Facing my climate change paralysis
[Read my Privilege Disclaimer]
As an aspirational realist, I am energized and motivated by working on complex systems-level problems that have a solution. I’ve had personal difficulty tackling the overwhelming challenge of climate change because I am not confident it is a problem that can be solved.
I’d like to share an honest account of how I am getting unstuck, in hopes that you, too, will act.
As a young leader, I feel pulled in a lot of directions. I believe that slavery and its legacy are the most fundamental problems in our country. I studied human rights in undergrad, a field where the work will never end. I work in the healthcare field, which needs innovation more than ever. Or would I make more of an impact focusing on education? Or food systems? It’s a slippery slope.
What I do know is how huge of a problem climate change is, how it is seemingly insurmountable. I am constantly bombarded with end-of-the-world statistics. On one hand, I know that climate change is the biggest threat to our world and most things that we care about. On the other hand, the problem seems so big that it is hard to imagine how I can make a dent; it is paralyzing.
Many days, I still feel this way. But, I am writing to make a realistic commitment to address climate in a way that complements my work and passions. Here are my approaches:
1. Finding my why
Why does this matter to my work? — I am passionate about improving global and community health, with the specific goal of achieving health equity. A key part of health equity is addressing structural racism. With time, I’ve become wholly aware of the impact climate has on community and global health, and the racial and economic disparities that it will perpetuate. The field of Climate Justice connects the environmental with the human, and that has been a helpful lens in understanding the links.
One quick example: climate change is causing a record number of extreme weather events. The US hurricanes of the last couple of months are resulting in death, injuries, displacement, food shortages, transportation disruption, and mental distress. Standing water becomes breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which transmit infectious disease.
This is a threat to everyone, but our country has historically underinvested in, exploited, and taken away power from black neighborhoods. When it comes to infrastructure, many communities lack the ability to mitigate such extreme events, resulting in a disproportional impact on our black neighbors. We saw this during and after Hurricane Katrina.
To put it simply, climate change will worsen health and health disparities. Communities will be severely impacted. And I will fail in my work.
Why does this matter to me? — On a more personal note, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, surrounded by nearly every type of terrain and habitat. I feel most at home where the mountains and sea meet. I feel connected to people and communities who live in similar habitats because I believe that it’s part of what defines us. As my community faces threats of sea level rise, pollution, and loss of natural habitats and local species, I feel a visceral hurt that I’m losing a part of myself. Selfishly, I want my paradise to exist for me — for my getaways, for my moments of peace, for my connection to something greater than myself. But I also want everyone to be able to experience this magic, or the natural magic that they prefer.
2. Following the leaders
I don’t have to be a founder — (More to come on this in a separate post, but for now...) There are a bunch of people who have dedicated their lives to tackling climate issues. One of them, Timothy, is a friend and my inspiration. Timothy is a community sustainability organizer and educator: he runs a clean energy community cooperative, he mobilizes and educates organizers across the country. And, he takes the time to explain in simplest terms what’s at stake and what actions can be taken by well-intentioned but under-informed millennials who don’t know what the hell they’re doing (me!). I can truly say that Timothy lives his values: you can see it in what he cooks, how he commutes, and when he heats his home. He is fascinated and energized by learning the history and facts around our earth and climate. I’ve seen him tear up at the thought of degrading natural landscapes.
The Timothies of the world deserve the resources and attention needed to do their work in the climate space. I do not.
It would be irresponsible of me to divert resources from people dedicated to, and informed about, climate change. I can support them, or incorporate climate into my existing work in more appropriate ways.
I need to center race and socioeconomics— People of color (POC) and less industrialized countries who have made the least contribution to the problem feel the overwhelming impact of climate change. Climate change offers a threat and an opportunity: it threatens even greater disproportionate suffering, but as old systems get destroyed the opportunity arises to replace them with new ones. In designing for the future, I see the importance of centering and following the lead of POC communities to create more equitable systems, and to avoid mistakes of the past.
I am also aware of the burden this can place on communities of color — why should they have to solve the climate problem that we all created?
So, I’m working towards a balance of financially supporting POC-led groups — like Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a Native Women-led organization that reclaims and restores Ohlone land in the San Francisco Bay Area — while also leveraging my unique skills and experiences to make an impact.
3. Indentifying my unique contribution
Influencing my circles— At least 60% of health outcomes are driven by factors outside of the healthcare system, such as access to food, transportation, and housing; over the past 5 years my work has been primarily focused on these Social Determinants of Health (SDoH). The healthcare system is increasingly embracing these fields in order to better care for and heal people. But even as I work on these root causes of illness, I keep stumbling on what underlies these determinants: structural racism and the environment.
If SDoH are the roots, structural racism and climate are the soil. Without the guaranteed future of a healthy earth, how can we realize health equity in people?
