Disengaged individuals (7% of Americans) know little enough about global warming to have an opinion one way or another.
That’s a very different landscape from the simple “us vs. them” mentality! Adding up those figures, 53% of Americans are concerned or alarmed about climate change, 24% are uncertain about it, and only 22% actively doubt or dismiss the notion. A majority of people agree that it’s a problem and that we should do something about it, even if they don’t agree about what we should do.
We may not be able to persuade people to take climate change seriously if they don’t already—I know I’m terrible about persuading people to agree with me about first principles we don’t already have in common—but I think there’s a lot we can do to persuade people there are solutions we can and should implement. If 53% of the population already believes we need to do something, I think it would be a much better investment of time and energy talk with them about what we can do about climate change than to grow exhausted trying to bring the other 22% around.
With that in mind, this post is not for the doubtful, dismissive, or disengaged. I’m not trying to convince anybody that climate change is happening. This post is for the majority of people who agree with the science that climate change is real, it’s affected by human activity, and they want to do something about it—but they don’t know how. Included below are real solutions that range from Individual Lifestyle Changes and Systemic Changes to The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming.
A Name for Your Pain: Solastalgia
Our species has no recent evolutionary experience with large-scale environmental changes such as we are now experiencing with human-caused climate change, and it is distressing to our sense of place, whether we feel it consciously or unconsciously. Even our language has only evolved in the last ten thousand years of relative environmental stability, leaving us at a literal loss for words to describe our feelings about what has happening.
It is in response this problem that environmental philosopher Glenn A. Albrecht began to develop a new vocabulary for processing this unique experience in human history. He created the neologism solastalgia, defining it as:
The pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault (physical desolation). It is manifest in an attack on one’s sense of place, in the erosion of the sense of belonging (identity) to a particular place and a feeling of distress (psychological desolation) about its transformation. It is an intense desire for the place where one is a resident to be maintained in a state that continues to give comfort or solace. Solastalgia is not about looking back to some golden past, nor is it about seeking another place as “home”. It is the “lived experience” of the loss of the present as manifest in a feeling of dislocation; of being undermined by forces that destroy the potential for solace to be derived from the present.
— Glenn A. Albrecht, “Negating Solastalgia: An Emotional Revolution from the Anthropocene to the Symbiocene”
Solastalgia is the feeling of existential distress that comes over us when we see the orange haze of wildfire smoke cloud the sunrise or watch as each summer month exceeds historic temperature records. It’s that sense of dread when you learn 1,000,000 species are at risk of extinction over the next several decades and nearly 3,000,000,000 birds are already gone. I could go on, but the weight in your heart is likely already palpable, and there’s plenty more data where that came from.
The pain is not the point, but it’s a start. Being able to name our feelings is a step in the right direction, too, because it lets us share our pain with each other and find strength in our communities. But if we present people with a problem or a challenge without offering an engaging solution, that pain turns to powerlessness. We feel that the problem is insurmountable and hopeless, that our efforts to address it are futile.
In fact, our brain’s natural response to fear and anxiety is to freeze in the face of the threat, or deny its very existence, (which may explain something about how the 22% of climate change doubters and dismissives arrived at their positions.) The only way to move forward is with a positive incentive to act, not simply an apocalypse to avoid—a clear, legitimate pathway toward alleviating our guilt.
Furthermore, I believe it insufficient to simply be bombarded with a list of all the things some people somewhere are doing to mitigate the effects of climate change. It’s similarly all to easy to sit back in our chairs and console ourselves with the knowledge that better-equipped, more interested, and more motivated people are already working on it. Climate change is a uniquely human problem, the result of centuries of ignorance and apathy, of allowing passive background effects of our lifestyles to accumulate until they created a catastrophe too large to avoid.
Let me be clear: it is not too late to avert the impending climate disaster. There was a time (back in the 90s) when the consensus may have been that there was nothing we could do to stop it, but the drumbeat of science has marched ever onward and the only obstacles that remain are largely political.
Therefore, let us turn our attention to what we can do about climate change.
