Build a climate habit
After a disastrous 2020, a lot of us have the climate crisis on their mind. But if you're like I was, you have no idea of how to get started.
I've only been at it for a couple of months, but for me, building a daily climate habit has been the key to get out of my rut of inaction.
In this post, I share what has worked to get more engaged and start taking action towards a decarbonized future. If you're reading this and feeling stuck about your climate impact, please try a daily climate habit and see how it goes.
Stuck inside these four walls
For a few years now, I have felt stuck on climate. Like many folks, I have known for years (circa An Inconvenient Truth) that the situation was dire, and we needed to act. I thought it enough of a big deal in 2007 to major in energy in college and then in nuclear engineering in grad school.
Then, the 2008 financial crisis happened, a lot of Cleantech investors lost their shirts, and a problem that already looked hard became even more challenging. Like seemingly many others, I looked elsewhere for career and self-actualization while promising to get back to it someday.
Individual change is futile, but collective action is hard.
During that decade, I didn't suddenly become oblivious of the climate challenge. I was doing a few individual actions to "limit my impact" and live somewhat more sustainably. But I hadn't found a way to engage and do something that felt meaningful.
Climate folks have been screaming for years about the trap of focusing on individual actions (which will probably come down as one of the greatest tricks the devil ever pulled).
For example, in the words of Bill McKibben: "All of us have a finite quantum of time or energy or money or whatever to spend trying to solve this problem. So job one is to organize, job two is to organize your friends and neighbors and job three is to organize and if you have some energy left over after that, by all means, check out every light bulb in your house."
I knew that individual action isn't enough, and collective action is necessary if we want to have a chance. But I also felt I was just one person; how do I bridge this gap?.
I don't know how to organize. I don't have a great idea and lots of money. It would probably take a 10-year training plan to turn me into a radical. What the hell am I supposed to do to organize?
I felt stuck. Nothing I could do individually would make a large dent, yet I didn't know how to get started with collective action. Worse, my inability to move forward was starting to feed itself in a perverse loop ("Maybe I'm not suited for this?").
"Start small but do a little bit every day. Then keep at it".
That "loop of despair" resonated when I read Atomic Habits last year. Early in the book, James Clear talks about the relationship between identity and habits. Your identity can be a strong driver of your behavior ("I'm a runner, so I go running") but can also be a barrier to new habits ("I'm not a runner").
His advice to counter it: "Start small and get your reps in." (This feels evident after the fact, but I now think that most useful life advice does.)
In particular, two recommendations he made stuck with me:
- New identities require new evidence. First, decide the type of person you want to be. Then, prove it to yourself with small wins.
- To start shaping new habits, use the "Two-minute rule." Start by mastering the first two minutes of the smallest version of the behavior. Then advance to an intermediate step and repeat the process.
So I figured, "why not try it out for climate and see if that gets me unstuck."
How it started vs. how it's going
I followed Clear's advice and started small, setting the bar at 15 minutes a day. I picked up a few podcasts and newsletters and committed to going through one a day (I have some recommendations at the end). I focused on just doing that for a few weeks (and keeping the streak alive).
And, believe it or not, things happened as described. I started getting excited about some specific problems and technologies and dug into many rabbit holes. I found great communities (including a fantastic book club) to discuss and learn. That lead to other organizations and like-minded people. I supported climate candidates during the election.
After a few months, I've become more fluent with the issues. I feel like I'm finally gaining an understanding of what matters and what we can do. Most importantly, I'm now more comfortable talking to friends, family, and colleagues about what to do. I even feel like I can now stand and refute some bullshit.
I've also figured out where my professional skills could be useful, so I decided to leave my company to focus on climate full time.
That's not to say that I've accomplished anything of importance yet. Climate change is a wicked problem, and I'll be lucky if I ever do. I can't even pretend that I've scratched the surface. But the main benefit of this habit is that in 6 months, the fight against climate change has become part of my identity.
How to make this habit work
The "two minutes" recommendation can be harder to follow than it seems. Here is some additional advice that worked for me.
Disclaimer: this advice comes from an area of privilege (I'm white, male, healthy, financially stable, got lucky with where I was born, etc.). I won't pretend that this remotely applies to folks in different circumstances. I acknowledge this gap and am trying to fill the void.
Don't overthink it
Don't worry about the area you dive in. Are you interested in solar? Gobble all those photons! Are you wondering what's up with nukes? Get all the neutrons!
Pick a reliable source on an area you're interested in and get going. I have found podcasts and newsletters to work very well as they remove the difficulty of choosing. Just pick what's in your inbox that day.
Later, you might have to make sure that you improve your skills over time. But don't worry about it just yet. Get your shoes on, get out the door and do a little bit every day.
Get the flywheel going.
One thing I found useful to avoid overthinking the impact of any single action is to focus on adding more over time. Some actions might be one-off, in this case, you have to find something else to do the next day. You changed your light bulb, great? But what are you going to do tomorrow?
Others, like reducing or eliminating your meat consumption might take you several days/weeks to get dialed in. Once that's done, switch your daily commitment to something else.
