Ten years ago, solar energy was about to get big. The federal government rolled out a 30% tax break for home solar arrays while several states, including my home state of Massachusetts, started SREC programs. In case you’re not familiar with the lingo, SREC stands for Solar Renewable Energy Credits. You can earn these with your home solar panels, and then swap them, cap and trade style, with energy companies that then use them to pay fees. The system worked, and for a while, it made perfect sense to buy solar panels. Solar farms popped up along highways. Solar appeared on rooftops. As the price of arrays dropped, the industry looked set to boom.
Then, something changed. Even though the cost of home solar installations dropped by 55% since 2015, large-scale solar projects stalled. In a state where 49% of houses could have been generating power, only a tiny percentage actually featured rooftop arrays. Even though solar was more feasible than ever, solar companies weren’t thriving. Why?
I sat down with Jeff Cohen, solar guru of Salem, Massachusetts and vice-chair of Salem’s Sustainability, Energy and Resiliency Committee, to learn why solar hasn’t taken over Massachusetts yet. I found out that there are several big roadblocks to mass solar adoption right now, but also even greater hope for the future of renewable power.
First of all, the federal incentive for residential solar panels is expiring. In fact, it was supposed to disappear in 2016, but the Obama administration was able to extend it for a couple years more. According to Jeff, any resident who installs solar by the end of next year will still get that sweet 30% tax break. (There’s a plain English explanation of that program at Wholesale Solar.) After 2019, the break will drop by a few percentage points every year. This isn’t necessarily a huge deal, because the cost of solar panels is dropping fast. The incentive was never supposed to be permanent. But the incentives specific to Massachusetts have changed, too.
The SREC program was a wonderful tool for getting homeowners into solar energy. Solar experts considered it one of the best state-level incentive programs in the country. During an array’s first ten years of life, its owner earned one SREC for every megawatt of energy their panels produced. The average home solar array could produce about 6 SRECs per year, which could then be sold back to utilities. This was guaranteed money in the pockets of anybody who got solar panels between 2008 and 2018. EnergySage has a good rundown of exactly how this worked and explains some of the finer details of the program.
Unfortunately, SREC expired in January 2018. Its replacement, the SMART program, isn’t as good a deal. However, many people who bought solar panels during SREC continue to earn credits. They’re grandfathered in for the first ten years of their array’s life. Still, without SREC, there’s less incentive for residents to get solar panels.
There are about 41 municipalities in Massachusetts that own their own power generation facilities. They include Marblehead and Peabody, which border Salem, and the upshot is that their power bills tend to be lower than those for, say, National Grid. However, a municipally owned power supply isn’t always a good deal for solar power.
First of all, many towns aren’t necessarily interested in going solar. Salem recently installed panels atop a school on Witchcraft Heights, but Salem’s also fairly well-off and doesn’t engage in municipal power generation. A town without resources won’t necessarily want to invest in a technology that involves significant up-front expense, especially if a legacy system is already working well for them.
That’s why municipalities aren’t necessarily converting to solar power in a central way. The reason that municipal power discourages home rooftop solar is that municipalities are not required to match the value of excess energy that a home might produce. This gets to the heart Massachusett’s biggest issue with solar power right now. According to Jeff, it’s the reason that solar power expansion has argely stalled out in the state. Think of it as the biggest solar secret that you’ve never heard of.
Net metering and the cap
Net metering is the practice of making solar energy worthwhile for the average homeowner. Think of it as a give and take. Sometimes, your home solar array will make more than enough electricity to power your house. The extra power might flow over to a neighbor’s home, in which case, the energy that your neighbor is getting was actually generated by you. The power company that runs the grid – which could be National Grid, Eversource, or Unitil, depending on where you live in Massachusetts – still charges your neighbor for that power. However, they have to buy it from you first, and they’re legally obligated to pay you as much for the electricity as they would have charged you if you didn’t have solar panels. This payment comes in credits, which cover the cost of power for your house at times when your house can’t make its own power. In the summer, you may build up enough energy credits with your home array to see you through the winter with minimal charge for power.
The problem is that the power companies don’t like this setup. They themselves can’t own solar farms because that would turn them into vertical monopolies, which are illegal. They’d much rather maintain the fossil fuel status quo than shake up their current business situation and deal with the headache of net metering thousands of solar residents…and worse, big solar farms.
