The climate crisis is a race most of us don't know we're already running
If you’ve ever run a race, you know what happens when you start slow: Your brain computes the time you need to make up with every subsequent mile, kilometer, or smoot. Go out way too slow, and there’s just no way to make up that speed, unless, by some Asics alchemy, you turn into Eliud Kipchoge. Go out way too slower, and you run up against the laws of physics. And so it goes with climate.
The pace of emissions reductions necessary to tackle the worst of climate change is nothing short of running a 100-meter dash for the length of an ultramarathon. Over the next decade we need to bring emissions down to the tune of 7.6 degrees per year. Right now, we’re not. We’re taking those first few kilometers so slow, we’re basically walking backwards. And that means the last few clicks of the race are going to require superhuman feats of strength and speed. (Of course, other factors affect the curve too.)
I like this fleet-footed analogy because it makes it all clear as a Glacier Cherry Gatorade (why?) on a steamy summer day. And because I’m a lifelong slow-starting runner, whose coach would often dismay as I emptied the tank with a sprint at the finish line (why?). Too late! We need to be bending the curve on emissions at the beginning of the race, and by not doing so we’re asking our future selves to shoulder an impossible speed burden.
This is scary but also useful, as it helps people understand how important 2030 emissions goals are compared to 2050 emissions goals (still important!). Net Zero 2050 might as well be a marathon I signed up for in my sleep, given its temporal distance. 2030, meanwhile, is the race we’re already running, poorly, many of us without even knowing it.
What can you do with this racing metaphor? You can use it to make the case for climate action now. You can use it to help people wrap their heads around the immediacy of the planetary pivot required. You can use it to tell people that later is too flipping late. We need everyone on the track in their Flo-Jo finest right now.
Practically, this means doing today what you might be planning to do tomorrow — calling your elected official, replacing your furnace with a heat pump, saying sayonara to your all-steak diet, participating in a climate action that involves wearing a large papier maché head of a less-than-progressive political personage. Let’s go!
I’ve written before about my mixed feelings toward the war metaphor — this epic mobilization that will kick into gear when the world has its Come to Jesus climate awakening. Suddenly, we’ll pivot like it’s WWIII, exponentially cranking out heat pumps the way we once blasted bomber jets off the assembly line. Sure! But when?! I worry that “war mobilization” gives people an overconfidence that we’ll be able to notch up our pace beyond what is humanly possible: does this go to eleven? No, there is no eleven. We’re still going to hit the wall if we don’t start now, because we can only run so fast, build so quickly, move like Jagger.
And I like a race better than a battle, because you emerge from a race spent but victorious. You emerge from a hard-fought battle bloody, bruised, and with lots of your friends dead or gangrenous. Also, running (or walking, or prancing) is a great time to think thoughts, notice noticeables, listen to podcasts, or simply admire the beauty of this one precious world. Get your bodysuit on!
A few extra laps around the track
The climate crisis makes me want to sprint out of bed each day (weird, I know), but it can be helpful/necessary to breathe first, which I talk about a bit in this chat with the lovely people at NeySHEV, a meditation community. Take a few minutes to breathe and only THEN start sprinting.
My friend Ben of iRun magazine and I have been trying to deswag running for years, with modest success. I mean, who needs a clunky, resource-intensive participation medal or fugly t-shirt? Are you a runner? Can you make your voice heard and tell the race directors of your favourite runs that you neither want or need swag to feel like you crushed your race? If you do, let me know how it goes!
Why do we do tomorrow what we ought to do today? The phenom is known as discounting. We’re present biased, so we choose immediate rewards over faraway payoffs. One way to counter this bias is with “future-focus priming,” so we just need to show people what the this is fine of 2030 is gonna look like if we don’t start pacing up right now.
Welcome new readers!
I am so humbled by the Globe’s lovely MVP feature + this Chatelaine roundup, and happy to welcome you. Years ago I started this newsletter to work out climate comms issues that vexed me, and find my own peace with the giant, methane-belching elephant in the room. I try to tease apart climate issues into discrete, manageable bits to counter the overwhelm of the crisis, and life itself. I try not not to let myself make too many embarrassing puns.