This way, you avoid overthinking the impact of any single action (is changing my HVAC better than going plant-based?) by focusing on constant execution. If you focus on keeping your momentum going, you will find that finding new areas of action gets easier over time.
Don't judge the impact (yet)
One incredibly irritating aspect of Climate Change is figuring out "what has the most impact?". Do we need to go 100% renewables, or does nuclear needs to be part of the mix? While this is a big question, this was a significant source of analysis paralysis for me. Put that one on the backburner at first. File the relevant information for later (knowing your orders of magnitude is very helpful)!
Find your "zone of genius."
There are a lot of things to do and not enough of us yet. Find the right one for you.
To quote Atomic Habits again, you want to find:
- What feels like fun to me but work for others
- What makes me lose track of time
- Where do I get greater returns than the average person
You won't understand and be good at all subjects, and it's OK. Better to get very excited by a few topics than trying to master every solution.
This advice applies to the mode of action as well. In the weeks before the election, I was trying to find something to do to help. It turns out I'm more or less reluctant to calling anyone on the phone. I did an hour of phone banking in October, and it was so uncomfortable for me that I had to take 15 minutes breaks between each call. So instead, I used some of my analytics skills to recruit more people to phone bank.
Find an angle that gets you up in the morning and working late at night!
The best way for this to compound is to get together with people. Learn the basics on a topic, but don't keep to yourself too long. Find like-minded people to get you inspired for the days when you don't feel like it.
Talking to your reluctant family members can be a tall order at first. Convincing a stranger in the street is quasi impossible. Instead, find a support group that agrees with you first. It has the added benefits of helping you recharge on hard days (special shoutout here to my All We Can Save circle).
Don't judge yourself. You're flawed, but you're amazing.
One of the most influential books I read in the last couple of years was The Happy Runner by Megan and David Roche. The book teaches how to stay happy when getting good at your chosen pursuit requires you to show up daily and sometimes makes you feel like shit.
Essentially, their advice is: "This might suck occasionally. It's OK. In the end, we're all sack of meats. You're still awesome and doing the right thing. Keep going" (I think of them as the Kurt Vonnegut of running).
Climate Change is a shitty problem. We're pretty screwed. There will be days where you're just depressed and want to hide your head in the sand. It's OK. You're human. Take the day off. Come back healthier tomorrow.
Hypocrisy is the price of admission.
This one comes courtesy of Bill McKibben. In other words, "Don't wait until you're perfect before doing something."
I live in the US, and I fly to Europe, where my family lives, once a year. By all estimates, I have a bigger carbon footprint than 90% of the world population.
Should I wait until I'm a hermit subsiding on foraged mushrooms to open my mouth? Probably not. Does it make me feel shitty and hypocritical? You bet! Don't let it stop you from taking to others.
(To clarify: that is not an excuse to not do anything. Aim to improve and get it done. But don't wait until you're perfect)
Sample workouts to get started
As mentioned above, I've been a big fan of newsletters and podcasts. Podcasts in particular lower the barriers to entry (listen while you run or cook!):
On what to do individually (but remember each only count once):
- A Data-Driven Guide to Effective Personal Climate Action. I've come back to this article by Erika Reinhardt again and again. It lists the individual actions that matter and offers practical steps for each. And it's a great hub to start digging into each.
- Wren Climate Calculator. Calculating your Carbon Footprint shouldn't be the be-all and end-all of your climate action but is an excellent first step. Wren has one of the best ones I've found (for the US).
Newsletters are great because they usually include many links, which makes it very easy to fall into a lot of interesting rabbit holes. Some of my favorite ones:
- Bill McKibben's New Yorker newsletter
- David Robert's Volts
- The Atlantic's Weekly Planet
- Minimum Viable Planet
The two following books propose a long list of solutions to roll back global warming. Those proved very useful to build a broad understanding and a better sense of the orders of magnitude. I've found the book format less daunting for this type of information than the web version.
- The 100% Solution: A Plan for Solving Climate Change
- Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming
There are many great organizations out there.
One that fits particularly well the habit model is Climate ChangeMakers. The pitch is simple: show up for an Hour of Action once a week. No prior experience is needed; the incredible team will guide you from there.
(I'll keep an updated list of recommendations here)
- The first episode of A Matter of Degrees, which contained the Bill McKibben article, lit the lightbulb for me on the individual vs. collective action conundrum
- I read about the "zone of genius" in Matt Mochary's The Great CEO Within.
- The Happy Runner by Megan and David Roche is the book about running that has the most advice for the rest of life.
- Sarah Lazarovic had a great essay about the relationship between individual and system change in her Minimum Viable planet newsletter.
- The book Don't Even Think About It by Georges Marshall goes through some of the reasons why climate change is a particularly tricky for our brains to tackle. This daily habit aims to go against some of them.
If you end up trying this, thank you! We need you.
If this works for you, please share with your friend and families. That's how we'll win this.
Thanks to Kevin Ferret, Natalie Bodington, Vanessa Warheit and Mimi Tran Zambetti for reading drafts of this post.