How to Save the World From Climate Change

Climate change, global warming, and mass plant and animal extinction are, together, the most important crisis in human history. Without aggressive, realistic problem-solving on climate change and biodiversity loss, our future's in jeopardy. None of this should be news to you. Scientists are talking about the possibility of all fish in the ocean being extinct by 2048. In our lifetime. It’s that urgent.

We’re normally happy, optimistic people, but hey, facts don’t lie.

The short answer is: climate change affects our families, friends, us, and you everywhere, because our environment is all around us every day.

First, climate change and pollution negatively affect our health and safety. Bad air means more asthma, lung disease, and related issues. More environmental toxins means higher cancer and disease rates. Climate change also impacts food quality, pricing, and availability. Plus climate change multiplies direct dangers: draughts, wildfires, floods, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events.1 All of these will keep getting more frequent, erratic, and severe.

Second, climate change impacts our jobs and economic well-being. As extreme weather grows, jobs like farming and construction become harder to do. Many other jobs become less economically viable or sustainable.

Third, the climate crisis attacks our homes. By 2050, between $66 and $106 billion worth of existing U.S. coastal property will likely be below sea level, while rural areas are increasingly being flooded, burned up in wildfires, or turned into desert2.

Climate change is scary. In fact, in some ways it’s so big and scary it’s hard to even start to think about solutions, ways to stop it, and what to do. It's much easier to tune out the bad news and hope someone else deals with it - what psychologists call "bystander effect."

When sea levels are rising and the ocean is steadily warming up, what does saving a plastic bottle or biking to work even amount to? Can personal choices and decisions actually make a difference? [Spoiler alert: keep reading, they do.]

That's why we’re trying something different here - something that, with the possible exception of a few movements like Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, and Sunrise Movement, we haven’t really seen done:

we’re going to explain in simple, concrete, and actionable terms what we see as the best plan for significantly slowing the climate crisis, decarbonizing society, and saving the world.

Parts of the solution have to do with science and technology, but climate change is ultimately a people problem. Most of the technology we need to power our economy with clean energy and feed everyone through sustainable farming already exists today. The real change we need is getting a lot of people to act differently. We need to build racially and economically diverse voting coalitions. We need to vote a few very specific people out. We need to declare climate emergency and implement aggressive, equitable, and realistic environmental laws. How do we make that happen together?

To be realistic and truthful about climate solutions, we first need to break the problem of climate change down into steps, then get really specific.

1. What's causing climate change? (Section Link)

2. How do we stop or transformationally change each of those things? (Section Link)

3. What's the action plan that realistically gets us there? What can each of us specifically go do tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that to get this right? (Section Link)

It's also important to be honest with ourselves. We can't fully "stop" climate change because it's not easy to undo the decades of emissions and global warming we've already caused unless we plant millions and billions of trees (hey, we're trying 🌳). But that doesn't mean we shouldn't act now. The difference between 1.5 - 2° C of global warming vs. 4 - 5° C of warming will, in all scientific likelihood, make the difference between millions of people, plants, and animals living or dying.

Again, we're sorry this all sounds so negative, but we know scientists and read scientific papers and they're telling us the truth. But this truth is only our future if we let it be and don't rise to the occasion and do something. We have approximately five to ten years to chart a new course that will save countless lives.

By the way, if you are a scientist, climate expert, or environmental movement veteran - awesome. We're so happy you're here and equally happy you do what you do. If you prefer, feel free to skip ahead using the section links. If you do want to follow the full step-by-step explanation, we're going to do that now, starting with what’s causing climate change.

Climate change and global warming are caused by rising emission levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrious oxide, and other environmental pollutants. In the context of global warming or climate science, these pollutants are commonly grouped together and labeled greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

Throughout human history, GHG levels have remained relatively stable. After the industrial revolution (mainly in the last 100 years, but particularly in the last 40 years), fossil fuel-driven industry has caused global pollution levels to spike dramatically. Our planet is now warming to unsustainable levels. Temperatures (and consequences) will keep rising unless we do something.

Global Atmospheric Concentrations of Carbon Dioxide Since the Industrial Revolution (1760-2015)

Last Updated: April 2016

Source: EPA Climate Change Indicators, last certified in 2016.

