Overcoming the Overwhelming

Being concerned about global warming is one thing but acting on that concern is another issue altogether. I'm often struck by how little we look to our own challenges in leading low-carbon lifestyles or engaging in the political process as a source for understanding what stands in the way for others.

So I'm going to admit it here - I'm overwhelmed by the choices we face and the range of options for action.  I may spend the majority of my professional life focused on addressing climate change, but when I go home, I've got kids to look after and love, laundry to catch up on, and bills to pay. My partner and I try to do many things with climate change in mind (growing our own food is a big one) but it is endlessly frustrating how many structural and systemic barriers are in our way.

Case in point: at a recent Climate, Mind and Behavior meeting at the Garrison Institute, George Marshall – who is with our UK partner project, Talking Climate – asked the group of climate leaders why we all fly so much. His comments, followed by a mix of awkward silence and nervous giggles, are indicative of the tension between individual choices and acts and large-scale systemic challenges.

When individual and structural changes come together, however, it can result in powerful outcomes. For example, I recently learned that Vancouver, British Columbia now has the lowest carbon footprint of any city in North America. This was accomplished largely by motivating an increase in residential density in the downtown area by 75% through redevelopment efforts. When people move downtown, they stop driving and start walking, biking or taking transit - an example of how changing the larger structure allows individuals to make climate wise choices. Been to Vancouver lately? The quality of life is enviable for any urban dweller and is only getting better as the city continues to take its climate and sustainability challenges seriously.

But what works when you don't have government leadership addressing the systemic challenges? This is the unfortunate reality for many practitioners working on climate and energy issues and can lead to an overemphasis on the role individuals should play, resulting in more guilt and anxiety for those who care and are trying to make a difference.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a big believer that the public has an extremely significant role in addressing climate change but it won't happen if we continue to emphasize lists of individual actions to be taken in isolation without feedback or peer support. That's why I think World Wildlife Fund's Earth Hour campaign is such a good example of the type of large-scale engagement and impact possible when you emphasize collective and visible action, and provide participants ways to feel part of something larger than themselves or their household. (See our interview with WWF's Keya Chatterjee about Earth Hour and our upcoming roundtable discussion.)

Another reason why people are overwhelmed is that there are so many sources of information (and misinformation) on climate and environmental actions that it is hard to know whom to trust and which solutions to therefore prioritize. Yet trust is absolutely critical in motivating action and takes me back to my first point. To build trust as climate leaders, I think we need to reveal our own struggles with change.

So on that note, here goes another confession. I'm pretty far down a path of personal change related to climate issues but I'm desperately hoping those working to create jet fuel out of algae are successful so that I can fly when I have to for work or take our annual visit to see family members thousands of miles away. Does this make me a hypocrite or in denial? Perhaps to some who have managed to drastically cut back their air travel for the sake of climate change. But it is also honest and a very real challenge shared by millions of people who care yet rely on carbon to make a buck when they leave their house at the beginning of a work day.

So let's start there. Let's talk about the steps we have gone through in our own lives and in our work to engage the public. What has worked and what has not. In doing so, let's move toward clear and coordinated action agendas that the public can buy into, rather than being overwhelmed by them.

I'd like to hear from network members about the challenges and successes they are having in building support for climate policies and in promoting action on climate issues, so please follow the discussion here.

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Cara Pike