On her website, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe tees up her bio with a quote from John Holdren, the former Science Advisor to President Barack Obama. When it comes to climate change, Dr. Holdren said, “We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required, and the less suffering there will be.”
Hayhoe is a professor of political science at Texas Tech University, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, and author of Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, which actor Don Cheadle called “an optimistic outlook on what we all can do to move the needle.” A week out from the start of Earth Month on April 1, looking for a dose of glass-half-full energy that will inspire me to roll up my sleeves and do my part to protect this planet, I call Hayhoe and ask how she thinks Dr. Holdren’s mix is shaping up. Her answer seems surprisingly less than optimistic.
“We are seeing today more suffering than we are seeing adaptation or mitigation,” Hayhoe says. Adaptation is happening, and “people are building resilience to the [climate] changes that are occurring, but it's not happening at the speed required to ensure that we are adequately prepared and that we are minimizing our suffering. So we are seeing suffering first, we are seeing adaptation second, and we are seeing mitigation third. And the way that quote refers to it is very clear: The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation is required and the less suffering there will be.”
Hayhoe’s view is informed in part by the latest iteration of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Sixth Assessment Report, released in late February 2022, which concludes that current climate change mitigation efforts are likely not enough to prevent the most devastating impacts of climate change on humans and other life on Earth. Hayhoe’s thoughts, therefore, are not so much pessimistic as they are realistic.
Because the report’s findings don’t mean we’re doomed. (I’ll say it again, for those who have more anxiety than the average bear: We are not doomed.) But we do need to act—swiftly and at massive scale. According to the new IPCC report, “Reducing climate risk to levels that avoid threatening private or social norms and ensuring sustainable development will require immediate and long-term adaptation efforts by governments, business, civil society, and individuals at a scale and speed significantly faster than the current trends.”
"We need to be having these conversations wherever we are about why [climate change] matters and what we could do together to fix it.” —Katharine Hayhoe, climate scientist
“We need systems to change,” says Leah Thomas, environmental activist and author of The Intersectional Environmentalist. “Individuals have free will, but they're existing in systems that could improve. Because honestly, many companies could make changes pretty easily, if they wanted to, that would drastically improve the current state and the future state of our planet.”
To put a finer point on it: Just 100 companies are responsible for over 70 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. You hear a stat like that…
“And you think, why bother?” says Hayhoe. “Nothing I can do can make a difference. Because I tried so hard to save up, to buy that [electric] car. Or I tried so hard to plan those vacations for my family that didn't involve flying. And I did everything I could and clearly it doesn't even make the difference of a single drop in the bucket.”
But to think that way, Hayhoe says, is to miss the point. “Because individuals can make a difference. In fact, the only way that our industrialized society has significantly changed in the past is through the action of individuals,” she says. From abolitionists to suffragists to Civil Rights activists, the world-changers who came before us all “did one important, essential thing that every single person can do: They used their voice to advocate for the changes that we needed.”
There’s that Cheadle-proclaimed optimism!
“Every single one of us is part of something greater than ourselves. We might be part of an organization, a business, a place of work, a church,” Hayhoe says. “Whoever we are, we are part of these spheres of influence that are greater than ourselves…We need to be having these conversations wherever we are about why [climate change] matters and what we could do together to fix it.”
To turn words into action, Thomas says it’s important to identify your strengths. “A mentor of mine once told me, ‘Every movement needs an accountant,’” she says. “We all have unique skills and things that we can do to play a role, but we're not perfect human beings that can do everything…I think honing in on what you're good at and how you can apply that to a movement, and understanding that you don't have to be someone that you're or not, can inspire a lot of motivation in people and make people feel a little bit less hopeless.”
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, PhD, a marine biologist, founder of Ocean Collectiv, and co-editor of the anthology All We Can Save, echoed this sentiment in a previous interview with Well+Good. “If we all just focus inward on our own carbon footprint, our own environmental impact, then we miss the chance to make the ripples that actually lead to change because we need systems-level change,” she said. “We need to change everything. How do we build the best teams to collaborate with for these projects, whether it's getting people to the polls or getting people involved in climate solutions or getting people involved in social justice issues. It's about finding your role in a team.”
“Our well-being is directly tied to whether or not this planet is habitable for us." —Leah Thomas, intersectional environmentalist
The science on climate change is clear, but it’s not enough to inspire urgent action. According to Hayhoe, “We need to [be talking] about not all the scientific details about Antarctica or polar bears or sea level rise, but about how our lives are being affected, why it matters to us here and now in the places where we live.”
What it comes down to is that “protecting the planet” isn’t about saving this hunk of rock we live on, Hayhoe says. “That's going to be orbiting the sun long after we're gone. It's about all of the living things on the planet that provide every single thing that we need…And so the health of the planet is our health. I wouldn't say that we can't survive without the planet; I would say its health is ours.”
“Our well-being is directly tied to whether or not this planet is habitable for us,” Thomas says. “It's really important to understand who is being impacted the most by different environmental things to have the most comprehensive solutions. And unfortunately, in the United States, communities of color and low income communities are impacted by not one, not two, but basically most of the environmental injustices.”
Lack of tree coverage in urban, often lower-income neighborhoods, is leading to higher rates of pollution and increased risk of health issues like heatstroke for these communities. Research from the early aughts found that 71 percent of African Americans lived in counties that violate federal air pollution standards, compared to 58 percent of the white population. “It's really concerning that so many vulnerable communities or communities that are not as responsible for the climate crisis are going to continue to experience the burdens of it,” says Thomas. “Because when I'm advocating for clean air and clean water it’s because, yes, I believe that they’re a human right. But also, how can you be well and joyful and live an exciting and joyful life if you don't have access to your basic human needs, like the right to breathe clean air and drink clean water?”
Change starts now, and it starts with us. “One thing that people can do [right now] is learn. Learning can be so exciting,” says Thomas. “Start with the joyful stuff. Read about queer environmentalists who have been making a difference for a long time, or BIPOC environmentalists from around the world who might not be as prominently featured…Uncover their stories and their narratives and learn about the work that they were doing so then you can learn about the work that you want to continue on or the efforts that you want to amplify. I think learning your history is a really important step and I encourage people to do that learning before taking action, because when you learn, even if it's just a little bit, then you can have more informed action.”
It’s April 1, 2022. What are you going to do to protect life on Earth today?
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