That’s why they’ve successfully gotten the Massachusetts state government to impose caps on the amount of solar power that can be generated in the state. Caps are determined by load zone, which are areas of electrical service delivery that coincide with municipal lines. A cap is the percentage of the company’s total energy delivery that can be met through solar generation. In 2016, this was about 8% for the public and 7% for private companies, according to the Massachusetts Net Metering guide. Jeff tells me that this has risen a few percentage points each year, but not fast enough to allow community solar to flourish. Once the annual cap has been reached, the utility will no longer participate in net metering. That means that, in addition to paying for a solar array, an owner would need to pay full price for electricity in the winter and at night. Suddenly, solar is no longer as attractive, especially for a big solar farm or community array.
The problem with big projects is that they can cause their utility to hit the cap fast. Solar farms, community solar projects, and even schools that want to have solar panels on their roofs run into this problem. Lack of net metering compounds the expense of setting up large-scale solar and makes it less feasible in general. In turn, this stymies the growth of all solar use and business expansion. Since many Massachusetts residents rent, community solar is critical to getting the state off of fossil fuels. Renters don’t have the choice of buying solar panels; their only opportunity to get green power is to buy into renewable energy. If sources don’t exist, apartment-dwellers can’t opt for them.
There are a lot of politics at play here, of course. Utility companies are some of the most powerful businesses in Massachusetts, and they easily outspend advocacy and solar groups in their lobbying efforts. While the Massachusetts legislature has increased the caps in the past, they’ve recently slowed this activity down, possibly due to pressure from National Grid and Eversource.
What’s the solution?
Jeff tells me that there’s one way to make Massachusetts go solar: everybody needs to insist. There’s essentially no way to outspend Eversource and National Grid in lobbying, so consumers need to start making demands of their representatives. If you’re nervous about getting into the fray, then see my previous post on how to become politically active even if you loathe politics.
Most of all, Jeff tells me that buying solar is still a great option for your home. Going off the grid may seem attractive in concept, but even though battery technology is improving, leaving the system still so expensive that only the very wealthy could afford it. Restricting activism to people with that kind of privilege won’t result in meaningful change – in other words, we do this together or it doesn’t happen. That means sticking with the system and the grid, and working together to change them both.
As solar gets cheaper and people like Jeff work for green power options, it becomes clear that the energy giants of Massachusetts are just delaying the inevitable. Ultimately, although the fight will be difficult, solar is going to win.
Many thanks to Jeff Cohen for giving me an awesome interview for this article! Be sure to check out his direct action network on Facebook. If you’re doing research to buy your own solar array in Massachusetts, check out Solar Power Rocks, where a free strategy guide can start you on the path toward making your own power and saving the world.
Climate change is political. Not because the science of global warming is up for scientific debate – it isn’t – but because the means by which the world will need to address the problem is tied up with economics, social systems, employment, taxes, trade, lifestyle…
You get the idea. Dealing with climate change is going to require a complete overhaul of our current system. Individuals can do a lot, but the system that builds roads and manufactures medicine still currently uses fossil fuels for those necessary activities. Businesses have no incentive to change the way things are going because they’re most concerned with next quarter’s profits. Governments are made to take a longer view. The only way we’ll get ourselves out of the carbon quicksand we’re in is through coordinated government action. Once a government mobilizes on a public concern, they really move – just look at the effort that saw the U.S. out of the Great Depression and through World War II! Better yet, you can direct government somewhat through political action.
If the thought of getting political makes you cringe, then rest assured that you’re not alone. There seem to be two kinds of people in this world: people who can’t get enough politics, and people who avoid it like lava. However, politics is how climate change action will happen. And, believe it or not, it doesn’t have to hurt. Your action can be as minor as volunteering to take notes. Here’s what to do.
1. Join up!
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: the best way to act is to act in a group! You’ll make friends, find moral support, and see your cause gain real momentum. An action group will almost always include people with more political experience and instinct than you, and they’ll be happy to do the politicking. Let them take that lead. There’s a good chance they won’t be as adept at, say, calling bus companies and pricing out transportation costs for an action or conference. When you do that for a climate change action group, you’re fighting climate change!
