Banishing the Climate Change Blues

Anxious about where our planet is headed? Tip one: You’re not alone—and that means a lot.

Credit: Vivienne Flesher

Let’s be honest, climate warriors. In the wake of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, his ongoing assault on our environmental safeguards, and the recent dramatic events in Antarctica, it’s likely that your armor feels just a bit flimsy. How much more of this dire news about global warming can you take? And how much do your own actions, or lack thereof, really matter? Aren’t we all doomed regardless?

Please, friends, don’t give up. As researchers from the University of Warwick recently highlighted in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, feelings of helplessness are counterproductive, leading to more climate-damaging behaviors. But believe that you can make a difference—and you will. “Actually there is a great deal each of us can do,” says NRDC senior scientist Kim Knowlton, “and little things add up to big things.” Here’s how to keep your focus in this smoggy time.

Be open about your concerns.

It’s important to talk about your feelings on climate change; you’ll quickly find that you’re not alone. Nor are you an alarmist for doing so. “The future is not just a science fiction,” Knowlton says. “It’s a place where people are going to be walking and living and working, and that future’s going to be here soon. Nature is going to be disrupted, different than before.” So don’t suppress your worries about the extreme storms, heat waves, droughts, and other impacts of climate change that are on the horizon. Concern and outrage can motivate action.

And it’s okay, even healthy, to feel scared. “We need to face the emotion head on,” says Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist and frequent speaker on the psychological effects of climate change. “If you aren’t in pain and feeling deeply anxious, if you aren’t traumatized, you aren’t listening.”

It’s important not only to acknowledge and address your anxieties with those who share them, but to try to educate those who don’t. “Talk to your kids and to your skeptical Aunt Lucy at the Thanksgiving table,” Knowlton says. “We’re going to have to bring everyone along in this game, even those who aren’t doing things with the future in mind, and we have to try to be less judgmental.”

Take a hike.

Or take a walk—but make it in nature, and make it routine. A 2015 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers from Stanford University showed that exposure to nature reduces our tendency to brood, a habit that can lead to depression. In particular, the researchers found that a 90-minute walk in a natural setting quieted the part of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is strongly associated with the tendency to withdraw and focus inward. The researchers also noted that the equivalent walk in an urban setting did not have the same calming effect—underscoring how important it is that our cities provide residents with natural areas where they can decompress.

Nature walks not an option for you? Find another outlet that helps you clear your mind. “Do what makes you feel alive,” says Knowlton. “Do yoga, go dance, take some little kids to the park, volunteer at the hospital, play music, read a book, talk with friends.”

Take action.

Now that you’ve opened up, spoken out, and given your psyche a boost, it’s time to get busy. “Tease out that strong emotion and turn it into action,” Van Susteren says. Your motivation for acting will depend on who you are, she notes; for the elderly it might be altruism, and for the young it might be the desire to help wildlife. Whatever it is that spurs you forward, make it both personally meaningful and consistent with your temperament, Van Susteren advises. If you’re angry, maybe you’d feel most gratified expressing yourself at a protest; if you’re not confrontational, you might focus on planting trees.

And don’t forget that the power to make change is in your hands. Greenhouse gas emissions are ultimately the result of billions of individual decisions, a recent study published in Environmental Research Letters pointed out. While that study highlighted a few key choices that can make a significant dent in one person’s annual emissions (having one fewer child, living car-free, avoiding airplane travel, and eating a vegetarian diet), it’s important that your goals work for you. It’s also okay to start small; NRDC senior scientist and energy efficiency expert Noah Horowitz notes that few actions can reduce the carbon pollution driving climate change as cheaply and easily as making the simple switch from incandescent lightbulbs to the more energy-efficient LEDs.

Here are some more tips to shrink your contribution to global warming.

Do not be a lone climate warrior.

“Like sandbags on a rising river, the spirits of everyone rise with collective action,” Van Susteren says. When we band together to, say, block pollution-spewing businesses in our communities, and we succeed, “it is an immensely satisfying experience, and it helps to heal the immorality of destroying the planet for future generations.”

And don’t discount the progress you and your neighbors can make in your community as too minor to address the global climate crisis. “Those small victories are the kind of thing that really builds momentum,” Knowlton says. Grassroots action can propel the clean energy market forward, establish new social norms, and ultimately influence policy changes. For a reminder of how important those policy changes can be, recall the ozone crisis of the 1980s. Ultimately, that dire threat was averted by the actions of consumers, the media, lawyers, and scientists working together. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol that came out of those efforts and saved the ozone layer.

Note the progress outside D.C.

Although the current administration appears bent on dismantling its predecessors’ clean energy legacy, it’s comforting to remember that the majority of Americans believe that we need to act on climate change. More important, our cities, states, and businesses are picking up the mantle, remaining committed to the goals of limiting global temperature rise through the bipartisan United States Climate Alliance and the I Am Still In coalition. Note these victories, all in the first six months after Trump took office: California extended to 2030 its cap-and-trade program to reduce dangerous climate pollution, Nevada set new clean energy standards, and a new law in New Jersey aims to halve the state’s food waste (a major source of methane) by 2030.

And that’s only in the United States. There are still 194 countries committed to the Paris Agreement, and they’ll march on with or without American participation.

Keep the long view.

The world we’ve inherited has been shaped by the actions of those who came before us, and the one we leave will be shaped by ours. That’s why it’s important to take the long view, even though, “as a species, we’re pretty bad at that,” Knowlton says. Just the same, when it comes to climate, we also know we must act immediately. And, of course, no one can guarantee that our actions will ultimately reverse climate change. But that uncertainty shouldn’t stop us from fighting to reduce the emissions we know we can avoid.

“We tend to focus disproportionately on what the federal government can do for us, but there’s something else we can ask that’s fundamental to our democracy,” Van Susteren says. “That is, what we can do for each other? This is fundamentally our gift to each other, to be the best possible citizens we can be.”

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