All Articles

Thoughts on Climate Action

Just as I’d expected, the experience of writing out my thoughts on climate action led to a ballooning post. The topic is so deep, multidimensional and existentially important — part of why I find it so interesting — so it’s impossible to give it a comprehensive treatment. So, true to my word, I’ve pushed myself to share something deliberately incomplete. I’m going to keep saying it: please feel welcome to question, critique, share and remix these ideas.

I won’t focus this post on an exhaustive presentation of the scientific evidence base that the climate is changing — that’s already been done. Instead, I’ll explain why I empathize with people hesitant to embrace the urgency of the crisis and talk about why and how to engage everyone. I’ll also put forward a way of approaching the challenge that I feel cuts across the full spectrum of our society, intended to be useful to anyone interested in contributing to the effort.

Getting informed

I’ve been exclusively focused on climate action for the past three years, and I’ve been studying climate science or working on climate impact more or less directly for the past twenty. My upbringing led to some awareness of environmental issues, but more in the form of “leave no trace” ethics.

Early in my undergrad years I was semi-sceptical that climate change was being caused by humans. I was uninformed (I hadn’t studied the evidence), and was naïve to the scale of humanity’s activity on Earth.

My attitude was along the lines of “How could little old us affect something so big?” Once, in high school, I’d trespassed on a large mining operation on the outskirts of my hometown in Colorado. I’d seen the earth movers that had tires twice as tall as me — but I didn’t really grasp just how the effects of millions of internal combustion engines, along with society-scale agriculture, energy, and natural resource extraction could compound to materially move the needle on a climactic scale. A suburban, middle class upbringing and childhood exploring North America’s natural places hadn’t exposed me to the scale of industry we’ve created, or the cumulative effects of our society’s development over time.

Curious to color in this blind spot, I took on environmental studies as a second major at university. The real a-ha moment I remember was reading JR Petit’s 1999 paper, Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica. Petit is (was?) a paleoclimatologist and led a team studying prehistoric conditions of the Earth’s climate. By comparing CO2 concentrations in air bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice for hundreds of thousands of years with the proportions of different isotopes of water (shown to indicate average climactic temperatures), Petit’s paper showed the causal relationship between greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere and global average annual temperatures. (I promised not to go deep on the science, so I’ll leave it there.)

Suddenly I understood where the “CO2 concentrations through history graph” made famous in An Inconvenient Truth came from. Courses on population biology and ecology demonstrated to me how quickly communities of organisms can affect the stock and flow of resources in systems. My worldview also expanded to include a more accurate grasp of the scale of human activity. Trips to Mexico City, São Paolo and Mumbai reinforced this, especially my embarrassing but profound insight that those places weren’t a performance set up just for me to witness: those cities are like that all the time.

The task

In any case, this formative education shaped my understanding that we affect the Earth’s climate, influencing the system to a deeper degree each year. Every action we take has an impact on the climate, and we’re constantly expanding our depth of understanding (within a community of experts), as well as the breadth of awareness (across the population). The climate breakdown is due to unintentional actions; our task now is to address the climate crisis by intentionally changing our behavior so we can manage inevitable harm, and reverse the worst effects of this global destabilization.

I’ve spent a lot of my time deepening my understanding of the systems of life we rely on. Everything I learn deepens my realization of just how radical the changes we need to make really are, and how courageous we need to be to make these changes. The most effective path will often be counterintuitive. But the aim — to make the transition into our role as stewards of life on the planet, and to create the conditions for life to flourish now and into the future — is worth the effort.

The truth is that we face decisions about the extent to which we value this aim, and how much we’re willing to accept the alternative — a deep degree of suffering and harm, and to sacrifice the potential to live well in the future. It’s a complex question, and in many ways a moral one. I’m interested to have these conversations — I want to learn, and I have my own opinions — but I recognize the trade-offs, and am guarded against the purity tests that are often applied by the most vociferous climate crusaders. There are real costs to making these changes now — costs that are born by people who are alive today. At the same time, we can always be doing more, and should strive for that (as I’ve heard at every single climate event I’ve ever been to). It’s an unsatisfying, messy state of affairs — we are always already and never enough — but it’s true. My disposition is to recognize and respect peoples’ valid concerns, and work creatively to accelerate behavior change. I don’t believe anyone who presents this as a simple thing.

