October 8, 2019

Yes, I'm Feeling Down About Climate Change. Let's Discuss.

(Catching up on re-posting my articles. Like many people out there who are working on climate change, or are internalizing the news, I've struggled at times to stay optimistic and productive in the fight. I wrote this piece to discuss how I'm feeling and how I think about staying positive.)

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Recently, my mother asked me why I seemed down. It’s taken me awhile to articulate what I wanted to say, and how.

There are big, macro issues that weigh on me as a feeling human and in my work. One is the state of democracy and rise of autocrats around the world, which I believe is horrible for freedom, equality, and the economy. I’m not going to talk about that one today. What I do want to grapple with is the state of the planet we call home. Because the existential problem that gnaws at my well-being is the destruction of the natural world and the profound climate crisis.

I think I’ve found balance in how to talk about how serious the situation is in my writing and speeches to companies about megatrends. People say I make it sound serious, but with some hope.

But I’ve struggled more personally with how to talk to loved ones about it. Do I share the news those of us in the field are bombarded with and obliged to read? Or do I protect those around me from the worst of it?

In short, what do I tell my mom, my kids, or any interested person in my life?

I’ve thought about this as three distinct questions: What do we really know about climate change? Why am I worried and feel it’s so serious? And how do I — and all of us — cope with that knowledge and move forward?

What Do We Know?

I won’t belabor this. Climate change has been studied as much as any phenomenon in history, by many thousands of scientists. For the quickest, easiest read on the basics, I’d point my mom or anyone to the clear “What We Know” from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and to the simple story “Climate Change: How Do We Know” from NASA.

In short: The climate is changing, it’s caused mainly by humans, and extreme weather will continue to get much worse. Asking whether you “believe” in climate science is not the right question: I focus on why I believe we should act on it, because it’s smart risk management and it’s good for the economy and our health. (A quick word on “climate denial”: It has morphed in most circles from flat-out denial and claims of being a hoax to more subtle go-slow attitudes. But seemingly reasonable skeptics who deny how serious the problem is also create a big hurdle to action.)

Why Am I So Concerned?

The science news over the last year has been rough. First, I’d tell my mom about two major reports that sit heavy on my mind. Both are not easy layman reads, so here’s a very quick recap:

Other reporting over the last year has been even heavier. In The Uninhabitable Earth, journalist David Wallace-Wells considers what happens if we go beyond 2 degrees Celsius of warming to 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) or 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) or even more.

What does science tell us? The answer is frankly terrifying — as in, it’s unclear how much of the world we inhabit will be recognizable and livable. I’d point my mom, friends, and older kids to a long article by Wallace-Wells in New York magazine that lays out his basic findings. It’s worth the time. (Believe it or not, there are even darker papers and discussions out there that I honestly can’t bring myself to read.)

In addition to the reading, I’ve talked to leading scientists to dig under the reports, and I regularly explore these scenarios with peers who know a lot. The news is bad. That’s not negativity or pessimism; that’s a cold, hard reading of the situation, much like an honest cancer diagnosis from a doctor.

Thousands of pages of reports boil down to the fact that we, as a species, have just about locked in some ruinous outcomes for ourselves. Entire coastal areas such as Miami are not likely to survive the next half century (so think about the economic and human impacts of the disappearance of large cities and economies). I outlined some of these forecasts in my recent column on nine megatrends to watch.

Even with scientists’ reasonable assumptions, if you truly internalize some percentage of the projections, how could you not get down? Those of us in Gen X will likely live to see some really awful outcomes. We will leave our kids with even worse outcomes. And at the very time we need global, coordinated action that recognizes how much we are all in this together, countries everywhere — from Brazil and the U.S. to Hungary and India — are sliding into a populist, “every person for themselves” stance.

What Gives Me Hope and Helps Me Cope

The right attitude to take here is hard to calibrate. Curling up in the fetal position may seem like a logical move, but it’s not going to help anyone. I’m no psychologist, and I don’t know the best path to deal with all of this knowledge. But the American Psychology Association took this seriously enough to publish a 70-page guide on “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate,” which should worry and comfort us.

An interesting exercise is to locate yourself on the “five stages of climate despair” scale proposed by a smart sustainability thinker, Jonathan Porritt in the U.K. I’m somewhere in the middle of the scale: I believe we can no longer avoid some grave outcomes but that it’s not too late to stop the very worst if we move fast now.

I’m trying to focus on a few positive trends to help move from what could be a position of panic to more hopeful, useful urgency. Some of the good news, in short:

These are helpful trends to steep yourself in and, from a business perspective, many point to big and growing markets today and in the near future. But we also should address the personal toll of the worry and despair that many of us feel. I’ve found a few actions helpful.

These are hard times. But we have choices, and those choices have impact on what the next one, five, 10, and 100 years will look like. That’s always true, no matter what the state of “today” is. We can choose to make it better and kinder.

(This post first appeared in MIT Sloan Management Review)

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