On a long-term timeline, that growth may not look that bad. But it starts to get very alarming when you zoom in on just on the last 50 years using data from the great Our World in Data team at Oxford University.

What's causing all this emissions growth? We can (and should) start by looking at four specific sources.

Climate change is principally caused, in order of amount, by burning fossil fuels to create electricity and heat, factory farming (primarily animals), industrial manufacturing, and using traditional cars, planes, and cargo ships. As you can clearly see from the data, it's immensely important for us to stop burning oil and coal and replace it with solar, wind, water, and other renewable alternatives (along with storage). There are other sources of global warming, but those are the main culprits.

Where Climate Change Comes From (Greenhouse Gas Emissions Breakdown)

Last Updated: May 4, 2019

Source: UN IPCC and Brightest.

If we’re going to solve this climate crisis, we need to get to zero or near-zero emissions across agriculture, electricity, manufacturing, and transportation as quickly as possible. In other words, we need to radically decarbonize or change each and every big slice in that pie. And we need to do it in ways that still work for society (like making sure people have good-paying jobs, enough food to eat, and vulnerable, front-line communities don't get overlooked).

There are also two other important qualifiers around the sources of climate change: where and who.

In terms of the first "where" question, the logical places to start are the United States and China, the world's two largest economies.

The U.S. and China are, correctly, the world's largest polluters and source of GHG emissions. That makes contributing to climate change solutions an important part of both America and China's collective, national responsibility.

But climate change isn't just an "America and China problem" for two reasons. First, it's not the average American's hamburger or car ride to work that's created this climate crisis. Yes, those little things can and do add up, but the data's very clear that the majority of U.S. pollution and GHG emissions come from corporations, not individuals. Second, the fastest source of new global pollution and GHG emissions growth isn't just China, but also other emerging economies in Asia.

Together, China, India, and other Asia-Pacific economies are creating half of all the new GHG being released into the world, which makes solving climate change at the very least a geopolitical America-plus-China team effort.

In fact generally, there's a big, global inequality distribution around climate change. The poorest half of the world's population - those who are being first and hardest by the climate crisis - only contribute 10% of global emissions. They're not the problem. And they're not the ones who need to change.

climate change population inequality

But before we move on, let's also not overlook the corporate and military-industrial aspects of the climate crisis. There are very real economic, class, and imperial dynamics to climate change. In fact, just 100 fossil fuel corporations, including ExxonMobil, Shell, BHP Billiton and Gazprom, are responsible for 52% of all GHG emissions worldwide since the industrial revolution3. They're also responsible for the majority of climate denial propaganda and money to fund politicians who won't regulate their atrocities.

There's also a military face to climate change. While overall data on the U.S. military and Department of Defense (DoD)'s environmental footprint is incomplete at best, several sources - including the DoD's own disclosures - suggest the U.S. military is one of the largest polluters in the world. In just 2015, the DoD used "over 88 million barrels of fuel to power ships, aircraft, combat vehicles, and contingency bases4." It's also one of the biggest domestic and international water polluters too.

Given the choice between investing in local schools, good jobs, and healthcare access or spending ~$700 billion a year for the U.S. military to fight unnecessary, overseas wars and accelerate climate change, we think the moral and right thing is to spend that money better and more carbon-efficiently in our communities - and hope you agree.

This might feel like a lot (and pretty complicated), but hopefully you can see where we're going with this. In fact, we're finally getting somewhere translating science and theory into real strategy and tactics. We know the countries that need to change. We know what needs to change inside those countries. And we know the corporations and sectors of government who are responsible for the biggest slice of the problem. We know who we need to hold accountable. That's a pretty good start for thinking about how we can bring about real, positive change.

solving climate change

It's worth starting this conversation by noting the obvious: whatever strategy we've been using to date to raise awareness about the climate crisis has, for the most part, failed. Even after thousands of articles and books, hundreds of climate justice campaigns, and millions donated to environmental causes, most people are poorly informed on the subject at a time when the majority of politicians remain inactive and naive.

