How To Stay Positive About the Planet

Photo: Molly Kawahata

Mountaineer and activist Molly Kawahata offers advice on putting an end to climate guilt, finding solutions, and enacting change by getting involved.  

If thinking about climate chaos makes you want to ugly-cry into a pillow, then Molly Kawahata (she/her) has two messages for you. The first: Wanting to hide from the planet’s problems doesn’t make you a bad environmentalist. The second: Climate change isn’t your fault.

Sure, you drive a car, take long showers, and forget to bring your reusable bags to the grocery store. It doesn’t matter, says Kawahata, an Alpine climber, former White House climate policy advisor, and the subject of Patagonia’s new film The Scale of Hope. You can keep doing all that—and taking short-haul flights and buying plastic water bottles, to boot—and climate change still won’t be your fault.

But what about carbon footprint, you ask? A sense of personal responsibility? The power of fear to motivate change? Forget it, Kawahata says. It’s all a sham.

Debunking the carbon footprint

The idea of the individual carbon footprint was popularized by British Petroleum in a massive public-relations campaign. In the early 2000s, Kawahata says BP hired a PR firm to help them divert climate blame from big oil companies to individual consumers. Which is a total misrepresentation of the truth, Kawahata says.

According to EPA data, energy, transportation, and industry are the biggest carbon producers in the U.S. Compared to those big sectors, your actions—even a lifetime’s worth of them—are just a drop in the bucket.

Besides, Kawahata adds, putting all the blame on individuals isn’t equitable. Climate change already disproportionately affects communities of color. Underserved neighborhoods are most impacted by climate-related disasters, are most reliant on traditional transportation and electrical systems, and suffer most from the health impacts associated with having to breathe dirty air. When we turn environmentalism into a game of personal morality, we’re not coming up with solutions that help those communities. 

“People struggling to get by don’t often have the time, energy, resources, or interest in changing every aspect of how they live their lives,” Kawahata says. “We need to solve the source of the problem causing climate change—not create carbon-footprint workarounds that don’t solve climate for everyone.” 

Why biking to work won’t fix things

Even if everyone who could bike to work, buy an EV and live off the grid did so, that still wouldn’t make a difference on climate. Because in the grand scope of things, those privileged few are exactly that: few. Even if they lived their lives perfectly and never touched plastic straws ever again, the cumulative difference they would make would be negligible.

“The math just doesn’t add up,” Kawahata explains.

Statistical relevance aside, studies show that placing the blame on individual people doesn’t actually motivate them to change. The issue with the doom-and-gloom messaging, Kawahata says, is that when we’re scared, our lizard brains switch on, and fight-or-flight thinking takes over. (Weeping under the covers, by the way, does count as flight.)

When your lizard brain is activated, your prefrontal cortex—the critical-thinking and executive-functioning part of the brain—goes offline.

“Doom and gloom and guilt and shame are antithetical to human motivation. They literally make your body physically retract and take up less space. It’s a trauma response,” Kawahata says. “So we’ve been making people feel fear, guilt, and shame, and then we say, ‘Why aren’t you acting?’”

So the power of fear to motivate people? Not so powerful, after all.

What is climate optimism?

At first blush, the name of Kawahata’s environmental philosophy might sound like an oxymoron. She calls it “climate optimism.” It is the firm belief that we can solve the climate crisis at the source—and, in the process, create policies that improve everyone’s quality of life, create jobs, clean the air, and invest in communities that have been left behind. 

“It’s reframing the climate crisis as an opportunity,” Kawahata says. “Fighting climate change can put people back to work, create new jobs, and deploy American clean energy.” Essentially, Kawahata’s philosophy means leading with hope instead of despair.

Though her approach is backed by psychology research from the University of Oklahoma and other leading institutions, it still feels foreign to a lot of environmentalists. If the idea of “climate optimism” makes you balk, you’re not alone. Most people are hesitant to abandon their pessimism about climate. That’s because it’s so deeply ingrained. Ever since the 1960s, the environmental movement has worked hard to cultivate that sense of fear. After all, early environmentalists had just discovered that the planet was headed toward total disaster. They were scared. They figured that scaring other people would be the fastest way to get them to listen. That’s why most of us think that fear and despair are the only right ways to feel about climate.

That’s what Kawahata wants to change.

Where do we go from here?

If you’ve been struggling with climate guilt, anxiety, or depression, you can start by watching The Scale of Hope. The film follows Kawahata on her journey to climb a remote Alaskan peak. Between sweeping mountain panoramas and gorgeous ice-climbing videography, Kawahata talks in-depth about how her work in the Obama White House and her experiences with bipolar II disorder have taught her the value of living a life with hope.

And when you’re done with the film?

“Get involved in the fight for systemic change,” Kawahata says. It’s the best way out of the vicious cycle of feeling helpless or depressed by climate change. “The best antidote to any climate-related pain or anxiety is getting involved.”

Kawahata recommends volunteering with the Environmental Voter Project or finding a candidate you believe in. Reach out to that person’s campaign to see how you can help. Or, find a piece of legislation you want to fight for. Take the recent Inflation Reduction Act, for example. Passed earlier this year, the act is scheduled to cut pollution in dozens of communities, saving lives and improving public health.

“Do anything that helps change the outcome of elections. That’s the best thing we can do at an individual level,” Kawahata says. “If you can help get the next Inflation Reduction Act passed—well, it’s going to go a lot further than you not using a plastic straw.”  

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.