Getting Past Climate Paralysis To Climate Action

by | May 16, 2022

It’s hard to wrap your mind around the climate crisis. It’s at once an issue that affects everyone and an issue that does not tangibly affect most people’s daily lives. You can take individual actions, like driving less or using less plastic, but one person’s actions can seem futile when supply chains, major corporations, and wealthy individuals continue to pump out emissions with abandon. Big actions, like transitioning away from fossil fuels and implementing climate justice policy, can seem impossible in the current political climate. 

We have all adapted to think that a constant state of emergency is normal, but living underneath the constant shadow of an existential threat is unhealthy. A growing field of psychologists considers the climate crisis to be a collective traumatic event. The feeling of wanting to make a change, but believing that your own small actions cannot possibly create sufficient change, causes anxiety. The thought that life on Earth will change drastically within our lifetimes, and our children’s lifetimes, leads to grief. Anxiety and grief can prevent you from learning or doing anything about the climate crisis, and doing nothing can lead to guilt. All of these feelings and emotions are important to feel and acknowledge, but they can paralyze us from taking meaningful action; And we need to take meaningful action — every single one of us. 

“Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.” That was the assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group (IPCC) II Co-Chair Hans-Otto Pörtner commented in early 2022, when the first of IPCC’s two 2022 reports was released. The report was unequivocal about how dire conditions are for our planet, our communities, and future generations. According to Prof Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC, it “Clearly indicates that places, where people live and work, may cease to exist, that ecosystems and species that we’ve all grown up with and that are central to our cultures and inform our languages may disappear,” said Pörtner.

The fact that human activity is damaging our global ecosystem is not new information. Neither is the fact that that destruction is preventable, but our economic and social systems still demand that we remain on a track towards climate catastrophe. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated, “The facts are undeniable. This abdication of leadership is criminal. The world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home.”

As a lawyer focusing on climate justice, I spend a lot of time thinking about how the law creates and upholds the climate crisis. The law is more than courtroom showdowns and dry legislation: it is the rules supporting the economic, social, and political structures in which we live. It is clear from our current trajectory towards ecosystemic catastrophe that those structures are not working. Extractive capitalism — rooted in colonialism, justified by greed, and upheld by racism, classism, and sexism — is pillaging and burning our planet. 

Our economic systems incentivize infinite resource extraction on a planet of finite resources. Profit motivates the destruction of the Amazon rainforests, the Earth’s irreplaceable “lungs.” Our social systems demand hierarchical competition and therefore discourage solidarity across racial, class, and gender lines. Our political systems, rooted in historical oppression and drenched in dollars from individuals who benefit from the status quo, are at best too slow to meet the demands of the climate crisis and at worst actively propping up the sectors that are hurting the climate. These systems all rely upon one another, as well as wildly successful corporate disinformation campaigns, to continue the mass delusion that unprecedented disruption of our global ecosystems is “progress” and a necessary component of “normal” everyday life.

We receive many messages about the climate crisis in our daily lives. We hear how we as individuals must take on responsibility for fighting the climate crisis — by buying sustainable brands, by recycling, by composting, by donating to the right causes. We simultaneously receive messages that the problem is much bigger than us, and therefore we don’t have any power on our own. These two narratives make us feel at once guilty and disempowered. Of course, we may also hear that the climate crisis is overblown or even a lie. This narrative, crafted by major polluters with help from the same firms that developed disinformation campaigns for tobacco companies in the 20th century, seeds enough doubt into our communities to prevent major change from catching hold. In these storylines, our very real day-to-day personal problems, like supporting our families and accessing healthcare, are completely separate from the climate crisis. It’s not worth spending time on such a niche issue.

The narrative of the climate crisis that I believe is this: the climate crisis impacts (or will eventually impact) every part of our lives. We must each use our individual power to build collective action in solidarity with one another.  Climate justice demands that those closest to the problem, who are majority low income and people of color, be closest to the solution. Climate change is growing more visible in our lifetime. Still, the wheels were set in motion well before we were born — through the genocide of indigenous peoples and through extractive systems of colonialism, slavery, plantation agriculture, and industrialization. We can’t reroute the path our ancestors traveled, but we can acknowledge it and forge a new path for our descendants. The IPCC has shown that effective action on climate change is possible and happening across the globe. As  Dr. Rachel Cleetus, official civil society observer to the IPCC Working Group III, stated, “Every year policymakers choose to selfishly delay action from here on out is a testament to their lack of courage, which future generations will not soon forget. Instead, let’s seize this precious, narrow window of opportunity to secure a safer, healthier and more just world.” 

When our leaders and our existing systems fail, we can build new structures to support and protect all of us. We can dream a sustainable, fair, and just future into existence. 

The thought of a future marred by climate change makes me anxious, scared, angry, and sad, but those deep emotions mean that I care deeply. When I care, I want to join in on meaningful action. Powerful collective action can be as big as Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future campaign. It can be as small as signing a petition to state and local leaders urging them to declare climate change an emergency. It can be fueled by righteous anger, and it can also be fun and joyful like the upcoming Gulf Gathering for Climate Justice and Joy in Baton Rouge, LA. 

At GASP, we have developed a Green New Deal for Birmingham campaign to bring our neighbors together to develop a local People’s Climate Action Plan. The IPCC has unequivocally shown that efforts like this are significant: “[Cities] also provide opportunities for climate action – green buildings, reliable supplies of clean water and renewable energy, and sustainable transport systems that connect urban and rural areas can all lead to a more inclusive, fairer society.” 

With enough solidarity, support, and enthusiasm, we can make a change at home that can, in turn, spark change elsewhere. That is how the movement for climate justice grows. That’s how we will win a livable future.

About Mary Claire Kelly
Mary Claire is GASP’s Climate Justice Legal Fellow through the Harvard Public Service Venture Fund. She is a 2021 graduate of Harvard Law School, where she focused her legal education experience on issues of environmental justice, climate justice, and immigrant justice. She went to law school specifically to become a public interest lawyer in the Southeast.
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