Four Climate Scientists on How to Take On Climate Change Today

“Every single person can make a huge difference, and when we come together to work, anything is possible.”
climate-strike-greta-thunberg.jpg

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg joins student environmental advocates during a strike on Sept. 13, 2019, in Washington, D.C., to demand action be taken on climate change. The strike is part of Thunberg’s visit to Washington ahead of the Global Climate Strike scheduled for Sept. 20, 2019. 

Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

“Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope. ”
― Rebecca Solnit,  Hope in the Dark 

Talk about ecological and climate despair.

First came last October’s news that we were on track to lose 1 million species to extinction. Then a long-awaited climate report from a U.N. scientific panel whose findings, U.N. chief António Guterres said, showed we were “running out of time.” Three months later,  news stories announced an imminent insect apocalypse and last month, the U.N. released dire findings on the world’s land and food systems. Then their report on the world’s oceans slated for release September 25 leaked and, yes, it was bad.

“When boomers reminisce about their youth, I wonder what it was like to live young without impending climate chaos,” Amita Kuttner, an astrophysicist born in 1990 tweeted July 26.

But does this mean humanity and all living things are doomed, as some news and commentary portray? Here’s what four climate and social scientists have to say about what it will take—and where they find hope. 

Michael Mann: Decarbonize international economies as rapidly as possible

In early August, Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, did an event with two principal members of the youth climate movement —Alexandria Villaseñor, a 14-year-old New Yorker who as of Sept. 9 has gone on a “climate strike” outside the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan for 39 consecutive weeks, and Jerome Foster II, a 17-year-old activist from Washington, D.C., and founder and editor in chief of The Climate Reporter. 

Michael Mann, Ph.D., accepting the Tyler Prize Award in May 2018. Photo courtesy of Michael Mann.

Mann, who one might expect to be discouraged because he’s at the forefront of the most up-to-date climate science on an as-it-breaks basis is instead inspired—by these youth.

“They’re fighting for their future, and it’s a game changer, re-centering this societal conversation where it ought to be—on our ethical obligation not to leave behind a degraded planet for our children and grandchildren. This is what gives me real hope,” he said.

Mann, author of Dire Predictions, The Madhouse Effect, and The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, said we have the technology. What we need, he said, is the political will.

“There are no physical obstacles to us limiting warming below 1.5C, only political ones,” he tells us. “Doing so will require a massive mobilization, a Marshall Plan, an Apollo Project, whatever you want to call it—a concerted, international effort to decarbonize our economy as rapidly as possible. But it can be done.”

Amita Kuttner: Our challenges aren’t insurmountable

Amita Kuttner, Ph.D. Photo courtesy of Amita Kuttner.

Kuttner experienced extreme weather firsthand, losing her mother and home in a North Vancouver mudslide at 14. One might expect she’d be discouraged, but she is running for a seat in Canadian Parliament with the Green Party of Canada so others do not have to endure climate tragedies. She is encouraged by the fact that local and global movements are creating change and said that our challenges aren’t insurmountable.

“Every bit of work and organization pays off. I also refuse to ever give up,” she says. “All action has impact, so I am encouraged to continue because I know some good will come out of it regardless. I know that it is lessening climate disasters even just a little bit.”

Kuttner said humanity hasn’t doomed itself yet, though we are long past taking sufficient action to ensure that people everywhere will all be OK.

“People are already dying and losing their homes and communities to climate disasters all over the world,” she pointed out. “The most prosperous countries will feel the effects later on but as a whole, they are here already. At this point, the actions we must take are to save ourselves from complete destruction. Every single thing we do will minimize suffering.”

And she says our technology is “absolutely” up to the challenge.

“We have the means to keep global average temperature rise below 1.5C by switching away from fossil fuels immediately, implementing green technologies, and restoring our ecosystems,” Kuttner said. “We must also use energy more efficiently by retrofitting our buildings.”

Peter Kalmus: Talk about climate breakdown every chance you get

Peter Kalmus, Ph.D. Photo courtesy of New Society Publishers.

Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist and author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, said that while it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with all that is happening, he is actually feeling more optimistic now than he did 10 years ago.

“I’m seeing such a rapid shift in culture,” he said. “People all over the world are waking up, fast. Each one of us needs to do everything we can to quicken that process of waking up.

“We need to talk about climate breakdown every chance we get, educate ourselves on the issue, join existing groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise Movement, or climate strikes (or start local chapters), engage in protest and civil disobedience, reduce our use of fossil fuel to better communicate urgency, and use our unique talents to think up creative ways to accelerate the movement. We’re all in this together.”

And research published this July in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences backs up Kalmus: Talking about climate change with others is one of the best actions you can take.

Kalmus, like Mann, called attention to the youth climate movements, who are mobilizing worldwide and with their supporters will take to the streets for a Global Climate Strike on Sept. 20 and throughout that week.

Kuttner also says the situation calls for mobilizing on a massive scale. “We need to act like our survival depends on the changes we need, because it does.”

“Collectively, we have to challenge the structures that make it tough for us to enact change,” she said. “What we lack the most right now is the political courage to actually take action, and I believe many people do not believe we have a chance. In that lost hope, we have lost their commitment and hard work towards a safe climate future.”

Elizabeth Sawin: Pay attention to difficult emotions

Elizabeth Sawin, Ph.D. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Sawin.

As the impacts of climate change become more extreme, and the gap widens between the level of action scientists tell people is needed and the level of action being taken, people are having strong emotional reactions, says Elizabeth Sawin, a biologist and systems analyst who co-founded Climate Interactive, a nonprofit that creates interactive, scientifically rigorous tools that help people view connections and play out scenarios to see what works to address the biggest challenges we face.

Sawin says fear, anxiety, sadness, grief, and anger are some of the most prominent emotions people experience when confronted by the realities that the climate crisis could bring to their lives, before they start planning to live with it and adapt to it.

“The most important thing I tell people experiencing these emotions about climate change for the first time (or even the second, third or fourth time; for some of us they come in waves or cycles) is it’s very normal to feel these emotions, in fact I’d be worried if, knowing what we know, you weren’t afraid, sad, or angry, or maybe all three.

“Each of those emotions is a kind of intelligence that helps us know what to do. Fear tells you to pay attention. You might not be here, if it weren’t for your ancestors’ ability to feel fear. Grief is an emotion that helps you accept things you cannot change. We know that there will be losses we can’t prevent from climate change. People will be hurt, communities will suffer, other species will suffer. Grief acknowledges and honors those losses. Finally, anger tells you that something precious is threatened and needs to be protected.

Join Our Monthly Supporters

“The thing that gives me the most hope is that, worldwide, people are doing just that in unprecedented numbers. More and more people are refusing to stuff down their worries or their frustration with the status quo. Instead, they are honoring their own love for the world, by joining with others, by walking out of school, by demanding needed policies and investments.

“Fear, anger, and grief turned into action, in my experience, lead to one more emotion: hope.”

“Every single person can make a huge difference, and when we come together to work, anything is possible,” Kuttner says. “It will take a way for people to work constructively. If people know there is hope, a pathway forward, and something they can do that will make a difference, the mass mobilization and necessary action will happen.”