How to get past despair and take strong action on climate change

By Thomas S. Bateman and Michael E Mann 4 Minutes Read

Our species is in a race with climate change and many people want to know, “Can I really make a difference?”

The question concerns what is known as agency. Its meaning is complex, but in a nutshell, it means being able to do what you set out to do and believing that you can succeed.

How well people exercise their agency will determine the severity of global warming — and its consequences.

The evidence is clear that humans are drastically changing the climate. But human action can also influence the climate for the better by reducing fossil fuel combustion and carbon emissions. It is not too late to avert the worst effects of climate change, but time is running out.

Despite an abundance of technical possibilities, humanity has an alarming lack of psychological agency: belief in one’s personal ability to help. A 10-country survey in The Lancet, a British medical journal, found that more than half of young people aged 16 to 25 feel scared, sad, anxious, angry, powerless and helpless about climate change.

As professors, we bring complementary perspectives to the challenges of taking action on climate change. Tom Bateman studies psychology and leadership, and Michael Mann is a climate scientist and author of the recent book ‘The New Climate War’.

Believe “I can do this”

Human activities – particularly reliant on coal, oil and natural gas for energy – have dramatically affected the climate, with dire consequences.

As greenhouse gases from fossil fuel use build up in the atmosphere, they warm the planet. Rising global temperatures have led to worsening heat waves, rising sea levels and more severe storms that are becoming increasingly difficult to adapt. A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change details some of the dangerous disruptions already underway, and how they endanger people and the environment.

Just as people can choose to control gas guzzlers, they can also choose to act in ways that affect the climate, air quality and public health for the better. Scientific knowledge and countless options for action make this office possible.

An important part of agency is one’s belief, when faced with a task to be performed, a situation to be managed, or a long-term goal such as protecting the climate, that “I can do this”. It is known as self-efficacy.

This is arguably the most important psychological factor in predicting how well people will cope with both climate change and COVID-19, recent online survey data from Europe shows. People who feel sufficient freedom of choice are more likely to persevere, recover from setbacks and perform at a high level.

In climate change, a high sense of self-efficacy reinforces a person’s willingness to reduce CO2 emissions (mitigation) and prepare for climate-related disasters (adaptation). Studies confirm this for actions such as volunteering, donating, contacting elected officials, saving energy, saving water during extreme weather and more.

How to Increase Your Sense of Choice

To build an agency for something that can feel as daunting as climate change, you need to focus on the facts first. In the case of climate change: Greenhouse gas emissions cause the most damage, and people can help a lot more than they realize.

Successful agency has four psychological drivers, all of which can be strengthened with practice:

1) Intentionality: “I choose my climate goals and actions for a big impact.”

Deciding to act purposefully — knowing what you intend to do — is much more effective than thinking, “My heart is in the right place, I just need to find the time.”

In the grand scheme of things, one’s greatest climate effectiveness is to participate in greater efforts to end the use of fossil fuels. People can set specific ambitious goals to reduce personal and household energy consumption and join others in collective actions.

2) Thinking ahead: “I look ahead and think strategically about how to proceed.”

Once you know your goals, you can think strategically and develop a plan of action. Some plans support relatively simple goals related to individual lifestyle changes, such as adjusting consumption and travel patterns. Broader actions can help change systems, such as long-term activities advocating for climate-friendly policies and politicians, or against policies that are harmful. These include demonstrations and voter campaigns.

3) Self-regulation: “I can manage myself over time to optimize my efforts and effectiveness.”

Worrying about the future becomes a lifelong task—occasionally for some, constantly for others. Climate change will create disasters and scarcity, disrupt lives and careers, increase stress and damage public health. Seeing progress and working with others can help relieve stress.

4) Self-reflection: “I will periodically assess my effectiveness, reconsider strategies and tactics, and make necessary adjustments.”

It’s hard to imagine a greater need for lifelong learning than as we navigate decades of climate change, the many drawbacks and efforts of fossil fuel companies to cover up the facts. Reflection – or rather, keeping up with the latest science, learning and adapting – is vital as the future presents new challenges.

Personal agency is only the first step

Even seemingly small first steps can help reduce carbon emissions and lead to more action, but individual actions are only part of the solution. Major polluters often urge consumers to take small personal actions, which can divert attention from the need for large-scale policy interventions.

Individual agency should be seen as a gateway to group efforts that can change the trajectory of climate change more quickly and effectively.

“Collective desk” is another form of desk. A critical mass of people can [tipping points] pressuring industry and policymakers to act faster, safer and more equitably to implement policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Helping choose local, state and national officials who support climate protection and influence investors and leaders of companies and associations can also create a sense of agency, known as “proxy agency.”

Together, these efforts can rapidly improve humanity’s ability to solve problems and prevent disasters. Solving the global climate mess requires both urgency and a sense of choice to create the best possible future.

This post How to get past despair and take strong action on climate change was original published at “”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.