My friend Marie and I met twenty years ago, when our now husbands were university roommates. She was a visiting student from Paris. Two decades later, she’s a vrai Montrealaise, and was even recently mistook for a Quebecker, much to her shock and bemusement. Her charming, now teenage son is my godson, her jokes are my jokes, her generous conviviality is my aspiration, and her beauty and good cheer are my delight. Also, she is truly bonkers in the way that only eccentric upper crust people can be (ties hair in chignon, inflates bouncy castle that she owns INSIDE her house).
But for the past dozen years she has gently ribbed me for caring about the climate. It’s funny, but also a bit scalding, especially when I was in the depths of my climate despair, and even as I knew it derived from the blind good fortune of being a child of the French bourgeoisie, where nothing bad will ever happen to you or your cheese course.
Then last week, as I sat in Marie’s Montreal kitchen, while she threw together her perfect vinaigrette and daintily sliced concombres, she said something new. She’d returned from her family house in Corsica the night before, a place I love, with its fig trees and views and feeling that time stands still even as the hot ocean breeze moves over you. “Saraaaaah (she somehow pronounces my name with four syllables), you were right. Climate change is happening and it’s terreeble.” Marie proceeded to paint a picture of dusty Corsica, its sea now so unrefreshingly hot, the jellyfish too copious. “It’s no longer a question of whether you believe, but how bad you think eet is.”
It was either the vino verde or the years-in-coming revelation, but my heart sank and swelled at the same time. There was no delight in the change of tune, but also no sadness. And yet I felt suddenly calm. One of my dearest friends finally conceding that the thing we are facing down is real, something we must address, for the sake of our gorgeous children (hers especially), and everyone else’s. It doesn’t mean she’ll stop flying to visit her family 4x a year, or that she won’t continue to make fun of me and my climate nonsense, but it means…something. A victory, not over her, but in the fact that the normative view has, as she said, shifted to degree of threat, not existence of threat at all. PS. The vinaigrette was perfect.
I chatted about concrete wins with a longtime climate communicator the other day. He said he wanted real, tangible outcomes. I told him about my heat pump tally – a small, in the grand scheme of life, thing I do to remind myself that you can tabulate some of the emissions reductions you have helped orchestrate in your world. Not to take credit, or get a Nexus card at the heavenly pass, but to remind yourself that there are quantifiable things you can do, even if you can’t see the gas being vacuumed up like some sort of Charm Industrial Ghostbuster. What little wins can you cultivate? No doubt they are everywhere.
My dad now sends me JAMA articles about climate and health. But still brings up nuclear every chance he gets. A partial victory?
We are stripping away the fossil fuel industry’s social license one sector at a time. (More next week when I share an interview with Duncan Meisel of Clean Creatives.)
For years, I could not imagine climate victory. Only defeat. We lost always. The highways destroyed the waterways. The wind turbines got ripped from the ground just as they were ready to be dispatched into service. The dummies won. Over and over again.
But then I switched to full-time climate work, and was fortunate enough to join a winning team. We worked diligently to provide the data necessary for the civil servants to make a solid case, and we succeeded in helping convince the government to issue climate rebates via direct deposit on a quarterly basis: climate money showing up on your statement four times a year. A true coup, any first-year behavioral science student will tell you. And then our government committed to a $170 a tonne carbon price. I can’t explain the elation we felt. There was a week of ridiculously mirthful team meetings, a joy you could feel jumping across our zoom screens. Of course, there was and is still so much to be done. But we, all of us, felt a profound satisfaction in knowing this would do something.
I got the climate op-ed into the business section, the advance brigade marching in to set up camp in the highest-circulation broadsheet, many more battalions ready to follow.
We got the women to talk. They know as much as the men, they have the desire to do things, and they take action in much greater numbers. Our course got them activated, and they continue to do wonders. (OK, this one’s a pitch: new cohort of Talk Climate to Me starting soon. Do it! (Or at the very least, watch Small Talk, everything you need to know about the climate crisis in the time it takes to do three seven-minute abs videos!)
A few months ago I found myself lucky enough to join another winning team. So many people did so much work long before I arrived on the scene, and I felt honored just to get to play a small role in the final lap, even as the race was uncertain to the very last. But the feeling, upon wresting a $369 billion dollar victory from the clutches of evil, felt profoundly empowering again.