If you’re at a loss as to where to find like-minded, politically savvy people, then start with 350.org. They function in regional chapters and like to partner with more local organizations. This lets them make a whopping difference in comparison to their size. (I recently wrote a profile on them for In Kind, which is just an amazing site. Go look!)
Other national groups include the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, an organization of which I’m a member, and Mothers Out Front. Local organizations are crucial, too. My hometown of Salem supports Salem Alliance for the Environment and Coastwatch. Google your town’s name and the word “environment” to see who’s active. You might be surprised at what you find!
If you’re tentative, I’ve noticed that one way to get into these kinds of groups is to volunteer to take notes at meetings. Simple as that. People rarely want to take notes and you can provide a valuable service if you cheerfully offer to eat that frog.
2. Write letters to editors
There’s an art to writing letters to the editor. I ought to know – I’ve written over 200. About 30 have gotten published. That’s an excellent return that may indicate how interested papers are in this issue right now. The offices of your political representatives keep a weather eye on the press. LTEs can do a lot to raise awareness.
Here’s exactly how to write a good LTE.
First, find an article to which you’d like to respond. It’s quite important that you respond to a specific, recent article. If it’s more than three days old, find another one. If you’re starved for fresh material, try setting up a Google alert (here’s how) or signing up for the excellent Climate Nexus newsletter.
Read your chosen piece and make note of its main points. You’ll need to address those in 200 words or less – usually, that’s all the space papers will give to an LTE. Be informative, concise, and polite. Thank the editor at the end. Include your full name, real address, and phone number, too, because the editor may have to get in touch with you to confirm your identity.
Finding the editor’s email can be a little bit of a trick, but it’s often something like editor@[paper’sdomain].com or letters@[paper’sdomain].com. Some papers also have submission forms on their websites.
Your local papers love to print LTEs from area residents. Major papers get a larger volume, so your rate of success per letter will be lower, but you can still safely bet on at least one in twenty making the cut. Don’t be afraid to submit to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other big outlets even if you don’t happen to live in New York, Washington, or wherever those papers happen to be located. They own their status as national (and even world) media companies and acknowledge that their readership transcends geographical boundaries.
You can also take a chance on local papers that aren’t local specifically to you. Once again, some of these will accept that the Internet has made the world their readership. For example, I’ve been published in the Deseret News, even though I’ve never been to Utah in my life. Some papers, however, won’t be as generous with your out-of-towner opinion. I once submitted an LTE to a local paper and had an editor accidentally reply all to complain that I wasn’t even a townie! Needless to say, that LTE did not see publication. I did, however, place many letters after that, and several of those were in local papers.
Finally, if you want to get serious about this, keep track of your LTEs, both submitted and published, on a spreadsheet. This is partly to track your submission frequency. No paper will publish you if you email them more than once every two weeks or so. More importantly, you need to bask in your successes every once in a while. This is a great way to take action on your own time, all by yourself, and feel like a hero when you see your name in print and climate change out front. Just don’t ever, ever read the comments.
3. Make phone calls
You may already be familiar with the 5 Calls app. The reason I like this free service (aside from the fact that it’s free) it that it focuses on a few key issues and then explains them thoroughly before sending you into the fray. That’s a good jumping-off place for someone who’s not usually political. There’s no need for you to stick to the script, of course, but a lot of people like to do exactly that, and it’s totally OK and legitimate to read a prepared statement.
You may also find that individual politicians’ actions on climate change are worth addressing in a phone call. In my home state of Massachusetts, for example, there’s a carbon tax being batted around on the state level, and Paul Tucker, one of my county’s representatives, petitioned for it. Badgering him to do more on climate change without acknowledging that he already did a good thing is only going to irritate the man and make him feel unappreciated. I might want to call him up just to encourage him and tell him that I think he’s doing an awesome job. And oh, by the way, would he like to visit the Salem Sustainability Committee on Wednesday?
5 Calls will cycle you through politicians automatically. Every time you hang up, it’ll bounce you to the next number on its list. You’ll end up leaving messages or sometimes talking to an aide. Always give your full name and address and be polite. Remember, each office may field hundreds of calls per day. They don’t have time for a drawn-out discussion.
