Why Climate is Scary for Individuals and What to Do About it

Mike Smith
October 25, 2023
Man sitting on a couch with a worried look on his face

I have been thinking about and working on climate for a few years now. In that time, I have watched as friends, family, and even strangers begin to recognize the seriousness of it all and start to process the emotion of it all. Typically, it goes in a few, sequential phases with their associated mindsets:

  1. Obliviousness – Sure, they’ve heard about climate change, but how big of a deal is a couple of degrees? Especially when there are so many other problems in their life / the world?
  2. Awakening – Wow! That was a really weird event. Why was there a wildfire / flooding / crazy heat / etc? That never used to happen and now it’s happened multiple times?
  3. Shock – OH MY GOD. The more I read about this, the worse it seems. We cannot avoid this! Is it even moral to have children? 
  4. Despair – Once you notice how weird things are, the more you notice it all around you. It becomes hard to enjoy a sunny day, because you know it’s often a sign of things being out of balance.

Maybe this has been your experience. I am empathetic because it was my experience, too. 

But it is also not the end of the journey.  

First, it is worth sitting with why it all seems so scary and overwhelming. Multiple, overlapping issues drive the experience, including:

  • The constant weirdness of the weather and the news of it coming from every direction.
  • The injustice that those doing the most damage seem to be so powerful and so unconcerned with their damage.
  • The reporting of new science highlighting just how locked into certain consequences we are going to face.
  • The size of the problem and how inconsequential your actions seem to the whole, especially when there are so many who won’t even acknowledge the problem.

It is the last one that is most important, because you still have a choice to make about where to go. Too often, people at this step give up. They get stuck in Despair. And they shouldn’t, because doing so has a lot of negative consequences for them as individuals and to us all collectively. 

For the individual, acting on climate helps you to feel better. When I hang my clothes on the line, I sit in the sunshine, appreciative of its warmth and knowing I am doing my part. When I eat less meat, I am making choices that are better for the planet, my health, and animal cruelty. Doing what I can brings me personal happiness. 

Could I go to extremes? Yes. 

Do I have to? No. Doing my part is enough.

For us more collectively, I’m reminded of the admonishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that

“Every decision matters, every year matters, and every fraction of a degree matters.”

The decisions of an individual are small and inconsequential, but the decisions of individuals together are massive. If you were to think of climate as a war for the future, it won’t be won by any one individual, but by an army of individuals making independent decisions for the united good.

In fact, this is the truest power of the individual – the influence their decisions have on their friends and relatives, the economy and major corporations, and politicians and governmental decisions. For the people in your life, even without preaching about it, just sharing that you’ve changed your behaviors and purchasing decisions will shape their thoughts. You can win their hearts through the power of example. 

As an individual buyer of products, your climate-informed decisions reverberate throughout the economy, sending signals to local companies and major corporations alike. And as a voter – you already understand the consequences of elections going the wrong way. Show up and vote climate first at every election from school board to national leadership. It matters.  

You might be asking then, what decisions should you make? Thankfully, you don’t have to become a climate expert, just climate informed. I’m a big fan of the work that Project Drawdown does on the subject. Their recommendations are phenomenal and, more importantly, backed by solid science. The thing I like most about these recommendations are that they are highly achievable – you don’t need a lot of money to do them and generally they save you money, while making you happier and healthier. What’s not to like? Here are the top options, in order of impact:

Top 20 high-impact climate actions for households and individuals graph

  1. Reduce food waste – Did you know that 40% of all food produced in the US is sent to a landfill, where it rots and produces the potent climate gas methane? Consider this guide from the USDA on how to reduce waste and save on groceries at the same time.
  2. Eat less meat – I won’t tell you how to live your life, but your doctor will probably tell you that eating less meat (especially red meat) will be better for your health. Of course you can go all the way into the vegan lifestyle, which is scientifically healthier than the standard American diet, but if you want to just dip your toe in the water and receive many of the same health and climate benefits, try Meatless Monday (here are 25 recipes). You’ll find its easier and more flavorful than you think and you’ll notice that the numbers in your budget and your health will improve. I know it has for me.
  3. Go solar – This can be expensive, but there are a few things to consider that might surprise you. First, if you don’t own your home, look to sign up for a community solar program in your state –  CNET has a good guide. If you do own your home, Google’s Project Sunroof can show you how much it would save you on going solar, what it would cost upfront, and more. Here’s the other thing – you can cut half of the cost of installation by doing it yourself, too! Consider buying the installation materials directly and hiring an electrician to do the final connection. It all qualifies for tax credits!
  4. Improved insulation – Hate a drafty house or watching your utility bill skyrocket in summer and winter? Get a home energy audit! Chances are your utility company will offer this for free or a discount, so it will potentially cost you nothing to find out where the options are for improving your home. Then have a local company do the work, often again subsidized by the utility company. Costs vary, but you’ll make money in the longer run and be more comfortable. It’s a win-win.
  5. LED Lighting – If you haven’t replaced every traditional lightbulb in your home with an LED one, you’re wasting about $10 every year per lightbulb. You results may be different based upon usage and cost of electricity (here’s a great calculator), but LEDs pay for themselves in about three months and last ten times as long. So don’t just wait until those old bulbs burn out – this is the rare thing where replacing something before its worn out is better for the planet, and your wallet. 

Did you notice what I didn’t mention? Expensive cars, fancy gizmos, or massive lifestyle changes. Those all help, too, but taking your first steps will save you money, your health, and will give you peace of mind that you’re helping to move us forward on climate. If you want to calculate your specific footprint and see what the biggest opportunities in your life provide, consider using Aclymate’s free personal carbon calculator - myAclymate

I’ll end with one last thing – something that Project Drawdown missed – and that is your relationship with your employer. Your footprint is certainly bigger than it needs to be, but it is very small in relation to your employer’s. Tell your boss that what your company does on climate matters to you, is something that you consider when looking for jobs or staying in one, and that inaction is unacceptable. That may feel a little intimidating but remember that your best power on climate are your relationships and you spend more time at work than anywhere else. It’s hard to say no to someone that you see everyday, so your boss will likely listen to you, especially if you bring friends. 

Mike Smith
October 25, 2023

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