How Can We Avoid Climate Avoidance?

How Can We Avoid Climate Avoidance?

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Saturday, September 8, is “Rise for Climate,” a global day of climate action.  One day of action to combat climate change is a start; but how can we sustain momentum from a single day into a lasting impact?

Unfortunately, many of us have been unable to alter the climate avoidance habits we’ve fallen into. We have developed what Charles Duhigg calls a habit loop. For climate change it goes something like this: Climate change>It’s too big>I can’t do anything about it>I’m not going to talk/think about it. By avoiding the topic, we avoid the anxiety. 

Recent data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication summarizes the good news and bad news on Americans’ habits on climate change: 70 percent of Americans think global warming is happening; a majority (58 percent) view global warming as mostly human caused. 

But two thirds of Americans (65 percent) say that they discuss global warming with their family members and friends “rarely” or “never.” Why the climate change silence? According to the Yale report, there are many excuses: the topic just never comes up; they all agree on it; they don’t know enough about it; their family members and friends are not interested; it’s too political; it just never occurred to them to talk about it. 

 We’re not in climate change denial; we are in avoidance. How can we break that avoidance habit?

As a start, answer these simple requests: picture a place, anywhere in the world, that has special meaning for you; now picture that place affected by extreme weather or climate change; next, picture how you’d like that place to look in 40–50 years; finally, picture something you can do now to work towards that vision.

In Graying Green, an organization I started to link the global patterns of population aging and climate change, hundreds of people have used these steps. Everyone has a place they care about. Everyone knows the potential threats to that place. Everyone has a vision for it in 40–50 years (usually what it looks like now or what it used to look like 10 or 20 years ago). But when it comes to the last step, many people are stumped.

But the last step is really important. According to the National Research Council, there are three simple principles that can help us change our thinking and actions on climate change: keep it social, short and positive. Social by focusing on people or places we care about; short by focusing on a time frame that we can envision; and positive by highlighting steps we can take. 

So this Saturday what can you do?

First, start where you are and get more information. The Nature Conservancy provides a carbon footprint calculator to assess your current carbon habits. The Union of Concerned Scientists provides information about global warming’s impacts and actions we can take, including their top 10 ways to reduce your carbon emissions and save money at the same time.

Second, realize you’re not alone and find others who share your concerns. A good place to start is the Climate Advocacy Lab and its interactive map that allows you to see public opinion polling on climate issues at the national, state, county, and congressional district level. 

Because climate change permeates all aspects of our lives, it’s easy to find an organization that mirrors your own passions. Risky Business applies risk management to the health and economic effects of climate change. Blessed Tomorrow works with religious and denominational leaders to move ahead on climate change based on moral and theological beliefs. Elders Climate Action taps into the large and growing resource of older adults who are concerned about climate change.

Third, reach out to your circles of influence: family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers. For example, after a Graying Green workshop, residents of a continuing care retirement community reached out to the administration. Together, they developed a program to compost the food waste of the community. They had never thought about it until they got together and asked, “How might we make our community more sustainable?”

Finally, commit to one next step and tell someone else about it. Whether taking shorter showers, getting an energy audit or changing your air filters regularly, telling just one other person about it improves the odds of actually following through on the commitment. It also breaks the climate change avoidance habit.

This September 8, break the habit. A healthy planet is your legacy: pass it on.



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Jim Staab

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