How Not to Feel Paralyzed by Climate Disaster
Two new books, ‘Under the Sky We Make’ and ‘Overheated,’ lay out a plan to overcome our cynicism and anxiety and realize a sustainable, carbon-free future
Earth Day this year is making me feel a little cynical about the state of the planet. It seems like every month there’s a new big story about how dire our current trajectory is, how it could destroy us all, and how we desperately need to make change—and fast—to avoid annihilation. But of course, disinformation, economic inequality, and governmental ineffectiveness plague the U.S. and the world. The people most impacted by climate change are the least responsible for it, and those most responsible have no incentive to change their behavior. Why would they, when this system is working out pretty well for them.
Does your stomach hurt all the time? Because mine does.
Two new books—Under the Sky We Make, by Kimberly Nicholas, and Overheated, by Kate Aronoff—provide an antidote to climate nihilism. They address the tangled roots of the current environmental crisis but also explain the global shift necessary to move toward a carbon-free future. “It’s warming, it’s us, we’re sure,” Nicholas writes. “It’s bad. But we can fix it.”
Fixing it may be feasible, but it will be difficult. Nicholas copublished a widely shared 2017 report on personal carbon use, which found that living car- and meat-free, having one fewer child, and taking fewer transatlantic flights have the biggest impact. Under the Sky We Make builds off that report to show how individual action can scale up and make a difference. If enough people like me—a highly mobile American—stop flying as much, that can have broad impacts on the transportation system, for example. Nicholas spends the first 50 pages of the book outlining how we’re not living within the limits of physics, chemistry, and biology, and why we need to. Her thesis is that we must change our thinking from what she calls an “exploitation mindset” to a “regeneration mindset”—in other words, using resources at a rate in which they can replace themselves and focusing on renewable sources of energy and food. This shift would lead humanity to consume within its global means and would require everyone’s personal carbon output to be just 2.5 tons a year by 2030. In America we’re averaging 16 tons a year, which is why it’s crucial for us to examine and reduce our personal use.
Nicholas clearly explains the science of that reduction and how we can get there, but the best parts of the book come when she digs into her personal story, like witnessing worsening fires in Sonoma, California, where she grew up. She compellingly describes feeling pressure to not be an alarmist climate scientist—even though she was very alarmed—because scientists are taught to be dispassionate. She also writes lyrically about the emotional toll that climate change has taken on her, and she makes space for grief and fear, noting how those feelings can motivate you to act. Getting pissed that energy companies have lied to you, for instance, can be a powerful catalyst for changing your heating sources. We can’t get overwhelmed and write off personal action, Nicholas concludes, because that’s part of what leads to systemic change. They’re connected. We can’t depend on one or the other.
In the last part of the book, she turns to the logistics of making change and the hypocrisy of international government inaction when it comes to climate. For instance, of all the countries that signed the Paris climate accord, only Gambia has a plan in place to actually reach its carbon-reduction targets. Among those countries, per capita emissions tell a big story about where the most significant reductions can and should be made. Wealthy people in wealthy countries have to do the most work to do, both because we make personal choices that use significant carbon—Nicholas got me thinking hard about my cross-country flights to see family—but also because we’re all part of outdated, carbon-dependent systems.
We’re in this predicament in part because, as Aronoff writes in Overheated, fossil fuels have structured modern society in deep-seated ways. We’re using too much carbon, and we need to make different personal choices to decrease it, but that’s really hard to do because of how the world has been developed based on carbon use.
Aronoff provides an exhaustively reported look into how capitalism and unfettered growth have destroyed the environment. She details how U.S. politicians have tried, fruitlessly, to use markets to solve climate change since the Reagan years; how a lack of regulation and neoliberal economics have combined to a point where the rules that protect corporations are way stronger than the rules that protect the planet; and why that’s a spiraling environmental and social disaster. “What feeds a profit margin and what makes for a good society tend not to overlap,” she writes.
Overheated covers an ambitious amount of history, but the most interesting parts delve into how we could do better in the future. I was constantly pulling out pithy facts about how we’re not implementing solutions on the necessary scale. For instance, economists have found that carbon pricing should be at least $125 a ton in order to accurately reflect the social and environmental costs of carbon pollution. In California it’s currently $1 a ton; in the Northeast, it’s $3.
This is very much a book for right now, particularly in light of the new infrastructure plan President Biden introduced at the end of last month. Many of the solutions Aronoff outlines in her vision for a better future are inspired by the success of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the potential of the Green New Deal, a sweeping policy plan proposed by a group of progressive Democrats in Congress. In the midst of a pandemic, Aronoff is thinking about how a crisis can drive positive, large-scale change and shift paradigms. In the 1930s, desperation led to action. The New Deal made big society-wide decisions about what was valuable and funded those plans—and not just infrastructure projects, like dams and roads, but plans related to music and literature and so many things that make life good.
Aronoff says the Green New Deal can do that, too. It can not only create lucrative, useful jobs, but it can also incorporate socially and emotionally valuable programs and professions that are currently underfunded, like journalism and public art.
Overheated is much drier than Under the Sky We Make, so I was surprised to find myself emotional at the end, when Aronoff poses the question she’s been working toward the whole time: Why do we value money so much, when the things we really find meaningful, like human connection and being outside, are basically free? She sketches out a vision of a society where we prioritize those things instead. “I want that,” I wrote in the margins, underlining hard.
Taken together, the two books show how to create a livable future by undertaking serious civic and personal change. I still worry that nothing will change, or at least not fast enough. But, as Nicholas says, cynicism is a form of denial. Hope means you can move forward, and in reading both works, I landed on some real ways to make a difference instead of swirling in angst.