I’m not as good at calling politicians as I am at writing letters. However, experts on the subject say that you should call your representatives every day and ask specifically for the staffer in charge of your issue, in this case, climate change. U.S. PIRG has a really great summary on how to effectively badger your politicians.
When you’re using 5 Calls, keep in mind that it is something of a mill. It will eventually cycle you away from your local and state representatives and into the mailboxes of politicians from other states. Since you cannot affect those individuals’ re-elections, your call will not be well received there. Save your energy for people who are interested in your vote.
There are a lot of ways to show up for climate change. The easiest is probably to attend a protest. You can find these by watching 350.org’s social media. However, this is by no means the only – or necessarily the best – way to move your local politician.
Lasting change starts at the bottom. Get to know your councilpeople, local representatives, and state senators. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter and pay attention to where they’ll be doing events. Townhall discussions are great places to show up and hold their feet to the fire about climate change. During election season, you and your friends can punch above your weight by showing up to debates and open forums. Do your research about candidates’ actions related to climate change and press them about specific points. Livetweet the answers. Make climate change an immediate issue with your persistence.
You can also show up to sustainability committees and town council meetings. Sometimes, activist groups will show environmental movies, like Tomorrow, to the public for free. Go enjoy that free movie! You’ve heard of voting with your dollars – now vote with your presence. This is also a great way to network and find out what small environmental groups are operating in your area.
Speaking of voting…
Vote vote vote. It really does make a difference. You don’t have to vote Democrat. You don’t have to vote for the candidate most likely to win. Vote for the climate. Vote in concert with your group, friend, and/or family, and make the environment Your Thing.
If you and your friends focus on this issue, you can chip out a noticeable bloc in small local races. Never let anyone tell you that participating in politics is pointless or that your vote is wasted. In some hyperlocal elections, such as those for town mayors, as few as 15% of residents may vote! In a town of 1,000 people, that’s 150 folks deciding who runs that town for the forseeable future. If another 50 people care that climate change is causing flooding on their street, then you’d better believe your mayoral candidates will pay attention to that issue. You just need to show them that you’re a clear and present voting bloc.
At its smallest, politics is street-level. Leverage that. There is no difference too small to make.
You’ve watched David Attenborough’s speech. You’ve followed the Washington Post’s dark and dire coverage of the 24th U.N. Conference. I’m glad these things happened. Realizing the extent of a problem is the first step in cleaning it up. Make no mistake, my friend: we’re cleaning it up.
These cities are making an awesome start. Greening cities is critical to the defeat of climate change, and as Bloomberg points out, it’s potentially a fantastic investment. Some people have already realized this and taken action. So when things seem bleak and your first attempt at composting fails, Google these forward-thinking bergs and take heart. You’re not in this alone!
1. Dale Ross has greened Georgetown, Texas
Want to live on a 100% green grid? Georgetown, Texas has you covered. The Republican governor says that coal can’t compete with wind and solar on cost. The city also composts and plans to expand electric car charging and rooftop solar.
Georgetown is solid red Trump territory and Ross is as practical a guy as any Republican. So what’s the difference? Personally, I think it’s because Ross is a CPA. He’s trained to look at numbers, not politics.
In 2016, students at Southwestern were looking into having a green campus at the same time as a major energy portfolio contract was ending. Ross, then a councilman, and his fellow city leaders sent proposals to both fossil fuel and renewable energy companies. The math on renewables made sense, and once they saw that, the partisan rancor attached to energy went right out the window. A deal is a deal.
When they pitched the idea to the conservative-leaning public, the city of Georgetown tweaked their lexicon to avoid politicized language. “progressive” became “innovative.” An “environmental decision” became a “business decision.” They also made it clear that nobody’s energy bill was going up.
Finally, and possibly most importantly, they stayed the course. There was blowback from constituents, but once people tried renewable energy, they found that it worked just like fossil fuel always had. Ross got promoted and Georgetown became the first of what I hope are many conservative environmentalist strongholds.
The article includes an interview with Ross, who seems to be a thoughtful guy. Go read!
