The reality of the climate crisis is dire — and it can be overwhelming.
In the past month alone, we’ve seen the hottest July ever recorded on the planet (again), the largest ever single wildfire in California history (again, just a year after the last one), and deadly floods devastating the Southern U.S. (again).
The United Nations’ recent climate report repeated what similar reports have been saying for years, with even greater certainty: Humans are the “unequivocal” cause of climate change, and the window to avoid catastrophic living conditions worldwide due to global warming is rapidly closing.
There have long been concerns in the climate science community about possible public “fatigue” at being bombarded with dire news of the worsening climate, and having this lead to widespread dread or overwhelm, which can create an emotional barrier to actually taking action.
But various climate scientists, speaking to HuffPost, rejected the idea that people are tired of too much bad climate news. If anything, they see progress in the ever-growing share of Americans who recognize climate change as a serious issue: A majority of the country, or 6 in 10 people as of a 2020 Pew Research survey, say global climate change is a “major threat” to the country, up from 44% in 2009. We need more coverage of the climate crisis, scientists said, not less.
Still, the experts recognized that for those paying close attention to the crisis, particularly people living in communities directly affected by fires, storms and floods, it can be exhausting.
“I get the fatigue and the climate grief,” said Astrid Caldas, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “What kind of world are we leaving for the next generation?”
For climate scientists themselves, who have been sounding the alarm on this for decades, much of their own “fatigue” comes from what they see as a lack of sufficient action from political and corporate leaders, who have the power to implement the large-scale solutions needed to avert the worst.
“I am ‘report fatigued.’ We need action,” Marshall Shepherd, director of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program, wrote at Forbes this month. He called for more planning from local and federal governments for a transition to “a renewable energy economy,” and urged leaders to “address the disproportionate burden” of climate disasters on “vulnerable, poor, and marginalized populations.”
The experts HuffPost spoke to all had the same antidote to climate dread: Take action. The climate crisis is urgent, the changes needed are at a massive scale, but it doesn’t mean individuals can’t make a difference.
“We are now in an all-hands-on-deck moment,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale University’s program on climate change communication. “We need everybody doing everything they can, at the individual level, community level, national government and business level. This is all of society.”
For scientists tasked with communicating to the public the urgency of the climate crisis and what needs to be done, part of the challenge is the wide range of people’s understanding of just how bad the situation is.
Americans are deeply politically divided on climate change. About 72% of Democrats say human activity is contributing “a great deal” to climate change, versus just 22% of Republicans, according to Pew. A vast majority of Democrats say climate change is impacting their local community (83%), while less than half of Republicans do (37%). And while 89% of Democrats think the government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change, only 35% of Republicans think so.
There is another way to slice up the country when it comes to environmental issues, per Leiserowitz’s team at Yale: the “six Americas.” Through dozens of national surveys in the U.S. over years, the researchers identified six separate audiences who approach the climate crisis from different vantage points. These groups include the “alarmed” (around 26% of the U.S. in 2020 — encouragingly, up from 11% in 2014), who know that the crisis is happening, it’s human-caused and it’s urgent; the “concerned” (28% of the population), who know the crisis is human-caused, but think of its effects as more distant in time and place; the “doubtful” (12%), who aren’t sure if climate change is real, but think that if it is, it likely has little to do with human action; and the “dismissive” (at an all-time low of 7%), many of whom believe climate change isn’t happening at all.
When it comes to spurring action, Leiserowitz emphasized the need to “meet people where they are” in crafting messages that can get through to people all along the spectrum of climate understanding.
One of the most significant factors in determining people’s level of concern about climate change, experts said, is whether they live in front-line communities experiencing the devastating effects of the crisis year after year, such as high heat, deadly fires or devastating storms and floods.
“When you see your family members die, your house washing out from under your feet, when your fishing grounds are not productive, plants are dying around you — and the root of that is climate change — it is personal,” said Isabel Rivera-Collazo, an assistant professor on human adaptation to climate change at the University of California, San Diego, who works with coastal communities in northern Puerto Rico.
There is “serious mental health fatigue” for people in communities directly affected by climate change, Rivera-Collazo said. After Hurricane Maria in 2017, which killed thousands of Puerto Ricans and left hundreds of thousands without power for months, there was an increase in suicides.
For the scientists studying climate change, too, there is exhaustion in repeating the same message for years and not seeing an adequate response from corporations or government.
“All of us in the expert community know we should have acted 40 years ago, and the window is closing ... At some point, you cross important thresholds and everything we’re experiencing now gets much, much worse,” Leiserowitz said. “So in the climate expertise community, of course we’re frustrated. We’ve been saying, ‘World, you need to take this seriously.’ ... We’re all frustrated with the fact that the message hasn’t gotten through enough to drive the kind of action that is required.”
Rivera-Collazo pointed to the “burnout” she and other researchers feel from working with front-line communities and seeing the increased damage to those communities over time.
“I personally receive hundreds of phone calls asking me to do something, and I feel powerless. Apart from doing my research, how much more can I do?” Rivera-Collazo said, noting she goes to therapy to help with the mental health effects of her work. “I don’t have an answer to how to mitigate coastal erosion and the loss of biodiversity. There are small things we can do, but governments and corporations have much more power than single researchers and individual communities.”