This is not to say all climate thinkers, policymakers, and activists have the wrong strategy. In fact, 2019 has been a major public perception shift around climate urgency. 7+ million people went on climate strike this past month (in a single week). And much of this shift has been led by newer movements like Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise Movement, and the Greta Thunberg-inspired Friday's For Future / Youth Strike for Climate. What's particularly impressive is all three are largely decentralized, grassroots movements that are at most one to two years old.

solving climate change

Greta Thunberg and other youth activists on climate strike in Brussels, Belgium. Photo credit: Greenpeace

This ultimately, should form the basis of our strategy. Raise widespread public awareness (and affinity) for immediate climate action. Channel that energy into local climate and environmental justice organizing, and use that organized people power to change the government and hold politicians accountable. In turn, responsible, democratic will change the laws and hold corporations accountable. Now we're talking real change and a livable future. So let's go do that.

solving climate change

There's a recipe in advertising, politics, and social movement-building sometimes called a "ladder of engagement," "consumer journey," or "path to action." What this behavior model and lots of other psychology research establishes is that, while every person is unique, there's a common formula for getting someone to take action on a particular subject:

Step #1 (Get Their Attention)

Make a person aware of your brand, cause, or mission. If they don't know the problem or a potential solution exists, they're not going to do anything.

Step #2 (Educate and Persuade)

Once you have a person's attention, you need to inform them about your solution in ways that make them emotionally care. It's not enough that you care about your plan, your plan is logical, or even that you care about helping the person you're trying to reach - they have to care about it (and you) on their own terms.

Step #3 (Empower Agency)

Once you've completed Steps #1 and #2 and helped someone both understand the problem and care about your solution, you need to empower them to follow a strategy and take specific actions. Only when a person clearly knows what to do and has all of the tools, resources, information, and social support they need can we rightfully expect them to act (productively).

To summarize, getting enough people to do the right thing(s) on climate change requires that we be effective attention-getters, teachers, and coaches.

Ultimately, climate change is a collective action or agency problem - which means climate change is really a set of person-to-person persuasion and psychology problems. We have to make people understand and care.

Next we have to fix the economic incentives problem. Corporations (and people) who only care about short-term growth and making money - and don't care about the consequences - are generally allowed to go extract natural resources, burn fossil fuels, emit GHG, and do other environment-damaging things wherever they operate with limited regulatory oversight or restrictions. For the most part, it's perfectly legal to destroy our planet's future for profit - so we need to change the laws to stop that.

Relatedly, most people (understandably) do like convenience and don't like conflict. So unless you've sufficently educated and motivated someone to act, it's not fair to assume they will, particularly the more demanding, inconvenient, or time-consuming the action is.

Take a typical person who doesn't live in a city (i.e., doesn't have access to public transportation) who needs to drive to work to pay rent and provide for her family. We might say fossil fuel cars are bad for the environment and electric vehicles (EVs) are better, but if the average electric vehicle is (a) more expensive and (b) not particularly any more enjoyable to use than a typical car, we can't reasonably expect regular car owners to switch.

Another great example is the American hamburger analogy, made slightly infamous by a rare Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez media blunder and your typical dose of modern Republican bad faith. Since the chart we featured earlier shows factory farming as the 2nd largest global contributor to climate change, we should want to do far less animal and livestock farming both for environmental and ethical reasons. Nonetheless, at a typical Burger King if the meatless Impossible Foods burger is $10 and a regular burger is $5, unless we've done a tremendous job educating people on climate and health issues and keeping people out of poverty, not many are going to switch to a plant-based alternative.

Consumers substitute when things are cheaper or better. And people are only going to act and change their behavior with sufficient inspiration to change. This is the strategic insight we need to apply to changing hearts and minds on the climate crisis: we need to use a complete strategy for creating change.

social change systems strategy

Finally, it's important to think about how social change happens - because time and time again history shows us it happens in stages. The typical formula or sequence often looks something like this:

Step #1. A small group of progressive "radicals," activists, or movement leaders (Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., Marsha P. Johnson, Nelson Mandela, etc.) create public awareness of a problem or injustice

Step #2. Those initial leaders and catalysts inspire broader movements led by activists and organizers who mobilize people and rally supporters around the mission (the Stonewall Riots that evolved into Gay Pride, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, etc.)

Step #3. The progressive movement generates enough public awareness and support to overcome public opposition

Step #4. The movement translates its symbolic power into political power by getting voters who support its mission to vote for politicians who pass or change laws to encode the social movement's values into social norms (voting rights, gay marriage, protections for transgender individuals, etc.)

