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We can all find purpose – and even joy – in responding to the climate crisis: Q&A with Kim Nicholas

Climate change is no longer a distant phenomenon, it's a concern to us all. We spoke to sustainability scientist Kim Nicholas about how individual behaviour change can be harnessed to contribute to moving towards sustainability.

This article is part of the ISC’s Transform21 series, which features resources from our network of scientists and change-makers to help inform the urgent transformations needed to achieve climate and biodiversity goals.

In recent years there have been numerous warnings about ‘climate anxiety’, or the feeling of general malaise about the state of environmental degradation and slow progress towards climate goals. Armed with the scientific facts on the unsustainability of our current development model, the emotional distress we feel when reading about missed targets, or noticing signs of declining nature, may take us by surprise. Acknowledging this emotional response is an important first step towards change, according to sustainability scientist Kim Nicholas, who’s the author of a forthcoming book on how we can all contribute to solving the climate crisis. What’s more, taking individual action can be fulfilling, and even fun.

We spoke to Kim to find out more.

Five years since the Paris Agreement and ahead of an important year for climate pledges, what’s most needed now to meet the ambition of the Agreement, and to recapture some of the optimism that surrounded it?

KN: What’s important about the Paris Agreement is that it demonstrates that humanity has agreed – through a long, democratic process – that stabilizing the climate is in our common interest, and that we all have an obligation and responsibility to work towards that goal. But we can’t stop there. The Paris Agreement is meaningful and helpful, but it’s certainly not sufficient in and of itself.

The climate policies of the signatories to the Paris Agreement are not sufficient to stay well below 2 degrees warming. If you look at the Climate Action Tracker, only Morocco and The Gambia are on track to limit their emissions in a way that’s compatible with keeping warming under 1.5 degrees. The high emitters are just not doing enough.

There is no silver bullet for climate. We know what we have to do, and we’ve known for a long time: stop burning fossil fuels. That’s the biggest, most urgent thing. Fossil fuels currently make up about 3/4 of emissions, and we know that that number has to fall to zero. Putting that into practice and making all the changes needed to avoid catastrophic climate change and to start working towards climate stabilization is going to be a huge task for the rest of our lives.

I see this decade as a race between two tipping points: a positive social tipping point, and a tipping point towards catastrophic climate change. What I want to see is a social tipping point at which people are not only aware of the urgency of the climate crisis but also know what they can do and are empowered to make the necessary changes. Politicians and businesses certainly have a big role to play, but we can see that they’re not making changes anything like fast enough, and they need more of a push from civil society movements and individuals to really make it happen.

You’re currently writing a book, Under The Sky We Make, about what we as individuals can all do to help solve the climate crisis. Can you tell me more?

Kim: I started writing this book for my friends who are concerned and alarmed by climate change. I think they’re representative of a lot of people who know it’s happening, and know that it’s bad, but are not sure what needs to happen, or how they can help to create change. I hope the book might empower people to see the connections between our daily lives and the climate. It’s not just about personal actions though: there are chapters about economics and the political system, and the wider context of being a good ancestor. It really looks at where our power comes from and how we can use it.

The book is written in quite a personal way. That’s not how I was trained to write as a scientist, but it’s now impossible to avoid the emotional impact of climate change. It’s no longer about studying a distant phenomenon when I’m on the phone with my sister while she’s having to evacuate her home due to the Californian wildfires, which we know have become more common and more dangerous because of human-caused climate change.

Climate change is here and it’s affecting every aspect of our lives, but the connections are not always clear – the media doesn’t tell stories like this. When you realize that everything you love and care about is already being threatened – if not already directly harmed – by climate change, it’s a motivation to get engaged rather than thinking that it’s somebody else’s problem.

The description of the book talks about finding joy in taking action. Why is that important?

KN: It has to be fun! Everyone has talents, skills and things that they enjoy doing that can be turned towards helping solve the climate crisis. I think that people do their best work when they’re doing something they enjoy, are good at, and find meaningful. We need people working in all kinds of roles in a way that works for the planet as well as for people. We have to change the whole of society to be compatible with a safe climate and to preserve the biosphere.

How do you find joy in responding to the climate crisis?

KN: It doesn’t have to be all about sacrifice and a ‘hair shirt’ approach to life. That’s a big misunderstanding, perhaps informed by deliberate misinformation from those who are not interested in preserving the planet in a habitable state. There is so much joy in figuring out what really matters to you, living in line with those values and being part of a community of people who support each other in doing that. Just think of the creativity that gets unleashed when people work together towards a common goal as meaningful and important as stabilizing the climate.

When I think back to the adoption of the Paris Agreement, I have really fond memories of those two intense weeks in Paris, and especially of being in the room where the Agreement was adopted. There was a real celebration afterwards – so many people put so much hard work into it. There’s so much incredible human potential that can be unleashed when we work towards a common goal.

That sounds like a good way to stay optimistic in these difficult times.

KN: I have a complicated relationship with optimism – that’s something I write about in my book.

Personally it’s been important to make space for grief, and to recognize there are already losses from climate change. I feel as though I’ve already lost the California that I grew up with – with all the wildfires it truly feels like a different place now. It is not the safe and beautiful place I used to know. So there’s no ‘blind’ optimism.

When I’m teaching I talk about five climate basics: one – it’s warming; two – it’s us; three – we’re sure; four – it’s bad; and five – we can fix it.

We do need to acknowledge that the situation is already quite bad and is poised to get much worse. At the same time, we shouldn’t feel hopeless or stop there as though it’s impossible to do anything, because that’s not true. We have the ability to do what’s necessary; we have the technology to do what needs to be done in the next decade. It becomes a question of what is humanly possible. Personally I find it energizing to be around people who are working on solutions and putting them into practice.

In terms of staying optimistic, I would say: don’t wait around for the ‘right’ feeling of hope or optimism to get started. It’s similar to an exercise routine – getting started is the hardest part. Once you get started, you actually start feeling better. You start noticing what’s possible, being more creative, and things can work out and go faster than you expect. But we have to get started today!

Kim Nicholas is Director of PhD Studies and Associate Professor of Sustainability Science at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS).


Heading photo: 10 10 via Flickr.

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