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  • Writer's pictureD. Pataki

5 steps for turning climate anxiety into meaningful action

Climate despair is exhausting us all. But there is a cure.

According to many social and popular media outlets these days, the future of humanity in a changing climate seems grim. We’ve failed our planet. It’s time to get scared. We should expect climate disasters daily. And whatever do you, don’t look up.

As a sustainability scientist and educator, I constantly hear from students who are frustrated and discouraged by these messages. In the face of terrifying narratives about a dystopian future that’s increasingly pitched as unavoidable, it’s becoming more and more difficult to persuade people of all ages to join the effort to implement climate solutions.

This despair, in and of itself, has become one of the greatest barriers to addressing the climate crisis. In a global survey of 10,000 people aged 16-25, researchers found that 59% were extremely worried about climate change, and 45% said these anxieties impacted their daily life and functioning. 75% said the future is frightening, and 56% thought that humanity is doomed.

The scope of change that needs to take place to address climate change requires all hands on deck - every single person is important in this effort. But one of the most alarming aspects of climate change is how few people currently believe this. I speak to so many students and professionals alike who don't think their contribution is important, so they've turned their attention to other priorities. This needs to change, now.

If you're anxious, in despair, or simply skeptical about whether you as an individual can really make a difference to avoid catastrophic climate change, read on. Your contributions are urgently needed - I believe there is truly a role and path for everyone in the effort to transform the world.

1) Reality check the doomsday scenarios

Humanity is not doomed. Period. As with most issues that gain traction on social media, there is both misinformation and catastrophizing spreading across the internet that is not based on credible science. It's essential to evaluate "doomsday" scenarios with a grain salt and a heavy dose of common sense.

Forest after a wildfire

The most extreme comments suggest that climate change will make the earth uninhabitable, or otherwise drive humanity to extinction. Let's evaluate this idea for a moment. How exactly would this work? Humans are remarkable generalists. We've found ways of persisting for millennia in a wide range of environments, from the frozen north to hot and dry deserts, equatorial climates, and high and low elevations. That's not to say that climate change won't bring serious and significant disruptions to the socioeconomic and geopolitical environment; without immediate interventions there will likely be major climate-driven human migrations, conflicts over resources, and possible destabilization of the global political order. Some non-human species that can't migrate quickly enough or have nowhere to go may be lost. Such losses are tragic. This is why we need urgent action.

But a human extinction scenario is very, very difficult to envision. Other extreme climate scenarios, such as the collapse of the ocean conveyor belt, are highly unlikely to be as sudden or imminent as media coverage suggests. Right now scientists are very actively trying to rein in out of control doomerism narratives, because they're both counterproductive as well as inaccurate.

In this context, it's particularly important to be careful about future predictions and projections we endorse or share. If they seem implausible or unsupported by evidence, think twice, or better yet, start a dialogue. Ask questions about the data and assumptions.

2) Envision the future you actually want, and talk about it

As I've written about previously, our society has taken a hard turn from optimism about the future to dystopian pessimism within my lifetime. One consequence has been the loss of real conversations about the future we actually want to have. There are many conversations across media spaces about what we don't like in the present and the future catastrophes we want to avoid. But that isn't enough to design a future state of society that's better than the present in which both nature and humanity will thrive.

Such a future is within our reach only if we imagine it, envision it, plan it, and take action to make it a reality.

Aerial photo of residential neighborhood

These conversations can start with you. In your view, what should we as a society be working toward at the local and national level? Be as specific as possible. What do you think your city or town should look like? Does it need more affordable housing, more density, different transportation systems, more access to greenspace, more equity? What should the energy system look like? What kind of businesses does it need to attract? Where do you think food and water should be resourced? How can decision-making and democratic processes be maintained or improved?

This exercise serves three purposes: 1) working toward a concrete, positive goal you can envision in detail goes a long way toward alleviating stress and anxiety. This is true in many aspects of life! 2) If we don't plan for a specific outcome we want, it's highly unlikely to simply emerge on its own. 3) Your vision can be the basis of conversations with others. Obviously one person's vision isn't going to create widespread action. But there's an urgent need to start shifting the dialogue at large from what don't like about our current society to what we want to build. That conversation starts with just a few people at a time.