Individual and Systemic Changes to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions
According to the Carbon Majors Report produced by the Colorado-based Climate Accountability Institute, one hundred fossil fuel companies have been responsible for emitting 70 percent of the world’s heat-trapping gases since 1988. And even more tellingly, the top eight of them—in order: Saudi Aramco, Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Gasprom, Royal Dutch Shell, National Iranian Oil Co., and Petroleos Mexicanos—have accounted for almost 20 percent of global carbon emissions from fossil fuels and cement production since the Industrial Revolution. Not only that, but most of the eight top the list of the world’s richest corporations as well. They’ve gotten rich at the expense of everyone who’s being impacted by climate change—and at least some of them want to keep it that way.Katharine Hayhoe, “Saving Us”
Unsurprisingly, the main emitters of greenhouse gases are not individuals, but fossil fuel companies. Nevertheless, fossil fuel companies are enabled by the actions of individuals, such that if everyone were to stop driving gas-powered vehicles or using coal-powered electricity grids tomorrow, these fossil fuel companies’ emissions would certainly drop. Every step we can take to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels brings down those emissions.
Adopting and discussing these lifestyle changes can also encourage cultural change, bringing the effects on our collective greenhouse gas emissions into the daily conversation and spurring on a greater societal change in our cultural values.
Individual Lifestyle Changes
Most of us want to do something with a greater impact on an individual level, and there are four lifestyle choices that climate scientists have identified as making the largest impact on global greenhouse gas emissions: have smaller families, live car-free, avoid air travel, and eat a plant-based diet. I’m going to go into some more detail about each of these below, but there’s something important you need to understand first:
The richest 10% of humanity accounted for 52% of the cumulative emissions and 46% of total emissions growth between 1990 and 2015, according to this report from Oxfam, the middle 40% accounted for 41% of cumulative emissions, while the poorest 50% accounted for just 7%.
Where do you fall on that scale? According to Investopedia, average annual wages for the top 10% of earners are $173,176 as of 2020. Middle class individuals make between $30,000 and $90,000, depending on family size (having three kids raises the threshold by about $30,000 to account for those expenses.)
If your personal income is above $90,000 per year, the impact of these lifestyle changes could be huge on reducing global emissions. If your income is below $30,000 (or $67,000, for families) then it’s understandable why you may have bigger priorities than climate change at the moment, and your impact is proportionally smaller.
This is important to note because a lot of people want to oversimplify the problem to population—too many people having too many kids—but that assumes everyone is consuming resources and outputting emissions equally. That is far from the truth. More people doesn’t necessarily equate to more emissions, only more consumption, and the data is clear that the top 10% are having the greatest impact.
So, for those of us who are middle- and upper-class, how can we reduce our impact?
Have Smaller Families
According to this study, Reproduction and the Carbon Legacies of Individuals by Paul A. Murtaugh and Michael G. Schlax, in the United States, “each child adds about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average female, which is 5.7 times her lifetime emissions.” We happen to be a particularly affluent country, so bear in mind the income disparity mentioned above, but the math is pretty straightforward. If we’re contributing 41%–46% of global emissions as individuals, it’s reasonable to infer that our children will carry on that legacy.
Fortunately, American birth rates are already declining (and aren’t expected to increase for the foreseeable future,) but the future livability of the planet is an important factor to consider during family planning. My wife and I discussed it when we had our conversation about whether or not to have kids, and how many (I have one sibling, she has two) and we decided “one and done” was the right number for us. According to Investopedia, our income places us in the lower class, but it is still not a decision we arrived at lightly.
By Seth Wynes’ and Kimberly A. Nichols’ estimation in The Climate Mitigation Gap: Education and Government Recommendations Miss the Moss Effective Individual Actions, having one fewer child could reduce “58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent emissions per year” in developed countries.
Cars are where most of us engage directly with fossil fuel emissions, and living car-free would both reduce our individual dependence on gasoline and lead to larger systemic changes by reducing infrastructure reliance on roads, parking structures, and fueling stations. While switching to a electric cars is a step in the right direction—at the very least, it reduces the emissions of that individual vehicle’s combustion—the electricity to charge them is still largely produced by burning fossil fuels and they require all of the carbon-intensive infrastructure associated with cars.
Wynes and Nichols estimate that going car-free could save 2.4 tonnes CO2-equivalent emissions per year. Our family is down to one electric vehicle, and we’re looking at how we might transition to wind and solar power to charge it.
Avoid Air Travel
While most airplanes burn jet fuel to travel, those fossil fuels only account for a third of the warming effects of aviation. The remainder of airplane greenhouse gas emissions comes primarily from the condensation trails they leave in their wake. Mile for mile, flying is the most damaging form of travel when it comes to the climate—one round-trip flight can emit 0.6–5.5 tonnes CO2-equivalent emissions, the lessor of which is around three times the amount saved by an entire year’s worth of recycling.
