How to Get Real About Saving the Planet

We need to focus on cutting emissions, not on changing politics, and keep an open mind about solutions.

It took nearly two decades of hard work to gain a platform to talk about climate change. It took just eight minutes to send me back to square one.

This was October 2019, and thousands of environmental activists were carrying out protests around London as part of a two-week campaign to force government and corporations to act on climate change. A popular BBC week-in-review show invited me to appear as a spokesperson for the group behind much of the activism, Extinction Rebellion, or XR.

But the BBC producers had done their research well because the first question produced the kind of deer-in-the-headlights moment that makes for great TV, if not great reputations: What was the scientific basis for the claim made by one of XR’s co-founders that 6 billion people would die because of climate change by the end of the century?

I knew the attention-grabbing number wouldn’t hold up. I had sat in XR meetings arguing for us not to use it simply because a few scientists had mentioned it. I tried to find my footing, but as the follow-up questions came at me, I simply didn’t know what to do, and it showed.

The weeks following the interview were hellish. My colleagues in XR were displeased with me for not defending the claim. Outside XR, I received hate mail, including racist attacks via social media, unwelcome recognition in the street, even a death threat. As a brown woman in environmentalism, I had worked hard to have my voice heard, so this was a severe blow.

I decided that my time with XR was up. I wanted to go back to environmental writing and public speaking, but my credibility as a science communicator had been damaged. People just couldn’t let the 6 billion gaffe go. Everywhere I went, I was asked about it and expected to explain it. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there were lots of things I could no longer explain, even to myself. And I began to wonder why.

As an active environmentalist for my entire adult life, I had heard for years how bad glyphosate and genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, were for the environment—when in fact those assertions go against scientific evidence. I had also spent years advocating for “green” lifestyles to reduce carbon footprints, yet data show that emissions have continued to rise even as more people changed their habits.

Activists often call the climate emergency an existential crisis, and I think it is—but not just because our collective future may be at stake. The changes we need to make go deeper than technological solutions and lifestyle changes. We need to start changing the way we think, what we believe, and the ways we interact with each other.

What might an evolution along these lines look like? I’ve chalked up some ideas.

1.      Understand that we are in a climate emergency. To address climate change we need to lower our emissions as soon as possible. Everyone knows this and nods vigorously in agreement—until hearing a solution that they don’t like. Then they say it’s too expensive, or too time-consuming, or too risky. Climate change means that we risk losing the only known habitable planet in the universe. If we truly understand this and can think ahead of our own lifespans and outside of our own species, we ought to be fighting to invest in all viable solutions immediately.

2.      Accept that “green” and “natural” are flaky terms and have created problems. Most people consider renewable energy such as solar and wind to be “green” and “natural,” but they are still construction projects that require industry funding, development, and land. Likewise, many people think of nuclear power as dangerous and unnecessary, while reputable studies have shown nuclear to be cleaner and safer than fossil fuels. We need to reconsider what the truly “green” solutions are, using evidence rather than gut feelings.

3.      Focus on bringing down emissions, and leave political change at the door for now. The recent trend of climate activism, largely thanks to XR, conflates climate action with social change. But demands for citizens’ assemblies and other structures are about political overhaul, when what we need are specific solutions and policies to bring down emissions. If we are truly in a climate emergency, we need to fight for the health of our planet right now, not confuse that with also fighting for a different political system. There will be no politics on a dead planet.

4.      Revisit and challenge your beliefs. We need to come to terms with the fact that fossil fuels both gave us a high quality of life and did damage to our planet, and we need to wean ourselves off them, pronto—but with alternatives that don’t compound the problem we are trying to solve. This means that environmentalists may need to embrace technological solutions that they previously have disliked.

5.      Step out of the echo chamber. At XR, this was our rallying cry: “Everybody Now!” But the reality is that we never appealed to everybody. Research showed that membership was mostly left-wing, traditionally green, and highly educated. Since the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote, there has been a lot of discussion about how to pop the filter bubbles created by social media. If we don’t manage to, most of our efforts at advocacy are no more than preaching to the converted.

6.      Communicate, don’t dictate. We need to get better at listening to different perspectives, and at accepting that gut feelings drive people and are not a reason to disparage them. We have to stop bombarding people with masses of information and insulting them when they don’t change their minds right away. It’s important to stay calm and reasonable in discussions: How you make a person feel will last after what you have said.

7.      Don’t let the doom and gloom get you down. Caring about the planet shouldn’t be a binary situation where a person is called either an alarmist or a denier. Yes, climate change is a massive, looming threat that should concern us all. And yes, we have solutions at hand, which is cause for relief. We can be optimistic and have a sense of urgency for action at the same time.

When you are committed to a cause, it’s easy to get swept along with a community that shares your cherished goals, and hard to go against the tribe.

Unfortunately, this can lead to closed-mindedness. In fact, it is often seen as a good thing when you avoid questioning your approach, to the extent that considering other ideas makes you seem like a heretic—as some of my former colleagues think of me now.

For environmentalists, the basic belief underlying so much “green” ideology is a simple idea: that things are either “natural” or “unnatural,” which in this context means created by humans. There is a corollary moral judgment that “natural” is good and “unnatural” is bad, or at least suspect. This framework can be applied to vaccinations, GMOs, nuclear energy, even 5G technology.

One of the ideas I have stopped believing is that developing countries should be prevented from having a higher quality of life because we in the developed world polluted the planet so badly during our industrial revolution. One reason wealthy countries need to get their carbon emissions down as soon as possible is to allow the less-developed ones a carbon budget to fuel their development.

The idea held by some environmentalists of an idyllic return to nature is put straight to bed by anyone who witnesses the reality of living in poverty, without infrastructure, medicine, education or energy. My parents were born poor in a remote village in India that lacks access to electricity. Most of us don’t want to live like that, and my cousins in the Punjab certainly don’t—but for now, they have no choice.

Will my seven ideas help us to solve the issues we face, while keeping in mind people like my cousins? I feel that they might. But I’m open to being challenged on that.

Zion Lights is an environmental activist, speaker and writer. She is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting and a co-founder of Nuclear for Net Zero, an organization that promotes nuclear energy as a potential solution to climate change.