What the science of climate change is telling us about the future is hard to process. Here’s how I handle it.
Recently, my mother asked me why I seemed down. It’s taken me awhile to articulate what I wanted to say, and how.
There are big, macro issues that weigh on me as a feeling human and in my work. One is the state of democracy and rise of autocrats around the world, which I believe is horrible for freedom, equality, and the economy. I’m not going to talk about that one today. What I do want to grapple with is the state of the planet we call home. Because the existential problem that gnaws at my well-being is the destruction of the natural world and the profound climate crisis.
I think I’ve found balance in how to talk about how serious the situation is in my writing and speeches to companies about megatrends. People say I make it sound serious, but with some hope.
But I’ve struggled more personally with how to talk to loved ones about it. Do I share the news those of us in the field are bombarded with and obliged to read? Or do I protect those around me from the worst of it?
In short, what do I tell my mom, my kids, or any interested person in my life?
I’ve thought about this as three distinct questions: What do we really know about climate change? Why am I worried and feel it’s so serious? And how do I — and all of us — cope with that knowledge and move forward?
What Do We Know?
I won’t belabor this. Climate change has been studied as much as any phenomenon in history, by many thousands of scientists. For the quickest, easiest read on the basics, I’d point my mom or anyone to the clear “What We Know” from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and to the simple story “Climate Change: How Do We Know” from NASA.
In short: The climate is changing, it’s caused mainly by humans, and extreme weather will continue to get much worse. Asking whether you “believe” in climate science is not the right question: I focus on why I believe we should act on it, because it’s smart risk management and it’s good for the economy and our health. (A quick word on “climate denial”: It has morphed in most circles from flat-out denial and claims of being a hoax to more subtle go-slow attitudes. But seemingly reasonable skeptics who deny how serious the problem is also create a big hurdle to action.)
Why Am I So Concerned?
The science news over the last year has been rough. First, I’d tell my mom about two major reports that sit heavy on my mind. Both are not easy layman reads, so here’s a very quick recap:
- The United Nations Extinction report. The U.N.’s May report laid out the stark reality of a planet under assault. A million species are at risk of extinction. The natural world and its millions of life-forms are the backbone and pillars of our society. Without bees, ants, or any number of other species, there’s no us.
- The so-called “1.5-degree report” from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The nations of the world agreed in 2009 to hold global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial temperatures. At the time of the Paris climate accord in 2015, it was clear that 2 degrees would still be devastating to the planet and humanity and, specifically, wipe out low-lying areas and nations. The extreme weather we’re feeling — like record-shattering heat in Europe this summer — is the result of the 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) warming we’ve already created. So the IPCC assessed the difference between a 1.5 degree world (bad) and the planned 2 degrees (much worse, as the risk is not linear). Here are eight key takeaways from the World Resources Institute.
Other reporting over the last year has been even heavier. In The Uninhabitable Earth, journalist David Wallace-Wells considers what happens if we go beyond 2 degrees Celsius of warming to 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) or 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) or even more.
What does science tell us? The answer is frankly terrifying — as in, it’s unclear how much of the world we inhabit will be recognizable and livable. I’d point my mom, friends, and older kids to a long article by Wallace-Wells in New York magazine that lays out his basic findings. It’s worth the time. (Believe it or not, there are even darker papers and discussions out there that I honestly can’t bring myself to read.)
In addition to the reading, I’ve talked to leading scientists to dig under the reports, and I regularly explore these scenarios with peers who know a lot. The news is bad. That’s not negativity or pessimism; that’s a cold, hard reading of the situation, much like an honest cancer diagnosis from a doctor.
Thousands of pages of reports boil down to the fact that we, as a species, have just about locked in some ruinous outcomes for ourselves. Entire coastal areas such as Miami are not likely to survive the next half century (so think about the economic and human impacts of the disappearance of large cities and economies). I outlined some of these forecasts in my recent column on nine megatrends to watch.