To meaningfully solve the climate crisis, we'll need to re-create these same cycles in the United States, China, and other carbon-intensive economies with passion and urgency.

moyer map social change theory

Thankfully, we already believe we're in the early stages of building the exact climate movement we need to win. The trigger events - the "Green New Deal" framework, the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)'s 2019 report that over one million plant and animal species are being driven to extinction by human environmental harms, Extinction Rebellion protest-occupying central London for two weeks causing British Parliament to declare climate emergency, Greta Thunberg being nominated for a Nobel Prize and leading a Global Climate Strike ("Week for Future") - are happening now.

Before you take any action, we recommend doing a little local homework and performing a quick self-assessment. Depending on how you answer these questions, your action plan and what you go do might be a little different.

1. Are you a young person or an adult?

2. Do you live in a city, suburb, or more rural area (and in what country)?

3. What socioeconomic resources do you have at your disposal? (i.e., if you're in a frontline community without much access to money or resources, you might approach things differently than if you're more affluent, have a broader social support network, etc.)

4. Do you consider yourself more of a leader and self-starter (i.e., you want to start or lead something yourself), or would you rather receive direction from more experienced climate justice fighters? (honestly, it's usually good to have a mix of both)

5. How much free time do you have? How many hours a week can you devote to climate and environmental justice?

Let's now walk through each one of these.

1. Are you a young person or an adult?

If you're a student or young person, most likely you've already heard of - or even participated in - a school strike or walkout for climate. If you've already taken those steps, great (you're very brave), keep it up. If you haven't taken those initial steps, consider doing or thinking about a few things:

  Sit down with your parents, family-members, or legal guardian and explain why this is important to you and that you want to work on it. See if they'll support you and if they have ideas for you to pursue. If you don't know what to say try our kickoff meeting template, watch a recording of one of Extinction Rebellion's "Heading for Extinction" talks [disclaimer: some of this can be scary and upsetting, particularly in the beginning, but again, what makes it scary is it's scientific truth. That's likely why you're here; we need to do something about it], or find a group that can connect you with training and resources on how to speak compellingly on this issue.

  Do the same thing with your friends (or share the video with them).

  Join or try to create an environmental club at your school, even if it's unofficial or outside school hours (for example, you and some friends meet up to discuss environmental issues and your climate action plan.

  Join a group like Fridays for Future, Sunrise Movement, XR Youth, or several of them. We designed a free, local climate action search tool to find local stuff to do or groups you can join, otherwise just Google those groups and find the one whose mission, values, and methods feel right to you.

  Whatever you do, don't try to fight this fight alone. Build a friend network, club, community, or solidarity group where you can do this work together and support each other (both directly and emotionally).

  Again, you can also participate in symbolic Fridays for Future (#FFF) walk-outs or moments of silence at school (it's common to observe 11 minutes of silence at 11:11am on Friday for the 11 years left we have to decarbonize between now and 2030). If you want to post your climate events on Brightest to get more people involved, collect emails and phone numbers, then measure and communicate with people who sign up, you can join other climate groups around the world and do that for free here. Do what feels right. And while we can't directly recommend or endorse anything that potentially gets you in trouble at school, it's also our view that going against the status quo to bring awareness to an existentially important cause that saves life on Earth is important and well-justified. Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested 26 times during the Civil Rights movement (and the movement itself was widely unpopular while it was happening). We're not trying to create equivalence here, but the point is historians don't talk about Dr. King's arrests. What we all do remember (and honor) is context, motivation, and moral urgency around racial equality. Thoughout history, good people creating positive change often have to disobey bad or obsolete rules to get their message across and build a movement around it.

youth student strike for climate

If you're an adult, a lot of the same principles and tactics apply. Talk to family, friends, and neighbors about it. Find a group to join, or, if one doesn't exist, consider starting your own local chapter. Most importantly, use the connections, resources, education, and experience you've built up in the course of your life to act constructively, deliberately, and in ways that support younger and less-experienced movement participants. If you have the financial means, consider donating to one or all of the groups we've mentioned. If you find this helpful and believe in what we're doing, we'd also be grateful if you'd like to give a donation to support us [The Brightest Foundation Incorporated is a US 501(c)(3) public charity, EIN 83-3516335].