2. Aspen embraces the water and wind
Aspen, Colorado doesn’t just get 100% of its energy from renewables. It was one of the first cities to do so, fitting dams for power generation in the ’90s and opting for wind power in 2005. Today, according to the city’s website, it gets about half of its power from wind and half from hydroelectric dams, with a tiny bit coming from solar panels. That’s way beyond original expectations – visionary Randy Udall, who tragically died before Aspen went renewable, set high hopes that the city would eventually get 30% of its energy from wind power.
There are environmental issues with hydroelectric power, of course, and in a truly sustainable system, any impact on wildlife needs to be taken into account. However, in a situation where the excess carbon in the atmosphere is the most pressing and immediate concern, there’s no question that hydropower is an important bridge to sustainability. A 2016 review in the open access, peer-reviewed journal Engineering is a nice piece of light reading for anyone doing their homework about hydro.
According to Aspen’s local newspaper, the popular ski destination was the third city to reach 100% renewable status after Burlington, Vermont and Greensburg Kansas. Speaking of which…
3. Greensburg, Kansas is actually a green burg
In 2007, an F5 tornado destroyed Greensburg, Kansas. When I say destroyed, I mean that Greensburg had nothing left. Here is a picture of Greensburg in 2007.
Faced with what Nature could do, the citizens of Greensburg decided, in a series of meetings with Mayor Bob Dixon, that they wanted to rebuild to green standards. Nobody originally planned to go 100% renewable, but, as Dixon tells it, support grew organically. The city built a wind farm, owned municipally, that provided all of the power for its citizens. People started coming back to the city and it began to thrive.
Here’s a picture of Greensburg today.
It’s growing and thriving. Young people are steadily moving there, possibly because of its reputation as a resilient green city. They did such a good job that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory used Greensburg as a case study in 2009.
There are others, of course, who are planning the transition to renewables. From St. Louis, Missouri to Ithaca, New York, the mayors of cities across the U.S. are stepping up. Need more? The Sierra Club has a full list.
In a time when bad news rolls in every day, it can be easy to forget that change begins as a groundswell. That groundswell is already underway.
If you’re anything like me, then you occasionally battle a sense of helplessness when faced with climate news. Not only is climate change becoming more urgent, but some world leaders seem incapable of taking swift action. You may feel like a twig in a current, rushing toward a waterfall with no hope of changing course.
There are a couple illusions at work here. The first is that you’re just one lonely person floating along all by yourself. In fact, you’re an active part of a large system. Far from being a twig, you’re a member of a 7.5 billion-strong canoe team! (It’s a really big canoe.)
Yes, we’re heading toward a waterfall. But if you start paddling for shore, people will notice. They don’t want to go over the waterfall either. They’ll join you. Soon, you can’t help but make headway toward safety, and it doesn’t matter what the boat’s captains are saying or not saying. YOU can change this – you and your seven billion friends.
The second illusion is subtler. It’s that paddling for shore will be nothing but difficult, miserable, and exhausting. That you might as well just give up because changing course would be way too hard.
It’s understandable that people would think this way. After all, carbon-fueled electricity has revolutionized the way civilization runs. If you stop using it, goes the logic, you won’t just be giving up luxuries like your electric juicer. You’ll be tossing your CPAP machine and refrigerator and heading off to eat bugs in a cave for the rest of your life.
Allow me to assure you that you are not going to have to eat bugs. Unless they’re gourmet, obviously.
There’s a process to changing course. Its first step is to take a great, big, deep breath. Join me in breathing. In…Out. Now repeat after me:
Contemplate that mantra. Panic is an evolutionary reaction that is useful for two things: making you freeze or making you run. In this case, neither of those reactions is helpful, and nor are their advanced human equivalents, catastrophizing and despairing. We’re going to have to do away with the panic for now. It’s not useful to us, and more importantly, it’s not providing us with a good representation of our circumstances.
Now that we’ve calmed down, it’s easier to look at our problem logically. Whether massive numbers of individuals opt to make changes in their carbon usage, the market pulls entire populations into new behavioral patterns, or governments legislate and enforce change, there will need to be a large shift in lifestyle in the near future. Any psychiatrist will tell you that the larger the change, the more gradually it has to happen. That’s why so many people don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions. They’re literally trying to make an overnight change. Human beings don’t work that way.
