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 is 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 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, some jobs like farming, fishing, 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 desert.2

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 here or biking to work there 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, 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, yes, but climate change is ultimately a people problem. We need (lots) 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. 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, 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.

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 (and mainly in the last 100 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 scary. But it starts to get very alarming when you zoom in 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. There are other sources, 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 climate change, 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 and enough food to eat).

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 place to start is the United States, the world's largest economy.

The U.S. is, correctly, the world's largest polluter and source of GHG emissions - both today and in history. That makes contributing to climate change solutions an important part of America's collective, national responsibility.

But climate change isn't just an "America 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 the U.S., it's from China (plus 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.

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 force 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, 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 we're also pretty sure you 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. We happen to think a few movements like Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise Movement, and the Greta Thunberg-inspired Friday's For Future / Youth Strike for Climate are on the right track (which is particularly impressive given all three are largely decentralized, grassroots movements). Collectively however, we have to accept we've mostly gotten it wrong on climate strategy and solutions. Nor is the cause as diverse, inclusive, and accessible as it needs to be.

solving climate change

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

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 better effective attention-getters, teachers, and coaches - assuming we have the right strategy in the first place for people to get behind.

Ultimately, climate change is a collective 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 enough 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 conservative 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, if one of us walks into Burger King and 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 (Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, 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 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 - are happening now.

What's a Climate Action Plan That Can Work? What Should We All Go Do?

Editor's note (May 2019): hey! we're working on editing this section right now and will have it out soon. Given how important this information is, we wanted to take the time to make sure we get it right. If you want to keep tabs on this report and when we publish the full guide, your best bets are to follow us on Instagram and Twitter. Thanks 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)