Electric airplanes are a nice idea, but the physics on that one are tricky. Current battery technology simply doesn’t have enough energy density to power long-haul flights. Instead, the best alternatives to airplanes are trains or even cars. These alternatives can be more expensive than air travel—and more time-consuming—but when you think about those costs as investments in the future, those values balance out.
Eat a Plant-Based Diet
Do you know what’s an even more dangerous gas when it comes to greenhouse emissions than CO2? Methane. Evaluating its long-term impact, the International Energy Agency estimates that “one tonne of methane can considered to be equivalent to 28 to 36 tonnes of CO2.” Cows, sheep, and goats—livestock animals—belch out copious amounts of methane, which, when combined with agriculture and deforestation, contribute 24% of global greenhouse emissions. By Wynes’ and Nichols’ estimations, eating a plant-based diet can save 0.8 tonnes CO2-equivalent emissions per year.
Switching to a plant-based diet will not only help reduce these emissions, it has also been shown to reduce risks of heart disease, certain cancers, and depression, while still providing the necessary protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals needed for optimal health.
In our household, we still think of dinner as being “chicken and…” or “beef and…” but it would be better to think of those as simply garnishes rather than centerpieces as we try to transition to a plant-based diet. Meatless Monday has a six-week meal plan to kick-start that transition without making it feel like starting from scratch, and there are dozens of blogs ready to help.
All those individual actions are great, but taken alone, they will be insufficient to make a meaningful difference in the global climate situation without further collective action to effect systemic change. Change starts within your local community, and there are a couple of tools that Katharine Hayhoe identifies in her book, Saving Us — A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World:
The initial sign-up process for BrightAction was pretty involved, but after answering a handful of questions about my living situation and lifestyle, I was taken to a handy little climate action dashboard. There, I saw how our household emissions of about 3 tons CO2-equivalent emissions per person per year stacked up against the city and country where we live, as well as a guide to different individual and community actions we can take to broaden our impact.
One of those actions is to become better informed about the nitty-gritty of both the risks related to climate change and the responses available both to reduce emissions now and adapt our lifestyles and livelihoods to the world ahead. A great resource for that is the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s National Climate Assessment. Of special note are Chapter 28: Reducing Risks Through Adaptation Actions and Chapter 29: Reducing Risks Through Emissions Mitigation.
Citizens’ Climate Lobby
Of course, individual and local action are still insufficient to tackle the juggernaut that is climate change, so the Citizens’ Climate Lobby offers a path toward putting regulatory pressure on the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. The CCL is a nonpartisan group of activists who train and support volunteers to work toward the adoption of “fair, effective, and sustainable climate change solutions.”
Their whole strategy is to build relationships with local community leaders as well as elected officials to spark discussions about the impacts of climate change and the steps we might take to mitigate harm. They have hundreds of local chapters across the country with volunteer opportunities to lobby congress, place stories in the media, and educate the public about climate solutions. See if there’s a local chapter near you!
The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming
Ignorance and uncertainty are the breeding ground of anxiety and apathy, and one of the biggest obstacles to correcting course with regard to climate change is the belief that it’s too late and nothing can be done. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming promises a comprehensive compendium of carbon-reductions across all sectors, derived from a scientific analysis of the available literature on climate solutions, and argues that “the world can reach drawdown—the point in time when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline—by mid-century if we make the best use of all existing climate solutions.”
I have not read this book, although I am on the waitlist for it at my local library, so I’m recommending it mostly sight-unseen, but Project Drawdown has made its comprehensive table of climate solutions available online, where you can sort them by relevant sector or emissions impact. Each individual solution listed details the projected impact—both environmental and economic—as well as specific methodology for implementation. Each page is so specific, in fact, that they include actions individuals can take toward achieving these solutions and co-benefits of adopting them for other sectors.
The best antidote to that feeling of powerlessness that often accompanies solastalgia is knowledge about actionable solutions—something specific you can do about the problem—and this compendium will give you more solutions than you’ll know what to do with.
Share your favorite method for reducing carbon emissions below, or the drawdown solution you found most surprising. We can engage, inform, and encourage each other in this process of exiting the Anthropocene and entering the Symbiocene, and if it is already too late, then at least our legacy will be one of doing better once we knew better rather than burying our heads in ignorance and despair.