Instead, we’ve got to apply our changes incrementally, giving ourselves time to get used to the new status quo. Research suggests that the average person adjusts to a new routine after about two weeks. That tells us how to successfully make changes in our carbon footprints. You can do it in just four easy steps.
1. Plan, plan plan
Do you really know how much carbon you’re using? Figure it out! There are carbon footprint calculators here, here, and here. Determine where in your lifestyle there is room to trim your energy budget. Make a list of everything you’d have to do to get yourself to a sustainable level of carbon use.
This may take some research. Give yourself the gift of a nice, thorough fact-finding session. Don’t settle for Internet polemics and blogs that shame you. Look for constructive ideas and lifestyle examples.
Then, decide what you can do. Start with small, immediate steps and plan to implement larger changes when possible. Do you want solar on your house? Set up a year-long savings plan for the down payment on an array. Are you driving too far to work? Give yourself options: a carpool for now, a closer job for later.
Be conservative. Be realistic. You can try fancy green lifestyle tricks later, after you’ve accomplished the goal you’ve set out for yourself and are comfortable with your new routine. For example, if you’re currently a dedicated carnivore, don’t go vegan overnight. Instead, cut down your meat intake. Then see where you can go from there.
2. Use a calendar
It can be digital or it can go on the wall. The main thing about this calendar is that it tells you when you’ll start implementing your changes. Here’s an example:
January 1: Change all the lights to high-efficiency bulbs.
February 1: Cut meat consumption down to weekends.
March 1: Order seeds and plan a backyard or community garden.
April 1: Run one weekly chore by bicycle.
May 1: Start composting.
Follow the calendar to the best of your ability and assess your progress every month. If you have a family, get them involved. Any change is best tackled as a group.
3. Find your people
Your friends might be reluctant to embark upon your green journey with you. If nothing else, they may worry about how it’ll impact your existing relationship. Don’t worry about trying to draw them into your quest. Evangelism will entrench and threaten them. Instead, go out and find support in existing communities.
Meetup.com is a good place to find like-minded people. There are Facebook groups for zero-waste lifestyles, bicycling, and home gardening that are good resources and good fun. Remember, cutting carbon isn’t a lonely experience – you’re in a canoe with seven billion other people! Find others who are committed to paddling for shore.
When you’re secure in your actions and living well in a green avenue, you’ll naturally attract your friends and family because they’ll be curious about your changes. There’s still no guarantee that they’ll convert to sustainability, but it’ll at least get them thinking.
4. Reward yourself
At the end of a year, you’ve successfully made nine of your twelve changes. That’s huge! Celebrate. Treat yourself. Treat your family, if they’re on this journey with you. Head back to the footprint calculators and bask in how far you’ve come.
Notice, in particular, the things you feel best about. Many people who go green report a higher level of satisfaction with their life afterward. It’s not clear why this is, but I think it may have to do with finding a community. Gardening and exercise, including walking and bicycling, are also mood boosters.
Once you’ve assessed, bolstered by how effective you’ve been, continue upon your journey. There’s a long way to go, but you’re not alone on this trek. Together, we can start turning this canoe.
You live in a bubble. I do, too. The bubble is called my apartment, where I cook vegetarian locavore farm share food and turn off the lights when I leave the room. Here in our little rented castle, it’s very easy to be an energy warrior. My wife and cats are in total agreement with me over climate change. Everything’s perfect…as long as I stay inside.
Once I go outside and start to talk to people about this issue, I run into some serious uphill. If you’re anything like me, you, too, went through a phase where you tried to play Cassandra to the Troy of our fuel-guzzling society. Maybe you’re in the midst of that phase right now. How’s the prophet life treating you?
Ecologists, who I am beginning to think are just right about everything, have been complaining for years about how hard it is to have an actual conversation about climate change. Personally, I’ve noticed that people tend to fall into one of about five categories when I talk climate to them. Full disclosure: I don’t usually get them out of those categories and onto my side. But if I successfully start an ongoing conversation, I do see movement in their point of view. It’s slow, but so is a rock when you start rolling it toward a downward slope.
Notice that qualifying word: ongoing. It turns out that people only care about your concerns if you care about theirs first. Have a climate convo, but build a relationship, too. Figure them out and lead by example. Otherwise, you’re just another rando screaming about Judgment Day.