Even with scientists’ reasonable assumptions, if you truly internalize some percentage of the projections, how could you not get down? Those of us in Gen X will likely live to see some really awful outcomes. We will leave our kids with even worse outcomes. And at the very time we need global, coordinated action that recognizes how much we are all in this together, countries everywhere — from Brazil and the U.S. to Hungary and India — are sliding into a populist, “every person for themselves” stance.
What Gives Me Hope and Helps Me Cope
The right attitude to take here is hard to calibrate. Curling up in the fetal position may seem like a logical move, but it’s not going to help anyone. I’m no psychologist, and I don’t know the best path to deal with all of this knowledge. But the American Psychology Association took this seriously enough to publish a 70-page guide on “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate,” which should worry and comfort us.
An interesting exercise is to locate yourself on the “five stages of climate despair” scale proposed by a smart sustainability thinker, Jonathan Porritt in the U.K. I’m somewhere in the middle of the scale: I believe we can no longer avoid some grave outcomes but that it’s not too late to stop the very worst if we move fast now.
I’m trying to focus on a few positive trends to help move from what could be a position of panic to more hopeful, useful urgency. Some of the good news, in short:
- The clean economy is growing at an unbelievable pace. Renewable energy (solar and wind mainly) is now the majority of new energy added to the electrical grid worldwide. The reason is that renewables, according to annual analysis by the investment bank Lazard and regular data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, are cheaper. The costs of batteries are plummeting, making electric vehicles of all sizes economic (China is adding 10,000 EV buses to its roads every five weeks). Other important technologies, like building efficiency and water-saving techs, driven by big data and AI, are growing fast.
- The business community is moving on carbon and clean tech. About five years ago, just a handful of large companies were dipping their toes in the waters of renewable energy. Now hundreds of the world’s larger companies have joined groups like RE100 (pledging to buy 100% renewable energy) or have committed to science-based carbon reduction targets and contracted for many gigawatts of clean energy.
- The finance world is waking up. Sustainable investing is moving from small fad to “part of the fabric of investing.” Some $12 trillion has been allocated in the U.S. alone. Anecdotally, the biggest shift in my business is the number of global financial institutions that have asked me to speak to them in the last year about megatrends and what’s driving corporate sustainability.
- Younger generations care a lot about climate and are making noise. Sixteen-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has led the charge with school strikes and climate marches around the world. Climate activist groups like Extinction Rebellion in the U.K. and Sunrise Movement in the U.S. are building on that momentum and getting attention. A recent survey of 15- to 24-year-olds in EU countries showed “fighting climate change” at the top of their priority list.
These are helpful trends to steep yourself in and, from a business perspective, many point to big and growing markets today and in the near future. But we also should address the personal toll of the worry and despair that many of us feel. I’ve found a few actions helpful.
- Gather the good news. A friend working in sustainability and corporate strategy has her team actively collect stories of clean tech and innovation from around the world. Similarly, I have my own informal groups who share good news about climate issues via text or email.
- Disconnect occasionally from the tough news. Take breaks. Fighting big, hard fights to improve the world is not a sprint. Everyone needs breaks daily (meditation works for me) and in longer stretches to focus on family, hobbies, or good distractions like engaging fiction (but no post-apocalyptic stuff).
- Connect to people. Commiserating and cheerleading with peers, friends, family, and even people you don’t know well who share your values and concerns can help. It’s good to be reminded that we’re not alone in our concerns, and that our anxiety and sorrow — especially for those of us who have struggled with clinical depression — are normal reactions to dire reports. We don’t have to face these worries on our own.
- Act and never stop fighting. What are the most effective things we can do individually to help reverse global warming? The top recommendation from sustainability thinkers is to vote in politicians who want big, fast climate action. In the U.S., to be blunt, that has ruled out nearly every national politician from the Republican party for many years.
- Laugh and cry. When all else fails, watch videos of babies or puppies. Try not to smile watching this 90-second video of a baby having a passionate “conversation” with his father.
These are hard times. But we have choices, and those choices have impact on what the next one, five, 10, and 100 years will look like. That’s always true, no matter what the state of “today” is. We can choose to make it better and kinder.
(This post first appeared in MIT Sloan Management Review)
If you liked this, check out:
(Fyi, I tweet here)