Rivera-Collazo said she’s “particularly worried” for young people who may feel “despair” or feel “powerless” thinking that climate action is “not realistic,” given the relatively small impact of the individual decisions they can make — buying local goods, eating less meat, turning lights off, recycling — versus big corporations’ large-scale damage to the environment.
But Leiserowitz warned against such nihilism, saying individual action and systemic change go hand in hand. “You need both,” he said. “It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.”
“I can’t build a private bullet train from New York to L.A., so yes, we do need systems change to ultimately solve this,” Leiserowitz said. “But how do you get to systems change? We live in democracies. You get big systems change if the public is demanding action. It’s public and political will.”
He added that the world has “everything we need” right now to combat the climate crisis in terms of technology, policy ideas and money.
“We’re just missing the demand for those solutions,” Leiserowitz said. “Public and political will: That’s the missing ingredient.”
“When you see your family members die, your house washing out from under your feet, when your fishing grounds are not productive, plants are dying around you — and the root of that is climate change — it is personal.”
Even so, knowing what to do as an individual in the face of a massive climate crisis is not so straightforward. Even among the most “alarmed” on Yale’s scale of “six Americas,” many still don’t know what they, or society, can do to address climate change effectively.
Climate experts shared some ideas for simple steps you can take now to get more engaged:
Join a group.
Conservation psychologist Susan Clayton suggested finding a group to join — or creating one of your own — whether its purpose is discussion, activism or community.
“Everyone thinks, what can an individual do? But think of a vote. Does a single vote make a difference in an election? Almost never. But I am committed to vote,” Clayton said. “My single action may not make a difference on climate change, but it’s a way of participating in a collective battle to deal with this crisis.”
Make your household greener.
Leiserowitz noted that people’s individual decisions in their homes, when multiplied by millions of households, can make the difference in transitioning from an economy dependent on harmful fossil fuels to one that relies on much more eco-friendly renewable energy.
He suggested choosing electric cars over gas-run vehicles, replacing gas-burning stoves and furnaces with heat pumps, buying clean energy from your power company and putting solar panels on your roof.
“To achieve the big change we need, you need to engage the decisions of billions of people,” he said.
Care for your local beaches and parks.
In the communities in Puerto Rico that Rivera-Collazo works with, residents who’ve seen coastal erosion and the effects of storms on their beaches have been leading activities to stimulate biodiversity and reduce pollution, including reforesting an area damaged by Hurricane Maria and doing beach cleanups.
“Each time, we collect less and less trash, because of engagement with users of the beach,” she said. “One community member said for her it’s the most important. She feels she’s doing something.”
Rivera-Collazo noted that climate change is “larger than a single community on a three-mile stretch of coast,” but “once people feel ownership, they can push back on larger causes: governments, industry.”
“We are now in an all-hands-on-deck moment. We need everybody doing everything they can.”
Take action, even if you can’t see the effects of the climate crisis in your local community — yet.
Robert Bullard, a longtime environmental justice researcher and professor of environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston, noted that “Black and brown, lower-income communities” are often the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and have the fewest resources to recover after disasters.
In Houston, the same communities that were still recovering from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 were hit again by devastating floods in subsequent years and a major winter storm this February. That unusual storm caused widespread power outages, leaving some people freezing in prisons without running water and other people with spikes in their energy bills. “It’s one after the other,” Bullard said.
Rivera-Collazo also noted that “many of these communities carrying the burden of climate change are suffering other things,” including poverty and gentrification.
“When we say ‘what can we do’ to invite people to do more, remember some people cannot do more,” she said. “Others have to do more.”
Rivera-Collazo walks her students through an exercise to engage them on climate change, urging them to think of the basic things they consider necessary for “living well” in their daily lives.
“Start thinking about how those privileges you are currently enjoying, when they get impacted — not if, when — what are you going to do?” she said. She asks students to consider where their food, water and electricity come from.
“If you feel safe, if you feel distant, it means you’re not aware of your vulnerabilities,” she said. “Climate change is so big, everyone is being threatened.”
Don’t forget: There’s hope.
All of the scientists HuffPost spoke to said that the key to stopping dread and starting to take action on climate change is knowing there is hope. The worst can still be averted.
Leiserowitz noted that the U.S. is already “well into the transition” from fossil fuels to clean energy.
“Good news ― wind and solar are cheaper than fossil fuels in most parts of the world today,” he said. “This is where the future is going. The question is, will we make that transition fast enough?”
For Rivera-Collazo, hope comes from seeing front-line communities “not just sitting back and crying,” but taking it into their own hands to clean and replenish local coastlines. “They are doing things. That for me is a source of hope,” she said. “People are not sitting back and waiting for somebody to come save them.”
Bullard, who is 74, locates his hope in young people “beginning to flex their political muscle, voting and getting into policy positions,” and particularly youth who are “demanding transformative change rather than incremental baby steps.”
And Caldas, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, had a message for the not-so-young: “The youth fighting so hard ... At one moment or another, their parents’ generation is going to wake up to the fact that their kids are fighting for a mess they are making, and they should get engaged.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.