2. Do you live in a city, suburb, or more rural area?

Your location should inform the approach you take to your climate work. First, if you live in a city, it's very likely one if not many climate groups are already doing the work you're thinking about. Try to find them. Second, be mindful and respectful of frontline communities, people of color, and climate organizers in low-income and/or underrepresented areas. Be an ally and consult them if you're interested in doing local work in their community. Third, think about how your city frames certain climate issues: air quality from pollution, where specific fossil fuel power plants are located, and your local state and city's climate policy positions (and politicians). It's also easier to canvass, hold rallies, and do direct actions in dense urban areas.

Similary, if you live outside a city, adapt your work. What are the environmental issues that are most important for your community? What framing will get people to respond? Is climate a job creation issue (replace declining industries with new clean energy jobs)? Is it a water quality issue? An agriculture issue? Different places will have different relationships with their lands and natural habitats. Similarly, understand your local political landscape and decision-makers. Do your representatives hold town halls? Is there a local Indivisible group in your region advocating for democratic, people-first policies? What are other ways to force accountability and political change?

We've seen great examples of successful grassroots climate organizing in non-urban parts of Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, and other states (even by inexperienced organizers), not to mention decades of tremendous work by indigenous environmental organizers battling pipelines and unsustainable corporate extraction of their native lands.

And of course, no matter where you live, there's the internet and social media. You can be effective as a climate organizer or activist anywhere. Trust us.

3. What socioeconomic resources do you have at your disposal?

This one's fairly clear cut, and we've touched on many of these themes already. Ultimately you can donate your money or your time (and talent) to this fight. Or both. This movement needs artists, communicators, doers, fundraisers, organizers - and just about everything else. Where you can create the most leverage and have the biggest impact?

One other thing too. If you are an adult, you likely have a different relationship with work and capital than a typical youth climate striker. What's the environmental impact of the place you work? What does your company invest in? Can you influence it? Who do you bank with? Where is your 401(k) invested?

Since the vast majority of fossil fuel companies continue to be negligent about change, divestment, de-funding, and stigmatizing them can be a powerful tool to use the system against them. If we make funding fossil fuel companies and projects as culturally toxic as those companies action are environmentally toxic, we can exert change pressure this way too.

4. Do you consider yourself more of a leader and self-starter?

Nobody knows you and your situation better than yourself. If you already live in a place where there's an active, effective climate movement happening, it's probably a good idea to get in touch and see if you can help. But, if you see a gap, un-met need, opportunity, or problem with your existing local movement, you should feel empowered to start your own thing. And if you need a climate movement-building tool to manage communications, grow your chapter, and keep track of everything, you've come to the right place.

5. How much free time do you have?

Time's a precious resource, and how much of it you have should also inform your approach. Being an effective climate organizer, activist, or movement-builder is a real time commitment, although we certainly know great people doing just that who are also balancing jobs, families, and other personal priorities. Again, everyone's context and circumstances are different.

But the important thing to remember is you don't need to be a full-time activist or organizer to make an important difference. Volunteering a few hours on the weekend to register voters or canvass and hand out flyers to raise climate awareness matters. Helping an existing climate movement with design, communications, social media, or technical support matters. Hosting a houseparty with your friends or family matters. There are lots of little ways you can get involved with limited time that, in aggregate, add up to a big impact in helping us all win this fight together.

But ultimately, this is the first phase of the plan. We can't solve climate change without first building enough people power to change our government so it protects us and the environment. We keep building this movement into a political force and make history, or we are history.

But despite all the bad news, we wrote this essay for one simple reason: we can win. In fact, we are winning, right now, if we follow through on all the climate energy and momentum that's currently circulating around the world. Most of all though, we need you. Let's go win this.

Editor's note: Hey! So this is part one of a two-part piece on solving climate change. Part two will focus more on policy, a Green New Deal, implementing a just transition (i.e., what happens after we change the government), and some "boring" things like utility rate design and community energy independence. If you have any feedback or want to keep in touch for part two, follow us on Instagram and Twitter. Thanks for reading and please check back soon.

1U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) - Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), Volume I (2017)

2 American Climate Prospectus: Economic Risks in the United States (2014)

3 CDP Carbon Majors Report (2017)

4 U.S. Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2015 - Operational Energy Annual Report (2015)