Last week, the northeastern skyline was overtaken by an orange haze, as winds blew smoke from Canadian wildfires southwards. The impact was palpable as the effects of climate change became apparent to nearly 50 million Americans. Hundreds of wildfires are continuing to rage on in Canada. Above-average temperatures and dry conditions caused by climate change affect the intensity and longevity of these wildfires. The news of the affected air quality dominated headlines for a few days, but as the smoke faded, so did media coverage in the U.S. Has an essential moment of climate mobilization been lost?
Not necessarily. As we all witness more extreme weather patterns, natural disasters and shifts in our environment, climate chaos is slowly becoming the new normal. With this new reality, our ability to mobilize around natural disasters becomes more difficult. Slowly but surely, we are becoming desensitized and fatigued by natural disasters: Americans in the 1980s experienced natural disasters on average every 82 days, but today it’s an average of every 18 days.
Most people around the world know about climate change and do want to stop it. However, the climate crisis is a problem that often challenges how people, particularly people in the West, are used to conceptualizing and tackling threats. The effects of climate change are wide-reaching and diverse; the impacts often aren’t felt immediately, and oftentimes, those least responsible get hit the hardest. Conceptually, it can be difficult to imagine the immediate links between cars and hurricanes.
Even though the cause of climate change — unchecked human activity and exploitation of natural resources — are clear, pinpointing and holding culprits accountable can be difficult: How exactly do we quantify BP’s contribution to a recent flood? How do we keep fast fashion accountable for hotter summers? Even after pointing the finger, many of us are left with the question: What do we do now? Government inaction or slow-moving milquetoast reforms are often disillusioning. With so many concerns, the question of climate change can end up feeling overwhelming.
This is what makes mobilizing around a natural disaster difficult. If most people are aware but are overwhelmed by climate change, experiencing natural disasters doesn’t necessarily catalyze a movement. Instead, it can reinforce the feeling that it is too late, and all we can do is helplessly watch.
Climate advocates have done a great job of convincing most people that climate change is real. However, mobilizing people to mitigate the climate crisis is also an issue of imagination. If the way we are conceptualizing climate change isn’t working to mobilize action, it may be time for more of us to broaden the ways in which we relate to the crisis, and approach it from a different angle.
We often use a narrower set of scientific metrics to discuss climate change. It was scientists, after all, who produced clear research linking a change in the Earth’s temperature and climate to the burning of fossil fuels. However, generations of people had been sounding the alarm even earlier. The traditional and diverse teachings of Indigenous peoples of the Americas, and colonized people in Africa, Asia and Oceania have long warned governments about the danger of unchecked exploitation of the Earth. While there may be different conceptions of the links between human activity and the environment, one fundamental conclusion is the same: Unsustainable practices will have consequences for humans. So, as we witness the effects that many people prophesied, we ought to diversify our own perspective. Science is critical in our understanding of climate, but it doesn’t have to be the only way. The human experience isn’t just scientific; it is spiritual, artistic, literary, musical and social, so why limit our discourse on this environmental crisis to just science? By integrating different perspectives and approaches to how we understand climate change, we open up the opportunity to see the problem differently and hopefully consider other solutions.
Though scientists are critical in the way we understand climate change, I encourage people to accept the science but to start reimagining their relationship to the climate. When I first approached climate change as a solely scientific issue, I found myself overwhelmed by the numbers and charts. They felt so immense and beyond my reach. It wasn’t until I found ways to creatively reframe my understanding of climate that I finally moved to dedicated action.
For me, it looks like connecting to the climate through spiritual practices. I’ve worked to develop creative ways of seeing the Earth beyond the objective numbers of natural resource input and greenhouse gas outputs. At first, it felt silly to try to reconsider my relationship with trees, animals and rocks. I grew up within a Western tradition where I learned that, as a human, I existed separately from the natural world. Thinking about the ocean or trees as spiritual beings felt silly to say out loud. But I needed to find a way to connect to the environment beyond depressing news stories and slow politics, to motivate me towards sustained action. So, I gave it a try. For me, it started by understanding the relationship between climate and my history. I began to consider my family’s traditions of agriculture, and animal raising, and the lessons they passed down about respecting nature. I then read a classic book on Indigenous knowledge and ecology: Braiding Sweetgrass. The message that really resonated with me was that I had the power to create my own unique connection to nature. All I needed was an open mind for learning, respect for the environment and people, and a spirit of reciprocity.
As a result, I feel more connected to the environment around me and feel a lot more dedicated to action. Developing a spiritual connection to the Earth makes climate action feel like a way to reciprocate the environment’s generosity, and I am happy to do it.
I know a spiritual connection to the trees and the bees isn’t for everyone, and that is OK, too — there are other ways to connect deeply with the Earth without using the language of spirituality. Thankfully, as people, we are diverse and naturally creative. Let it be through creating an art piece of your favorite landscape, playing a song that reminds you of natural sounds, starting a garden, mindful and slower consumption of clothing, doing social activities outdoors, or whatever else makes you feel connected to the Earth. Whatever way we connect to the environment should be deeply personal.
For me, connecting in these nonscientific ways to the Earth has helped fuel my dedication to taking part in actions like mindful consumption, protecting local ecology, learning to compost and grow food, and engaging in climate policy spaces. For example, learning gratitude for animal and plant life makes me think twice about throwing out a shirt, or taking more food than I need. The sense of responsibility also inspires me to show up and advocate for stronger climate policy, from local elections to COP27.
As climate disasters become more common, we are in desperate times, and desperate measures are needed. But these measures can be filled with joy and imagination for us all. Discussing the climate doesn’t have to only be depressing and anxiety-inducing. We all have to find ways to create hope and action within ourselves and our communities — our future depends on it. So, pick up your paint brushes, instruments, camera, or whatever else comes to mind and connect. By finding a way to connect with the issues of climate change in a way that evokes and sustains action, lasting movements can be built.
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