How do we make climate change feel relevant?

by DearTomorrow co-founder Jill Kubit

With all of the buzz about the New York Magazine’s Doomsday article this week, we thought it would be worth sharing my talk about the DearTomorrow project and the importance of reframing climate change from a place of love. This script is from my talk at the “What Drives Us” event at TED Headquarters on October 5, 2016.

Full script:

Scientists tell us that we have a massive problem — — global climate change. Many say it is the biggest challenge that we currently face, some even say it could be the biggest challenge ever faced by human civilization. And yet, we are not really addressing it.

We know the reasons … fossil fuels, deforestation. We know the results … rising sea levels, mass migration, food and water shortages. We know the science — we have already passed 400 parts per million concentration of CO2 and one degree Celsius of warming — Now tell me: Have your eyes glazed over yet?

I’ve spent the last 10 years working to get people to engage with climate change. When I started, I assumed that if people just understood the scientific facts about climate change, if they knew what I knew, what I just briefly explained to you, they would demand action.

It turns out that talking about the science, by itself, doesn’t work for most people. It doesn’t fit with our own experiences, our day-to-day view of the world. Even though we have started to see images of rising seas and more extreme weather, most of us have not seen our comfortable lives disrupted. Therefore, we don’t see combating climate change as a top priority, compared to good jobs, good schools or other seemingly more immediate challenges.

To most of us, climate change still feels like something that is happening somewhere else or at some other time far in the future. There are also some people who see the problem as so massive, that they jump straight to hopelessness. There is nothing we can do, I can’t make a difference.

Well, I tried several different ways of how to best to talk about this massive problem. I have spent time thinking about it from a jobs angle, the economic benefits and health benefits. But these are rational arguments, just like those scientific facts. There is something important missing in the way we talk about climate change: feeling.

So, how do we make climate change feel relevant? How do we take an issue that seems so distant or so overwhelming and make it feel more immediate and accessible? How do we talk about it in a way that people can connect?

Here’s an idea: let’s talk about climate change from a place of love.

What do I mean? I mean that, even for me, an activist, climate change became more personal and immediate when I became a mom. Along with changing my life in pretty much every single way, having a child helped me to think about climate change through a different lens.

Before I was a mom, I would hear policymakers, scientists, and activists talk about goals to reduce greenhouse gas emission or increase renewable energy by 2020, 2030 or 2050. Even to me, those times always seemed arbitrary and far off.

But now I see these as the times that my son Gabriel will be in the first grade, graduating from high school, and about the age that I am now. None of it seems so very far away. I can imagine his life unfolding during this period of time when we need to make this massive transformation of our world or endure catastrophic climate change.

When Gabriel was 18 months old I met another mother, Trisha Shrum. She had just written a letter about climate change to her daughter, Eleanor, to open when she was grown. This became the first letter written in a project she and I co-founded called DearTomorrow.

Our project is a collection of letters, images and videos about climate change, dedicated to the young people in our lives — our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends, sometimes even our future selves. These letters and images are shared on social media and become part of a long-term archive, preserved for the recipients when they are grown.

At its core, the idea that grew from this first letter is very simple. We are connecting climate change to values that we already hold — the values of family, parenting, and legacy.

We are not the first people to make this connection. Moms in the environmental justice movement have connected environmental issues with children’s their health. New organizations have emerged that organize parents and grandparents to become more politically active on climate.

Our project amplifies this connection. Letters and photos submitted can become a conversation between generations and also between friends. That conversation most often happens these days on social media. Your family and friends on Facebook will listen to a story about your child and climate change in a way that they won’t read a news article about global warming.

The DearTomorrow project is one way to start talking about the importance of solving climate change from a place of love.

These words were written by Joylette in a letter to her two sons:

“It is an act of love to you and everyone who comes after … I really could not live with myself if I let an act of injustice as big as leaving you an unlivable climate happen and didn’t do everything I could possibly do to stop it.”

I stay up late at night after my son goes to bed to read the letters. They inspire me.

Like this one from Stacy, a mother of three, who wrote:

“I want for you to be able to watch the sunset in the distance and feel hope for your tomorrow, not despair. I want for you to witness the massive changes we made as a society to protect you and this precious planet.”

So far there have been hundreds of letters submitted and I have read all of them. There is a potential in every single one of these letters to change ourselves and to inspire others. Our letters have been read or shared by hundreds, even thousands of times.

Our project is not going to solve climate change on its own, it is not the one answer that we have all been waiting for. There is no one answer to this immense global challenge — but there are many, many solutions available right now.

This is, however, one idea, one way of approaching how we, as mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends and citizens, can feel the importance of this climate challenge and explain why we need to act.

As described in a letter by Ryan to his three children:

“I know it’s long past time to wake up. The choices my generation makes now will determine your future.”

This is a choice we are making for what the future will look like. But not just for future generations, it is about us, and the people that we love now, those we already know.

We write these letters — our vision for what is possible, our concerns and hopes for the future, our commitments to act — and share them with the people around us — our family, our friends, our social network. Maybe these letters will change some minds. Maybe they will inspire people to act. The seeds of change are planted in many minds. The world begins to shift, first all too slowly, then faster and faster.

We need to make these changes fast, as fast as a boy like Gabriel grows up. That’s the world I want for my child — and yours.

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