Some hard truths of climate change and how facing them can empower us to move forward
Over the past few months, I’ve been discussing with my therapist the concept of Hard Truths. Hard Truths are facts or realities that are difficult to accept. They are most often used in the context of psychological care, helping a patient face and accept a painful or even traumatic reality. There are Hard Truths in all of our lives, perhaps relating to our families, our friendships, or just the circumstances we’ve been dealt in this life. These truths need to be recognized in order to move forward. The phrase “the first step is acceptance” has been turned into a bit of a cliche, yet remains true as a piece of wisdom. Without accepting the reality of a situation, however difficult, the resolution will be challenging, if not impossible. Even though Hard Truths are most often discussed with individuals, they don’t only pertain to personal challenges, but can also be applied to our greater society's realities and dilemmas.
Climate change is a Hard Truth for many people. As we know, some people are so overwhelmed by this crisis that they deny it. Based on The Six Americas framework, developed by the Yale Program on Climate Communication, in 2022 approximately 11% of the U.S. population was considered “dismissive”, meaning they believe climate change is not real, it is not a threat, or that it is human-caused, with most endorsing conspiracy theories. To these deniers, climate change in itself is such a difficult reality, that they have made it into a falsehood.
I’ll often attend expert talks or speaker panels on climate change and consistently the question comes up: “How can we convince the climate-deniers in our lives that climate change is real?”. Of course, the speakers provide some tips and advice, perhaps even sharing personal experiences with a climate dismisser in their own lives. While the desire to engage in good faith with these individuals is understandable, I would argue that it is a greater use of our time and energy to shift our focus from trying to convince the “dismissive” population of the truth, to exploring the Hard Truths for those who accept climate change and are “cautious”, “concerned”, or “alarmed” by the crisis. Focusing our attention on these groups, approximately 70% of the U.S. population combined, and helping them face the Hard Truths in climate may bring us closer to the resolution than spending the energy on the loud minority of deniers.
Hard Truth 1: Climate change will impact you or someone you love
For many years floods, droughts, heat, and other impacts of climate change seemed far away, geographically and temporally. In hindsight, we can see that communication about climate change in mainstream media, up until recently, was primarily focused on the environmental impacts of the crisis. So, even today, when thinking of the climate crisis, the average U.S. citizen likely imagines the videos of polar bears trying to climb onto a small iceberg. This imagery and messaging from previous decades have resulted in a large swath of the public recognizing climate change as an issue, but not for them. It is something distant, something that will never actually affect them. Only 47% of U.S. citizens believe that climate change will personally harm them (see figure from Howe et. al).
The Hard Truth is climate change is here and it affects us directly. The increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like storms, droughts, and heatwaves result in flooding, wildfires, food system disruptions, stressors on electrical grids, displacement, and more. Even if these environmental or economic changes might not be explicitly linked to climate change, it is the root, and it will impact you or someone close to you.
Figure 1. Estimated percentage of adults who think global warming will harm them personally (national avg. 47%), 2021
Source: Howe, Peter D., Matto Mildenberger, Jennifer R. Marlon, and Anthony Leiserowitz (2015). “Geographic variation in opinions on climate change at state and local scales in the USA.” Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate2583.
Hard Truth 2: Technology alone cannot save us
The hope that technology can resolve the climate crisis is of course understandable. In the United States, there is great cultural value in innovation. This value can be recognized in the endless tv and movie documentaries on the stories of practically any innovation, like hydrogenated peanut butter or the Rubik’s cube, as well as fictionalized portrayals of inventors, like Jobs or Oppenheimer, or of people believing in a great creation, like Tetris or The Founder. Our innovative spirit has given us great technologies that we employ in every facet of our lives and we’re thankful for them.
Technology is and will continue to be an essential strategy in climate change mitigation and adaptation. However, technology is not the only solution. Climate change is not solely a technological problem so solutions cannot be dependent on technological innovation and implementation. The Bending the Curve Report identifies other essential “levers” to pull in order to meet our goals, including governance, nature-based solutions, and socio-cultural transformations. These other “levers” can also be more cost-effective than technological solutions. A study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of the United States of America estimates that nature-based solutions make up “over one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to stabilize warming to below 2 °C”. Non-technological mitigation and adaptation solutions will also be important for lower-income communities, who are typically the last to gain access to technological innovations, if at all.
Hard Truth 3: Addressing climate change requires cultural change
This Hard Truth is difficult even for some of the most dedicated climate change advocates. As discussed, the over-optimism in technology as a resolution to climate change results not only in an underestimation of policy and nature-based solutions, but of cultural solutions as well. We see this belief in technology get peddled by business leaders whose messaging centers on buying the right products, like an electric car, being a sufficient contribution to the climate crisis. This belief is also advocated by some academics, who state that with enough innovation and adoption in technology, the average U.S. citizen won’t need to change their lifestyle or consumption habits; the idea of sustainability without any sacrifice.
Several years ago I worked with a group of elementary and middle school students on a climate justice program. One day we were discussing resources and the idea of using resources wisely. I asked my students: “If we lived in a perfectly equal world, could we all have mansions with electric cars and all the things we could ever want?” Their immediate response was yes, that reality is possible. I had to explain to them that there are simply not enough resources on this planet for everyone to have their car, to have the newest clothes, to have it all. That idealized life, having all the material goods you could want, is not feasible and is not accessible to all, so we need to reevaluate what the ideal life truly is.
It’s difficult to look in the mirror and recognize that our lifestyle, our culture, relies on the systems of extraction and consumption that cause climate change. This discussion also feels like a Pandora’s box as addressing culture is complex, messy, and abstract. It’s not as clean-cut as a diagram of projected solar panel sales or a cost-benefit analysis of carbon sequestration. But once we examine the cultural issues, we can imagine a better culture where we strive for deeper personal connection, more collaborative relationships, and stronger communities. We can have sustainability without sacrifice because we are not sacrificing, we are finding a better way to take care of ourselves and our planet.
Moving forward with these Hard Truths
It’s important to note that when reflecting on these Hard Truths for yourself or when engaging with others on these realities of climate change, you end the conversation with an action that can be taken. While exploring and reaching acceptance of these Hard Truths is the essential first step, it is only that, a first step. Looking at the reality of climate change can lead to a variety of emotions from anxiety to existentialism and these emotions cannot be turned into hope or optimism when left without action. We don’t need the buy-in from climate dismissers to do good work, but we do need to engage that group of “cautious”, “concerned”, or “alarmed” citizens and create a group that is both alarmed by these Hard Truths and empowered to take action.
Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.