My key belief is that for too long we’ve told the wrong climate story. Yes, the climate crisis is a horrible, potential humanity-killer that keeps me up at night. But the opportunity to be alive to help solve it is a gift, and the potential for these solutions to enable human flourishing and a better, fairer world, are key elements that are often missed in the climate movement’s breathless efforts to awaken people to the urgency of the threat.
We’ve made climate too complicated and too impenetrable for too long, and if I had a dollar for every time I cite Richard Thaler’s #1 rule for winning at life, MAKE IT EASY, I’d have enough funds to solve the climate crisis myself. We know what we need to do — get rid of fossil fuels, decarbonize everything, fix agriculture, and generally be less stupidly, hubristically wasteful. We have ALL the solutions. Our challenges are political viability and awareness. Our challenge is listening to the same people who got us into this mess in the first place, instead of centering the people who know how to rebuild a more beautiful world. Our challenge is bad actors sowing disinformation, shitposting in Impact font, and kneecapping democracy everywhere.
Yes, these are daunting challenges. But we are breathing. And somewhere people are dancing. And ultimately, there is no other thing to be but a realistic optimist. Because every day new solutions present themselves, and we need a BTS army of climate advocates to run them, at 5K pace, towards the finish line.
So welcome! Send me a note to tell me who you are and why you’re here!
There are a million point two great climate newsletters but a couple of my absolute must-reads include:
Robinson Meyer’s The Weekly Planet (Incisive analysis. This week’s is particularly sobering, but useful).
Bill McKibben’s The Crucial Years (OG climate thinker/writer/organizer).
Amy Westervelt and Mary Annaïse Heglar’s Hot Take (Great weekly roundup, solid linkage).
Britt Wray’s Gen Dread (climate psychology, actionable actions!) is essential reading.
Emily Atkin’s Heated (Investigate muscle + cute dogs).
David Robert’s Volts (Truly wonderful climate reporter and Democracy stan).
Bloomberg Green’s Green Daily (A different columnist every day, all of them quite fantastic).
Treehugger (consistently solid, thematic round ups + animals).
Not a newsletter, but Indigenous Climate Action does a weekly roundup that is quite good.
The Snap Forward by futurist Alex Steffen. (On ruggedization and discontinuity).
Climate Tech VC (Excellent roundup of climate tech deals, jobs, etc.).
Covering Climate Now’s Climate Beat newsletter is a must-read for media types. This week’s was about how ⅔ of media leaders think their climate coverage is better than the industry average. Lake Wobegon Effect much?
That’s Interesting by my friend John of the Potential Energy Coalition. (Without a doubt the best newsletter on climate communications, messaging, and marketing.) This week he writes:
Reframe the issue as a pollution problem; it’s relevant for everyone.
Make the fight about big polluters causing climate change more than a fight on climate change.
How do you think about our climate timelines? How do you up your pace? Let me know!
So many beautiful wins, goals, and thoughts. Writes Louise:
I hiked along the boardwalk of Rattray Marsh yesterday. There were lots of families enjoying the stroll. I was thinking about Ruth Hussey, the woman who preserved the marsh for future generations. I am a member of GASP — Grand(m)others Act To Save The Planet. GASP is a grassroots, non-partisan group of grandmothers and grand ‘others’ who care deeply about the world our descendants will inherit. Volunteering with GASP has been an antidote to climate anxiety. We rally on street corners, write letters to politicians, and help organize webinars. We collaborate with other environmental groups. It’s encouraging to see the climate action movement grow. Doug Ford is planning on building unnecessary highways and handing over vast amounts of farmland to developers before the June election. We will work hard to preserve this land — just like Ruth Hussey.
Bedimpled actor Ryan Reynolds takes over for David Suzuki, narrating Curb Your Carbon tonight on CBC Gem.
GREAT visual explainer of how we need to bring emissions down. Decarbonize This. (Grid).
Rich nations could see ‘double climate dividend’ by switching to plant-based foods. Amazing new paper! (Carbon Brief).
Thanks for reading. If you like this newsletter, please share it. If you have suggestions to make it better, let me know. I hope you are doing well in these wild times. Take care and be healthy,