Never in recorded history have we experienced a summer this hot. From the relentless heat dome over the southern United States to the heatwaves that scorched southern Europe and South America in winter, our global thermostat spiked this year like never before. Unprecedented wildfires burned across the world, destroying the town of Lahaina on Maui, leading to evacuations across Canada’s Northwest Territories, and blanketing skies across the northern U.S. in orange-tinted haze. Just the other week, catastrophic flooding in Libya took thousands of lives while torrential rains inundated Greece, Brazil, and even the Burning Man festival in the Nevada Desert.
If we think this summer was extreme, it’s daunting to consider that, for many of our children, this could be one of the mildest they’ll experience in their lifetimes. Through our relentless consumption of fossil fuels and destruction of nature, we are pushing our planetary boundaries. The decisions we make now and in the near future will determine whether our cities remain livable, our air breathable, and our lives bearable in years to come.
Given the intensity and relentlessness of these disasters, the perception that the climate crisis is a distant threat is rapidly eroding. With over 85 percent of people around the world already experiencing climate change’s impacts directly and two thirds of Americans worried about it, we’re rapidly approaching a much-needed tipping point in public consciousness.
Reducing psychological distance is critical to spurring action; yet it’s only part of the problem. There are other barriers holding us back, some of which are intensifying at the same time. Fossil fuel subsidies last year surged to a stunning $13 million USD per minute, according to the IEA. Political divides are deepening in many high-consuming countries, fueling pushback against clean energy initiatives. And for many individuals, a crippling lack of efficacy – a belief that nothing I do matters — grows with each new disaster.
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Speaking with people across the U.S. and around the world, I hear the same question almost every day: “What can I do to make a difference?” Most feel frustrated and powerless against the climate crisis, and alarming narratives amplify this paralysis. “How could my actions prevent Lahaina from burning to the ground?” they might ask themselves, or “How could I keep the sky from turning orange from wildfire smoke thousands of miles away?” This pervasive lack of efficacy can spiral into hopelessness and despair. As neuroscientist Tali Sharot says in her book The Influential Mind, “Fear and anxiety will cause us to withdraw, to freeze, to give up, rather than take action.” So how do we turn this mindset around?
A narrative that balances peril with promise is essential to catalyzing climate action. Alongside the grim realities we face, people need to know what we as individuals and as a society can do, and are doing, to make a difference. Recognizing the risks is crucial, yes; but to galvanize action we need hope—not a naïve optimism, but a realistic and muscular hope rooted in purposeful action. To what end? To envision a better future, and to chart a path to get us there from where we are today.
Addressing climate change isn’t a one-off effort. Later this year, global leaders will convene in Dubai for COP 28. What happens in Dubai matters; but it is just one step along that path. Many steps result from discussions happening in organizations, schools, and communities. Many more come from the innovations we see happening across companies and industries.
Consider the carpet industry—probably not the first place you’d look for ground-breaking climate leadership. Yet Interface, Inc., the world’s largest manufacturer of carpet tile, thought differently. As early as 1994, just two years after the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed, they set a goal of having net-zero impact on Earth by 2020. They’ve since transitioned to renewable energy, slashed their carpet’s carbon footprint by 74 percent, and, in 2020, released a carpet tile with a negative carbon footprint. By doing so, Interface has transformed carpet makers and salespeople into climate heroes.
Despite the notorious pitfalls of fast fashion, from human rights violations to water pollution, companies there are also redefining industry standards. It’s not only Patagonia, whose founder famously donated his company to the Earth. There’s also Saitex, that uses 98 percent recycled water to produce its denim. Veja, the sneaker company founded with sustainability at the fore, buys its rubber directly from local communities of Amazon rubber tappers and publishes their company’s carbon footprint. Allbirds, another shoe company, have sourced carbon-negative materials to create the first carbon neutral shoe, dubbed “M0.0NSHOT.” Companies like these have a small but growing share of the marketplace, showing that consumers care about sustainably produced goods, which in turn nudges larger competitors in a greener direction.In the tech sphere, big names like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have committed to powering their operations and data centers with clean energy. This can inform where they choose to build their data centers, situating them near large wind and solar projects – and attract new clean tech companies to states like Texas, where I live. Apple, along with other big companies like IKEA and Siemens, are working to decarbonize their supply chains, while startups such as ClimateCamp want to democratize the process and help smaller companies do it, too.
From production to streaming, each part of the entertainment industry produces waste, pollution, and heat-trapping gases. Companies such as Netflix and Disney are turning that around, investing in technology such as the Clean Mobile Power Initiative for remote filming locations that benefit everyone in the industry. In my opinion, though, this sector’s most powerful weapon is its storytelling prowess. By depicting that better future for us, they can normalize climate action and foster hope. By doing so, they engage our “climate shadow” – that ripple effect of our actions on others. Shows like Apple+’s Extrapolations, envisioning a world transformed by climate change, and projects like Good Energy, which weaves climate narratives into scripts and plotlines, are scaling the most powerful forces we have, our voices and our imaginations, for good.
Every voice, including yours, contributes to this global conversation. Your actions ripple outwards as well. The responsibility for change doesn’t rest solely on world leaders or industry magnates; it’s on all of us. We need action at every level – from states to cities and corporate boardrooms to classrooms – and you can get it started through sharing stories of how climate impacts are affecting what matter most to you, and how collaborative, impactful solutions can turn things around.
A carpet company, a shoe manufacturer, and a streaming service have already catalyzed transformative change. What might your organization achieve? Each of us, individually, have the potential to inspire a culture where real hope thrives, and actions abound. It’s time to chart for ourselves the path from today’s disasters towards a future we envision together.
Katharine Hayhoe is the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, a distinguished professor at Texas Tech University, and the author of Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.
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