Science·What on Earth?

Feeling helpless about climate change? There's lots you can do

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we speak to a psychologist and author about how to empower people to take climate action.

Also: The Arctic is on the front lines of climate change

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • A better, more positive way to talk about climate change
  • The world population is growing — but not for long
  • The Arctic is on the front lines of climate change

'We can go on the offence': A more positive way to look at climate action

(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

According to a recent survey of 14,000 respondents in 14 countries, people basically fall into four groupings when it comes to tackling climate change: "optimists," "supporters," "disempowered" and "skeptical." The optimists and supporters generally feel they can have an impact and are doing their part to mitigate rising emissions and temperatures.

The disempowered, however, think it's too late to stop the damage and feel, well, paralyzed. But Per Espen Stoknes, a psychologist who has also served as a member of Norway's parliament, has ideas about how to change that.

Stoknes is the author of a 2015 book called What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, which focuses on the barriers that keep people from making change — and offers ideas to overcome them. Stoknes shared some of his insights with Stephanie Hogan via email.

What is it about climate change that makes people feel helpless?

The barrier of distance makes planetary-scale climate disruptions feel very far away. It is ... remote in terms of space, time, impacts and responsibility, except for the relatively few people who are directly hit by wildfire, floods or droughts at any time.

The scale ... and the invisibility of CO2 all contribute to the feeling of helplessness and the lack of self-efficacy to contribute real change with an impact. It makes many voters give climate disruption a low priority relative to immigration, unemployment, health issues, et cetera.

Does the way we talk about climate change make a difference?

Language is hugely important.

When communicating about climate, we should never accept the [negative] frames (doom, uncertainty, cost, sacrifice). There is no need to negate them, or repeat them or argue them in order to counter them.

Rather, we can go on the offence with our own framing: that more commercial and political action is needed right away to ensure safety for society, secure our health, be prepared for what comes and realize the amazing opportunities for jobs and better lives that the shifts in clean energy will bring.

What kind of action can help an individual feel more empowered?

Doing something together with others is the basic remedy. Many think of psychology as individualistic and assume that a psychology of climate solutions would be about what each of us as individuals can do separately, that we only get better one by one.

It is clear, however, that individual solutions are not sufficient to solving climate alone. But they do build stronger bottom-up support for policies and solutions that can. Our personal impact on others is much more valuable in giving momentum to the change of society than the number of [kilograms] of CO2 each action generates. It works like rings in water: If I see someone else that I respect taking action, then I want to as well. Enthusiasm is contagious. That is why engaging together with other people is so crucial.

How do you take that action further?

Organize, organize, organize. The key is to make climate disruption into a social issue by taking action together with others. Start a local chapter of Climate Citizens Lobby or and make it visible to let your neighbours, friends and colleagues see that you are taking action with solar panels on the roof, electric mobility and/or a more plant-based diet. The largest cuts in climate emissions — from solutions in agriculture to buildings to mobility — can be addressed when thousands of people start taking action together. The project gives a wonderful and inspiring overview of all the solutions.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

In case you missed our climate change coverage

This week, we launched our climate change series, In Our Backyard. If you didn't see these stories on or on social media, here's a roundup of some of our coverage:

Questions, comments? Email us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are here.

The Big Picture: World population projections

One of the complicating factors in humanity's attempts to save the environment  — by reducing carbon emissions and consumer waste, for example — is the fact that we are adding more people to the planet every year. But new figures released by the United Nations suggest that rather than grow continually, the number of humans on Earth will peak just short of 11 billion toward the end of this century.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

It's 'getting pretty dangerous to live here': Climate change in the Arctic

(Mia Sheldon/CBC)

This is one of four personal stories featured in the CBC News interactive In Our Backyard, which looks at how climate change is affecting Canadians across the country.

When Sandy Adam and his wife, Sarah, moved into their home in an area of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., known as "the Point" 25 years ago, the lot had a huge yard. It contained a large shed where Sandy stored his boats and sleds. Next door was a curling rink and, a little farther down, a warehouse.

Since then, most of the yard has been eaten away by the Beaufort Sea. Sarah Adam estimated it has been moving an arm's length closer every year, and could soon claim the house itself.

"It's only about six feet from our house now," Sandy Adam said. The 64-year-old said it's "getting pretty dangerous to live here anymore."

As for the curling rink and the warehouse — where they once stood, it's just water and ice.

Tuktoyaktuk — or Tuk, as it's known locally — lies on a peninsula dotted with lakes. The sea has always gnawed at its coastline. But climate change, which has warmed Canada's Arctic by 2.3 C since 1948 — nearly three times the global average — has given the ocean more strength to erode the shore. Sea ice that used to restrain the ocean waves in winter no longer freezes like it used to, leaving the waves to wreak more havoc.

During storms, they smash into the rocks right beside the Adams' house. To make matters worse, the sea level is rising. Meanwhile, the permafrost that once strengthened and stabilized the land is thawing and also weakening the coast.

The Adams share their small prefab house on Beaufort Drive with one of their sons, his common-law wife and their six children, along with two of Sarah's brothers. Sandy not only laments his shrinking yard but also worries about the safety of his grandchildren, who like to scamper along the beach, below the boulders that were brought in to stabilize the collapsing shore.

"They're playing on the rocks and … huge boulders might fall on them," he said.

Sarah Adam said the erosion began to speed up in 2011. "Since then, it's been eroding two, three feet and more, some years," the 60-year-old said.

She's been pleading and negotiating with local officials for the last two or three years to move their house. "There's not going to be any time left soon enough," she said. "We'll be in the water."

Sandy would prefer to find a way to stabilize the homes on his street so they don't have to be moved. He has lived on this side of Tuk all his life and loves the view.

"What I'm going to miss the most is the ocean," he said. "Every morning I check to see if anything is going by my house, like whales or seals travelling. I can see boats coming in from out hunting and it's amazing."

Some other homes on Beaufort Drive have been relocated farther inland. But no one has confirmed when the Adams' home will be rescued from its seemingly inevitable drift into the ocean.

The local authorities "come and check [the house]," said Sarah. "They come and take pictures of the interior, how many times?"

Addressing the local government, she said it's time for action. "Do it. Help us move."

— Emily Chung and Mia Sheldon, with additional reporting by Susan Ormiston

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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