Meeting Climate Panic with Stories of Agency
Diana Kapp on Illustrating the Power and Necessity of Action
My daughter’s friend Sofia has been freezing all semester long. She’s a freshman at a small New England college where winter comes in late September and overstays its welcome deep into April. The majority of her female classmates crunch along the snowy quad pathways in their Blundstone boots and puffy coats down below their knees. But Sofia has no intention of buying a long coat—she’ll just make do with the now feathers-flattened black North Face she’s had since ninth grade.
I’m hearing about Sofia’s coat considerations from my daughter, 19 years old, who is sharing her best illustration of how certain members of her generation think about the climate crisis. Why waste the money on a piece of clothing that will soon be rendered obsolete, my daughter explains of Sofia’s logic. As in: soon, there won’t be cold. They both agree: “Everything is doomed.”
I’m not surprised by their outlook. I recently wrote an article about the growing phenomenon of climate anxiety among young people, which is how my daughter and I got on this topic. A young woman in North Carolina, who I spoke to for the story, shared that she and her husband plan to forego having children because of climate change. The massive forest fires burning the Pacific Northwest and the 110-degree temperatures outside of Glacier National Park sealed their decision. The woman posted her feelings on a board operated by Conceivable Future, a whole organization dedicated to people questioning bringing kids into this world. “I feel very angry that it feels like I do not have a choice. Angry at past generations and current ones for the poor choices they have made,” she wrote in her testimonial.
I understand the anger. Layer on two years lost to Covid, and another dire Intergovernmental Panel Climate Change (IPCC) report released recently—the 26th edition, which barely made a blip, drowned out by shelling in Ukraine and nuclear facilities set afire—and you’ve got a recipe for millions of Sofias.
This sort of doom-planning puts me in my fighting stance. I’ve been in this stance before. In 2018, I started a project to inspire young girls to grow up believing they could be entrepreneurs and CEOs. Forbes had just published a list titled “America’s Most Innovative Leaders,” elevating 99 men and 1 woman. I started writing the narratives of the many women left off the list. I was driven by the adage: You can’t be what you can’t see. Stories work that way, acting powerfully to help us see ourselves in a new light, to transport us to a new mindset.
So once again, I recognize we need stories. Badly. We need to transport Sofia, and my daughter, and the young woman in North Carolina, and so many others, to a can-do mindset.
We do this by elevating creative problem-solvers, those who refuse to believe the future is pre-ordained to spell disaster. Instead of tracking temperature rise and island nations set to disappear below rising seas, let’s spotlight Mary Anne Hitt, a scrappy activist from coal country who has organized like mad and succeeded in gumming up approval processes and shutting down 339 coal fired power plants. Let’s illuminate Lynn Jurich, SunRun’s founder, who, with no background in clean energy, has put solar panels on 600,000 rooftops.
I set out to find these environmental revolutionaries. My goal was to write a collection of profiles spotlighting the women who refuse to accept that Earth is a goner. Almost immediately, I discovered an atmospheric scientist at MIT who embodies all that a story can represent. Susan Solomon drove the science that ultimately fixed the ozone hole threatening the planet in the 1980s. Back then, this gaping hole in the sky was the environmental issue of the day. We will all fry! was the terror du jour, referring to the disappearing protective layer blocking us from the sun’s harmful rays.
As a young scientist at NOAA, Solomon volunteered—when no one else would—to go to Antarctica and do critical experiments to understand why the atmosphere was quickly disappearing. We’re talking 18-hour-days shivering on a research station roof in -40 degree temperatures to measure concentrations of chlorine in the air. She discovered that the problem was CFCs, chlorofluorocarbons, the stuff in aerosol spray cans and some refrigerators.
When her findings hit the news wires, an emergency meeting was convened in Montreal, which produced the Montreal Protocol. For the first time in history, every single nation on earth signed on and agreed to discontinue use of CFCs. Today, the ozone hole is a problem so yesterday, many young people haven’t even heard about it. Elevating Solomon reminds us that we can come together to do the urgent work we must do to save the planet. We’ve managed before. We need to be sharing Susan Solomon’s story. Solomon brings us back to hope.
From there, I found enough visionaries refusing to wait on governments to regulate or polluters to negotiate than could fit into three volumes, let alone one.
Kathy Hannun with her geothermal business Dandelion Energy has worked out a practical, affordable way to tap the earth’s natural heat to warm homes, and she has already converted 1,000 residences. With just that number, she has cut carbon emissions at a level equivalent to taking 18,000 cars off the road. Then, there are all those who see something new in something old. Like bioengineering mushrooms in temperature-controlled trays to produce supple “unleather,” taking methane-producing cows out of circulation (Jamie Bainbridge at Bolt Threads). Or converting carbon dioxide into food that tastes just like bacon (Lisa Dyson at Air Protein). Or removing invasive weeds from river ecosystems and turning them into hair extensions, replacing toxic and itchy plastic (Nana Britwum and Jannice Newson of Lillian Augusta).
Optimism isn’t enough for those young people (and old people) who have been bombarded by the science that tells them all is lost. A therapist in England, who founded an organization called Climate Psychologists to address growing climate anxiety, runs parent support groups on handling these feelings with young people. He advocates using “the rule of three.” For each negative climate-related fact, offer two positive stories. I can do that. You can do that. I am now awash in stories that illustrate agency.
Author Heather White offers another way. In her book One Green Thing (April 2022), she promotes taking one small act every day. No matter how small, regular, routine action is what adds up. These little sparks light other little fires.
Here’s a factoid to share with a young person who feels climate change is so daunting, so gargantuan a problem, that no one individual can make a darn difference: if all Americans cut one measly burger from their diet each week, it would be like taking 10 million cars off the road for one year. What if you pitched your school cafeteria or dining hall to join “Meatless Monday”?
Annie Leonard, head of Greenpeace USA, who years ago made a powerful set of films on “The Story of Stuff,” told me that the top thing to pass to the next generation is that “sharing is cool.” She lives communally, in a group of houses on the same block all owned by friends that share tools, babysitting, hand-me-downs, birthday banners, and whatever else they need. Until we cut down our consumption, we are going to keep extracting from the Earth, burning fuel, chopping down forests—with communal living, the thinking goes, what if we just used less and shared more?
Furthermore, electing climate-friendly representatives is key. They have real levers to pull, because passing a policy like tailpipe emissions standards or funding mass numbers of electric vehicle charging stations can move the needle fast.
This is a critical moment to recognize that we all have agency. Victoria McGreer, a Princeton philosopher and author of the 2004 essay “The Art of Good Hope” voiced the idea succinctly in a 2020 BBC story. “If you’re feeling hopeless about climate change, get involved with people who are actively involved in doing things,” says McGeer.
Diana Kapp’s Girls Who Green the World: Thirty-Four Rebel Women Out to Save Our Planet, illustrated by Ana Jarén, is available April 5 via Delacorte Press.