These tips are what I’ve gotten out of personal interactions and research. Am I a professional negotiator? Nope! And I fudge plenty of climate conversations. But in my experience, yelling doom at people does nothing but entrench them and convince them that you’re nuts.
Here are the five people I meet when I talk about the climate.
1. The Accuser
This person demands to know if you drive, eat bananas, or wear clothes made of cotton. When you admit that you do own a non-hybrid vehicle, the reaction of the accuser is triumphant. What right do you have to promote climate action? What right? WHAT RIGHT? They have unmasked a hypocrite and will accept nothing less than your tears of humiliation and pleas for mercy.
This position grows from a place of deep shame. The climate Cassandra’s actions, however introductory, remind the accuser that they themselves are doing nothing to stop our slippery-slope slide toward the yawning mouth of destruction. They may be fighting you to your face, but inside, they’re a jangling ball of climate anxiety. They’re striking out at you because you happen to be the lucky winner that poked the ball with your words.
Respond to the accuser by pointing out that change doesn’t happen overnight. Your personal drawdown has to be gradual or it won’t stick. Seriously. Ask a psychiatrist. You’ll tire yourself out trying to be the Marie Kondo of fossil fuels.
You’re not perfect. The accuser doesn’t have to be perfect, either. You’re both stuck in the same fossil fuel-reliant system together. Understand the accuser to disarm them. That means listen, ask questions, and let them talk. You won’t get anywhere by ramming your opinion down their throat, but you might make a friend by letting them vent for a while. A friend can observe your drawdown and take heart because they’ve learned to trust you.
2. The Faithful
The faithful believe in the ability of technology and science to get us out of this mess. I’ve met faithful excited about algae, carbon filters, and plastics made from airborne pollution, but by far the greatest number belong to the Church of Elon.
The tricky thing about the faithful is that they’re not necessarily wrong, but they may ignore achievable or individual-level action in favor of a concept. Pairing a Tesla with a solar roof, for example, is a fantastic idea that is wholly out of financial reach for most Americans. You will be tempted to argue about this.
Technology may save us. It could happen! Ten years ago, smartphones were toys for rich technophiles. Now they’re a solution for cheap Internet. That’s a hell of a turnaround and almost nobody saw it coming. You don’t know that tech won’t be the key to solving climate change, just as the faithful don’t know that it will be. Don’t argue about what hasn’t happened yet because there is no way to win.
Instead, engage with the faithful. Send them articles about air filters and bicycle shares while making it clear that you’re not waiting around for Elon to come through. Remember that the faithful are outside of your ability to convince because they’ve got Musk in their eyes. They may join your crunchy climate change collective activism when they become disillusioned. They may maintain their blind trust in technology forever. Either way, your ability to argue with them probably won’t have much bearing on the outcome.
3. The Bright Side Seer
This person tends to be older. They remember a time when rivers were flammable, smog suffocated London, and the ozone featured oozing wounds. They’ll tell you horror stories about lead in gasoline and paint, eventually coming around to the conclusion that history is arcing in the right direction. Finally, they’ll say that the U.S. is cleaner than China. As far as they are concerned, this will end the argument.
The difference between you and the bright sider is that you want to help the Earth, and the bright sider wants to help you. If a bright sider corners you with descriptions of how much better things are, it’s usually not because they believe that things are now perfect. It’s because you’ve been coming on too strong. They are worried about you because you seem anxious and depressed. They aren’t trying to shut you down – they are trying to talk you down.
Alternately, a bright sider may be trying to justify their own inaction a la the accuser, using their experience to shut you up rather than aggressive verbal attacks. This is pretty subtle emotional jiu jitsu, though. My experience suggests that bright siders are often just concerned for your mental health. If you’re the type to pop a blood vessel thinking about deforestation – twinsies! – then you’ll encounter a lot of bright siders in your family and friend groups. They believe in the problem. They just don’t want you to have a medical event over it.
You can make a big impression on these folks by staying calm. Take action in your life and talk about that. When you notice your word rate speeding up, your face getting hot, and your thoughts spilling over themselves on their way to your mouth, stop and take a breath. Your ability to express your feelings about climate change is not going to make or break the future of the world, much less the sentiments of the person standing in front of you. If talking hypes you up, stick to action. Arrive at family dinner on a bicycle or by train.