This has caught on in the field of public health, but not so much in the private health care sector, by which I am employed. I work at Optum — the technology and services arm of UnitedHealth Group, a Fortune 6 company — and we strive to “help people live healthier lives and to help make the health system work better for everyone”. I am talking with my leaders and peers about the intersection of climate change with the mission of our business, to illustrate why focusing on climate and equity is the right thing to do for our constituents as well as our bottom line.
Though, I just have to say: while it’s energizing to find business cases for projects that improve our society, I wish that it didn’t have to come down to a business case.
My friend Corrie influenced her employer by limiting unnecessary work travel and getting them to reduce her carbon footprint from air travel with a carbon offset program.
Normalizing climate talk— Climate change has become such a political and polarizing topic that in the past I feared that colleagues would consider me a liberal loony if I brought it up at work. This year, I said f*** that, and have started bringing into conversations with confidence my belief that climate change is the biggest future threat to the health of our clients and the communities we serve. So far I have gotten enthusiastic responses, and I am not sure I am totally prepared for negative ones. But, I want to normalize talking about these things at work.
4. Balancing the micro and macro
Not waiting around for my big idea— As a systems thinker, I am too quick to critique ‘bandaid’ solutions — solutions that are temporary and address symptoms of problems rather than the roots. However, getting to the roots takes a lot of time, and sitting idly while the perfect systems solution comes to me is time wasted.
I recently volunteered with Save the Bay — a non-profit that organizes trash clean up and removal of invasive species on the San Francisco Bay’s shoreline. Cleaning up the Bay does not prevent dumping or building on the Bay. But they couple these activities with education about the local ecology of tidal shores: how the ecosystem has worked in the past to mitigate extreme weather events, and how human activity is disrupting this now. I learned a lot about root problems by engaging with this program, instead of sitting on my computer researching and overanalyzing while pulling out my hair.
I know I won’t solve climate change by digging in some soil by the Bay, but I’m getting involved, educated, and inspired. And hopefully saving a few fishies along the way.
Earth care is self care — I have to say, there was something so therapeutic about wandering along the shore, getting my hands dirty, pulling out plants, and picking up trash and thinking about where it all came from. Healing the earth felt like I was healing myself. I know that sounds corny but as I think about when I feel most at peace or grounded, it’s during a morning hike in the Oakland Hills with my childhood best friend. It’s biking around the endless lakes in my second home of Minnesota. It’s laying on the beach in Brazil. Nature nurtures me, and the least I can do is nurture it back.
Struggling with scale — I have witnessed the value of community-led/based approaches to health care; the interventions are designed by those who will benefit from them, and therefore work better! But, I am having trouble with the fact that climate change is such a BIG problem, and while we want every community to have a unique and relevant prevention and resilience strategy, we have already reached the tipping point and need to act at massive scale in order for there to be hope.
This is where politics and policy come in. Each of us can reduce our energy consumption and waste, but super polluters like coal plants are causing the most harm. I need to be more politically engaged, track where my vote is needed, and be vocal in my circles of influence. Attending the Climate Reality Leadership Training this past summer in Seattle was helpful in providing facts and talking points, and gaining access to a network of activists who keep each other informed and accountable.
5. Taking a ‘Climate in all Policies’ approach
I’ll summarize by sharing one idea in particular from my experience in health care that inspired this whole post. In 2006, the EU coined ‘health in all policies’ which has been adopted by almost all major global and public health organizations. This essentially means that our health impacts every part of our life, and every part of our life impacts our health. Thus, policies in every sector must incorporate health considerations. This, and more widespread understanding of SDoH, have created more collaboration among sectors in the public and private spheres to improve health, even if health is not the primary focus of the organization.
So, I’m challenging myself (and you!) to think: What about climate in all policies?
If you think about it, everything depends on the earth, so every sector and every field should have climate considerations, change prevention initiatives, and resilience plans. Maybe every company should have a Chief Climate Officer?
Rather than using human-centered design to create new programs and products, why don’t we follow Permaculture or Ecology-Centered Design? These approaches are inspired by naturally occurring systems and focus on creating for ecosystems rather than just humans. People like Pandora are doing just that.
By recognizing that climate and equity are the soil beneath the roots of our personal or business problems, we can combat climate change within our own fields (beyond getting energy efficient light bulbs and reducing printing). We can do this in ways that do not divert resources from dedicated experts and POC communities. We can also relieve the individual pressure of solving this whole HUGE problem with the little time we have, lifting us out of our paralysis.
Thanks for reading!
I just want to be honest with where I’m at, and hope that you will challenge me to follow through on these things. I’m curious how others have dealt with being stuck. I would appreciate you sharing your stories.