Of course, there are many visioning organizations and experts in this space you could work with as well. Both Utah and Arizona, where I've recently lived, have NGOs focused on local visioning. At Arizona State University where I work, there is even a School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and they offer degree programs to train futurists. It's a whole career path!

3) List 20 possible changes in society that would help realize your vision

Yes, 20! And that's just scratching the surface. What's striking about the sustainability space right now is the sheer number of possible solutions being proposed across communities, sectors, and disciplines. For each solution, there are many pathways to achieve it. For example, if alternative transportation is part of your vision, are you passionate about bike lanes, buses, pedestrian access, transit-oriented development, or other options? What are the elements of your envisioned energy system? Each aspect of your desired future likely has multiple components and pathways.

If you start to brainstorm the possibilities, you may find your overwhelm shifting from the magnitude of the climate problem to the vast array of conceivable solutions and actions we can take to address it. While this can be confusing at first, it has the potential to lift us out of climate despair, as long as we follow up with step 4:

4) Find the top 5 changes that align with your highest values, sense of purpose, and authentic self

Now comes the most difficult part - deciding which actions to work on. I'm not a big fan of the "listicle" type articles that outline "10 Generic Things You Can Do to Fight Climate Change!" That's because climate change action has to be meaningful. By this I mean it has to be effective, but also meaningful on a personal level.

Bringing your most authentic self to the table in the effort to create a sustainable society might be more effective than any other climate action you can take. In a way, it's the emotional, psychological, and moral compromises we've all been encouraged to make that have caused the current global crisis. We're commonly driven to over-consume not just by marketing and advertising, but to offset emptiness and unfulfillment in modern life. We've been taught that humanity and nature are separate, despite our obvious ties to other species and the world around us. We're presented with expectations about the life we should aim to live - the jobs, houses, accomplishments, and experiences that constitute success - which can limit us from pursuing our most ambitious dreams and sense of purpose. But what do you really want? What kind of life will truly be fulfilling? Only you know deep down, but for many people there is great overlap between the pursuit of true, lasting happiness and the pursuit of sustainability.

In addition to climate change, the economic realities of the rising cost of living, stagnant wages, and wealth inequality are all very real. Yet to know what we truly need in the face of those pressures, we have to deeply understand our core personal values and sense of purpose.

That is no small task, making this the most challenging aspect of charting a path toward meaningful personal climate action. But if you have navigated the world of your personal value system and thought deeply about your highest goals, you'll have a guidepost for which of your envisioned societal changes will be most important to focus on.

If you're looking for guidance on pathways toward a value-centered, authentic life, there are new resources available all the time. Here is a current favorite geared toward millennials and Gen Z (but there are nuggets of wisdom for everyone).

5) Make these desired changes your priority climate actions

After 30 years in the environmental field, I have found no better way of combating despair than continually making sure that 1) I have only a few key priorities I'm focusing on at a time, and 2) these priorities are aligned with my core values and highest sense of purpose. If you can pick ~5 key issues from your list of envisioned changes, you should have a tractable set of issues to thoroughly evaluate in different parts of your life:

For example, of all the many climate change issues I could work on, I focus largely on urban and greening issues, because both nature and building just and livable cities align with my core interests, purpose, and values. These are not the only, and not even necessarily the most urgent aspects of climate change, but knowing I can make my own unique contribution to the world by applying my interests, skills, and experience in these areas keeps me going, even when the societal conversation turns to despair. I focus on these issues in all areas of my life, from choosing a place to live, to setting work priorities and goals, and deciding what to focus on in my hobbies and leisure time.

It's also possible, and common, that in the course of this introspection you'll find that major aspects of your life don't align with your values and ideas about your desired future. This has happened to me on many occasions - I've moved, changed jobs, and made major changes to my lifestyle at various times. These changes don't happen all at once, but making a long-term plan to help the different parts of your vision and lifestyle align can also help alleviate exhaustion and despair.

In the workplace in particular, the changing economy and job market are presenting both challenges and opportunities for career planning. Overall, major employers have been reporting shortages of workers who are trained to help organizations navigate climate change. There's a wealth of information about new job training opportunities in sustainability, many of which are very low cost. You might decide that now is the right time to make climate action a meaningful career.

There's much more to say about this topic, but now I'd love to hear from you. How have you navigated anxiety and despair about climate change? Does aligning your values, purpose, and priority climate actions help you?

Demonstration at state capitol


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