As a doctor who teaches about climate change and health equity, I start lectures by asking my students to name an emotion climate change makes them feel. Doom, fear, hopelessness, and paralysis are the most common responses.
I sympathize. Still, what the world needs now are solidarity and action. Those of us who teach about climate change are often asked: “What should I do?” There is no universal answer. But I have been struck by climate scientist Kate Marvel’s call to let go of the pursuit of hope, and rather to summon courage — ”the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending.”
As a doctor, I live with the clear understanding that as climate change bears down upon us, it will continue to threaten my patients’ health — and may already be affecting yours. Philadelphia is staring down a brutal, dangerous heat wave this Tuesday through Friday.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change laid out the science in a new report Monday: Our planet is in a precarious situation. With our own eyes, we confront shocking scenes of heat waves, floods, wildfires, and drought daily. Yet at the same time, clean energy, batteries, and electric vehicles have developed at a rate we never could have expected. More importantly, activists worldwide have galvanized attention to climate change. Never before have so many people understood the threat and wanted to do something about it.
To reckon with the great crises of our time — climate change, COVID-19, structural racism — we must reimagine everything. We are too limited by the sentiment that we have to do things the way we did them before. This has led to a fractured society and a damaged planet. The next 50 years have to be very different from the last 50. We will have to transform how we live, eat, move, and build. Some places to start:
We must all become climate voters. It is now a dereliction of duty to not have a robust and effective climate policy if you are running for office — whether for city council or president of the United States. As Project Drawdown teaches us, we have potent solutions at hand. Climate solutions like ramping up wind and solar energy must be an organizing principle for our leaders, and they must have the conviction to ensure their proposals become policy. We are already running behind.
Recognize that you are an effective climate advocate, even if you haven’t acted yet. The Building Movement Project’s social change ecosystem map can be used to reflect on what you care about and what you’re good at. Are you involved at your children’s school? Find out how the district can run on clean energy. Like to write? You can help people understand the severity of the climate crisis. Enjoy bringing people together? Find like-minded communities to organize with on these issues.
Choose information sources carefully. Those saying climate change isn’t dangerous are wrong — but so are those suggesting we’ve already lost the fight to save our planet. I follow the work of climate scientists and advocates such as Katharine Hayhoe, Leah Stokes, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Jonathan Foley, Katharine Wilkinson, Elizabeth Sawin, Michael Mann, Kate Marvel, Aaron Bernstein, and Ed Maibach.
Talk about it. Hayhoe, a deeply respected climate scientist, argues that the most important thing we can do for climate change is the simple act of talking about it. Talk about it to friends and family, drawing on common values, the things and people you love, and how climate change threatens them. Then, ask yourself what you want to do about it.
Find ways to process your grief. There is no denying it, the damage of climate change is overwhelming and scary. We have to be honest that we may experience grief. Finding a community where you can process this is critical. As a primary care doctor, I am seeing a lot of people experiencing eco-anxiety. It is critical that everyone has access to resources, such as an All We Can Save book club and therapy, to process their reactions to the climate crisis.
As a doctor amid a pandemic, I saw firsthand the way frontline workers rose to the challenge of serving a purpose greater than themselves. For this crisis, too, we are the authors of what comes next. Amidst ecological breakdown, we can create social and political breakthroughs. Let future generations see that this was the time humanity more deeply understood our interconnectedness. We may hand our children a tattered planet, but also be able to explain to them that this was the moment when we started healing our relationship to the Earth, each other, and future generations.
Gaurab Basu is the codirector of the Cambridge Health Alliance’s Center for Health Equity Education and Advocacy. @GaurabBasuMDMPH