You could say winning on climate is no different than any other game, and maybe this is so. I was thrown into soccer without knowing how to play the game – all the talented gals had graduated, and the team needed an emergency runner, and my running coaches thought it would be a good way to stay in shape between cross country and track season. But, due to the departure of those amazing senior girls, we lost, and lost, and lost. And lost. Until one day we won. And that experience gave us the strength to realize we would win again.
It’s the wins that give you the fuel to see that it’s possible to change the trajectory, to make a stepping stone story of success. Which is what is necessary. Because none of these climate wins add up to the emissions losses we need. There’s a lot of victory left to be eked out. Which is good news if you’re looking to do climate work. Was this all a grand wind-up to inviting you to join the climate movement? Quite probably!
I’m always happy to chat. And if you’re feeling low at the sight of rivers drying up and crop yields halved, I can recommend no more satisfying way to spend your days. Of course, if you need help, seek it out, too. And if I can ever help you find these resources, just ask.
The climate world is not always good at marking the wins, and, as my niece Dahlia says, savouring. This needs to change. Acknowledge and celebrate the wins. Write them down. Or commit them to memory in the form of a Waitsian ballad. Yes, I’ve written this column before. I will write it again. It never gets old. Look for the wins! Help materialize them. Crow about them. Write the anthem. And whatever you do, please call me to be your backup dancer.
Share your wins with me please!
Pause before you cause. So many lovely responses. Lorna and Duncan highlighted two key points I neglected to get in! Lorna:
We’ve been trying to promote having 'Curious Climate Conversations' this summer, somehow slipping in the words ‘I’m curious … and climate…’ into a conversation with someone new, and seeing where the conversation goes. We thought we were going to get some eye-rolling stories about ‘there has always been rain’ chats, or some heartwarming connections happening at the check out. But actually, our - limited - feedback has been that
most people are a bit nervous to even give it go.
Climate change is just becoming so real, that it feels like people are either getting really scared, or really digging their heels in. And while we all know the tactic is to find common ground, the thought of slipping off that balance is not at all appealing. I think we are all
becoming a bit more protective of our own mental state these days, “do I really need a long discussion about whether batteries can be recycled right now? is that going to help me sleep tonight?"
But you made me realize what a skill these conversations are, and how we need to go into them equipped, informed and with an approach that fits. And we absolutely have to keep talking to each other.
Love this, Lorna, as it’s a very accessible way of reframing motivational interviewing, which is about finding common ground by asking thoughtful questions, and really letting people tell you what they’re feeling. You can’t just slap an enneagram number on someone, it has to come from a thoughtful and interested teasing out of their beliefs.
It's a very blunt way to look at it, but it's sadly held true for me: I think to be an effective communicator you have to care about your audience, even love them. I think a lot of people who spend most of their time in activist spaces don't actually care that much about the public. I think they care about their self-image as people who say and do brave or unpopular things, or they care about the rightness of their position on the issue. Once I left my social circle of all politics all the time people, I actually became a lot better at my work of trying to talk about climate change, because I felt less pressure to do the 'prove you're right' stuff, and just spent more time thinking and caring about the people in my life.
I don’t think that is blunt or sad, Duncan. We know that actual empathy is the key to a good climate convo. Not just listening for the sake of listening. Duncan highlights how it’s all for naught if you don’t actually care. And the care comes from getting to know people, their stories, their fears, and their joys. Thank you both so much!
Pluralistic ignorance is a beast. A paper by some of my fave academics working at the intersection of behavioral science and climate communications.
Thorough Walrus piece (Thanks Jenn!) on Canada fumbling on climate while the UK succeeds. Counterpoint.
We were away for weeks and plum forgot to get a friend to tend to our garden, and yet I came home to beds overflowing with tomatoes. How does your garden grow? Send me your pics.
Thanks so much for reading. Please always let me know how to make this newsletter better. It began as a creative exercise for me, but with readership now at five thousand, I am deeply mindful of the time in the world I am sucking up when I hit send. Keep me honest! And have a lovely, restful weekend!