4. The Passive Sigh-er
This person believes. Your heart will leap upon meeting them. They actually believe! You’re off to the races…and then you realize that they’re looking woozy. They try to change the subject. They sure do believe, and they’re desperate to talk about anything else. They don’t think there’s anything they can do to stop doom from descending upon us all.
Humans are funny. We can ignore the fact that we’re not solving a problem if we recognize that the problem exists and should be solved, especially if it’s not immediately threatening us. That’s what the passive sigh-er is doing. They acknowledge that climate change is real, but balk at action because it’s just too much. If everyone doesn’t give up their commute, we’re still in trouble, so why bother with personal action? At worst, they think that we’re already headed for that brick wall too fast and that nothing will stop the human species from going extinct. Why not just enjoy life meanwhile?
I haven’t determined whether it’s possible to reach sigh-ers or not. Some seem open to rallying cries – It’s not over ’till it’s over! We yet live! Go down swinging! We shot the moon and we can shoot this too! Others react to the entire conversation with passive aggression. I spoke to a woman recently who went from “Oh, the climate is in terrible shape” to “It’s OK, I’ll kill myself if it gets that bad” in sixty seconds. YIKES. You’d better believe that redirected the conversation!
I’m a huge advocate of attraction rather than promotion. If you live the change, that can be a powerful statement. Better yet, it is, if you’ll pardon the phrase, energy-efficient. You’ll expend a ton of effort trying to get a single passive sigh-er to move their ass, and you may well end up with nothing to show for it.
Groups can help, too. Passive sigh-ers may get swept up in collective sentiment if they’re exposed to it for long enough, and they may be susceptible to fads and trends. If you can get together with an enviro group – or even start one of your own – draw them into something fun, like a bake-off or film festival. A lot of people resist activating because they’re afraid they’ll lose their normal, unpolarized, moderate social life. Try getting them into a new friend group to show them that there’s life on the other side.
5. The Political Line-Holder
Now we come to the deniers. I’m grouping them all into line-holders because the social demarcations of disbelievers seem to fall closely along political lines, at least, in the States. That’s not statistically likely unless a large chunk of those deniers are denying because of the group they’re in rather than what they actually believe.
That’s why bludgeoning deniers with the science generally doesn’t work. Their denial isn’t about information, logic, or fact. It’s about social cohesion. For these folks, climate change is just a liberal talking point. The reasons that liberals want to talk about climate change are nebulous – I’ve heard Fox pundits say that climate change is a foreign plot, a tax plot, a grant funding plot, and a re-election plot – but there doesn’t need to be a reason. Climate change is liberal. That’s that the line-holder really cares about. Liberals believe in climate change, not conservatives like them.
In this case, it can help to have a few conservative names handy. Bob Inglis comes to mind immediately, although keep in mind that his belief in climate change cost him his South Carolina seat in the House of Representatives. The U.S. military believes in climate change very, very much. Conservatives in other countries don’t have the same weird hang-ups about this phenomenon that Americans do.
Then ask questions. Why do we trust the science behind GPS, but not the science behind climate change? What’s inherently liberal about climate change action? Don’t debate at first. Just keep asking and listening. Then, gradually, and without rancor, panic, or aggression, suggest that maybe we’re looking at climate the wrong way. Wouldn’t it be better for your town to make its own energy rather than being dependent on Saudi Arabia? Wind turbines and solar panels require a ton of permanent maintenance jobs that can’t be outsourced. Better yet, those jobs require factory-adjacent skills – why wouldn’t that make America great?
Don’t hammer on climate change like you’re ringing a bell. The line-holder knows that bell too well. Instead, touch lightly upon the many points around climate change and try to introduce something new to the conversation. Don’t push and don’t make it an unpleasant experience for them. Expect to leave the dialogue having not convinced the line-holder of your position. Have more conversations in the future, and as always, follow up your words with action.
Today’s Climate Change Bat Signal: Start a climate convo and remain calm, cool, collected, and un-evangelical throughout. Be the environmentalist you thought was cool in high school. Attraction, not promotion.