The importance of framing

I choose not to frame our efforts to address the climate crisis as a “battle” or “fight”. I know this is a common way to talk about it, and I understand why people do it, but I think there are a few ways in which it’s wrong.

First, using the metaphors of conflict perpetuates an adversarial mindset — the “us vs. them” attitude. It seems to me that this mindset, of a zero-sum conflict for scarce resources, is at the root of the value our culture places on accumulation. I believe that while this trait is reasonable in a certain context, it is also misguided and deeply harmful. I notice it in myself: the drive to secure “enough” so I don’t have to rely on other people. The myth of the rugged [American] individual is just that — a myth. We need one another to survive and thrive, and would be well-served to embrace that interdependence and the vulnerability it entails, rather than reject it. This is an ongoing project for me personally, and I recognize I am not completely justifying it here — maybe something for another post.

Another reason why I don’t talk about “the fight against climate change” is that it creates the illusion that this is a fight that can be won, and the consequent implication that once we win, we can go back to life as usual. This is not an effort that will be “completed” in our lifetime — I think it’s inaccurate to talk about “solving” climate change. Even once we have stabilized the atmosphere by massively decreasing annual emissions and removing several hundred thousand tonnes of CO2, we will have an ongoing task of managing the system, steering it within the planetary boundaries. I don’t want to enter into an endless war — false hope is a form of suffering and a recipe for fatigue. Instead, I frame the effort in a way I feel I could sustain.

There’s a cost to using war terminology, and there are reasons why it’s a common tactic. Painting the breakdown as a threat and the [insert climate adversary] as the enemy stimulates the fight-flight-freeze response (the sympathetic nervous response). Creating this sense of danger effectively catalyzes emotion and action, at least in the short term. But there are several costs, as well. Viewing other people as the enemy deepens divides and erects barriers to engaging with people who are instrumental to our climate response (like oil and gas companies). Actions taken out of fear tend to be less systematic, reasoned and measured. A constant state of fear degrades our mental health and leads to burn-out.

I believe that hope inspires higher quality, more durable action than fear. I also believe that this is an effort we need everyone for — there is no “them”. Rather than whip up action motivated by our baser impulses, I frame things in a way intended to help to create a coordinated, inclusive movement to address the drivers of the climate breakdown from every angle.

Approaching action

Even with a coordinated and inclusive effort, the scale and breadth of the crisis we are confronted with demands an intelligent approach. I’ve realized I (obviously) need more than one post to unpack all of this, so I’ll leave this off by opening the door to how we could approach creating impact, rather than drawing any conclusions.

  1. Addressing the omnicrisis requires us to regenerate our natural, social and personal “systems” along many different dimensions. Each person values different things that will lead them to work on different issues — this is a good thing.
  2. No one has power over the whole system, but we all have power over some part, however small. Lucid assessment by each individual of what lies within their locus of control, or zone of influence, enables them to exert effort on things they can actually change, and release angst about things out of their control.
  3. To change systems, clear-eyed analysis of their dynamics and causal relationships will help us identify leverage points, places we should focus our interventions to increase the chances they have our intended effect.

There is so much more to say — I’ll post more soon (intentionally vague). Expect upcoming thoughts on these three components of intelligent climate action, as well as exploring the idea of “complex intentional systems”, and possibly looking at some specific, contrarian ways to approach the issue.

I’m sharing this to show how I think — partly to invite critique and sharpen up, and partly to offer my perspective, in case it’s helpful. If you see something here you disagree with, please do raise it — I’m available on Twitter (I refuse to call it “X”), or via email at john.iv [at]

Published Dec 15, 2023

Helping build a brighter future