In recent talks and gatherings about climate change and carbon management, the emotion I encounter most frequently is fear.
Fear – which manifests as anger, or anxiety, or numbness. Fear, which begets hatred and disgust, or which becomes the basis for paralysis or righteousness.
In these gatherings, the most common public question I receive is “What can I do?” – in part a response to that anxiety.
I recommend an alternative question: “What can WE do.”
“We”, not “I”, carries the antidote to fear.
Mitigating and reversing climate change is not a personal task - it is a team sport. It requires collective action.
Scientists and businesspeople must innovate. Governments must invest and build. States and cities must change how they buy and operate. Educators and managers must train and teach. We must change steel and concrete production and how we fuel ships, planes, and every home and building.
No amount of individual action can make those changes real. The task at hand is to foster a collective narrative that is vivid, empowering and clear.
The modern world encourages individual narratives – personal stories. Some are heroic narratives: I am strong, and I can fight. Some are victim narratives: I am powerless in the face of terrible forces, evil or misguided or ignorant (ironically, social media helps boost the individual narrative. Individuals act on TikTok, Facebook, or Twitter, where they post triumphs, declare victimhood, or act snide).
A collective narrative is a stronger response than an individual one. This is extra true in the climate crisis.
We have agency.
We can act together to build and improve.
We can reduce our power plant and factory emissions through efficiency, conservation and application of new technology.
We can replace them with better versions that pollute far less.
We can innovate and deploy better energy solutions.
We can remove CO2 from the air and oceans with nature and with technology.
We can invest in infrastructure.
We can invest in people.
We are strong together. And if you’re young and start now, you’ll conclude your career witnessing that vision made real.
So we need a shared story to launch our better angels. I honestly don’t know how to write one or how it might sound. So humbly I offer the first part of a shared story: It’s not that hard.
We have everything we need – time, money, natural resources and technology. The Lego-blocks are made – we just need to work together to put them into place. No miracles required. We have cheap, abundant low-carbon energy. We have the greatest wealth and knowledge in all of history. We can do this.
The second part of a shared story: It’s incredibly hard.
Make no bones about it – the tasks are incredibly difficult and will take decades to complete. We must build huge new systems for energy and food. We must create new rules for trade and commerce. We must commit unprecedented amounts of money – many trillions of dollars every year. We must change laws to accelerate some actions and block others. It will require commitment of many countries for many years. Success requires scientists and engineers, lawmakers and lawyers, investors and regulators, companies and communities – all working, and working together.
If you’re not concerned about how hard it is, you’re not paying attention.
The third part of a shared story: It’s not that hard.
We’ve accomplished extraordinary things in the past – even the recent past. One example: the reunification of Germany, which cost more than $2 trillion. Reunification money healed a horrible wound that spanned generations and half of Europe. Some of that money was well spent upgrading infrastructure, investing in energy efficiency and modernization, and accelerating the astonishing cost reductions in wind and solar. Some was invested in people – education, better and more efficient homes – and some was invested in communities, including environmental redress.
That impossible, incredible commitment now powers the economy of Europe. It made it possible to accept millions of refugees between 2015-2020. It created a platform for greater justice and equity, featuring an east German woman serving 16 years as Chancellor.
When asked how Germany could handle the flood of refugees, Ms. Merkel responded “We can manage it”.
We reached the moon and mapped the ocean floor. We dodged the bullet of nuclear annihilation and destroyed thousands of warheads. We created COVID vaccines in one year – 2020!! India brought electricity to 300 million people – over 97% of it’s population now has access. And together 193 nations ratified the Paris Agreement.
One common thread in these stories? Generosity.
Generosity of spirit, merged with imagination, built on a shared vision, with no mission to punish.
I think back to the Greatest Generation, who survived the Depression and deprivation to liberate nations from tyranny. They helped create a generous, open economy. That generation also helped deliver civil rights together, including Dr. King, Malcolm X, and John Lewis. They helped restore the economies of Europe together through the Marshall Plan. They preserved nature through civilian conservation corps and built clean power across America in powerlines & dams.
The core of their World War Two triumphs was a tale of the allied forces, of the Band of Brothers and women working together in factories – teams working together for a shared version of a better worlds. That collective vision made a group narrative possible – what we do together for our children, our communities, our nation, our allies.
And within 5 years of the War’s end, the US gave the equivalent of $140 billion to those nations we fought – an unparalleled gift of generosity built on shared values and driven by a shared story as well as concern over a potential, terrible outcome.
This is another moment for stories of heroic groups. Teamwork – literally working in teams - is the antidote to fear, because you are not alone. It’s not YOUR job to solve climate change – it’s OUR job.
So what can we do together?
- We can share our anxieties and hopes to others.
- We can engage experts in science, business, and government.
- We can learn together and generate ideas together.
- We can be generous with those who mean well but disagree with us.
- We can overcome the objections of those who do not mean us well.
- We can include communities, especially those at risk or with equities at stake.
What should we NOT do together?
- We should not seek to punish – that’s someone else’s job.
- We should not seek to condemn – that reduces our strength and divides our attention.
- We should not exclude those who can contribute.
Our stories are interwoven, and our fates interconnected. Working together builds confidence, strength, and knowledge. It also sustains the time, money, and commitment needed to succeed.
If we wish to save ourselves, that’s the task. It’s time to dream and to dream together.
This article is also published on the author's blog. Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
About the author
Dr Julio Friedmann is Chief Scientist and Chief Carbon Wrangler at Carbon Direct. He recently served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Fossil Energy at the Department of Energy. More recently, he was a Senior Research Scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University SIPA.