Climate change is notoriously difficult to reason about. There’s this enormous
threat, and even though we routinely see evidence of its existence, we still
struggle to quantify it. Some people say we’re
Others might disagree, but even the most optimistic can’t muster more than
“it’s maybe not that
I got to feeling like the only sure thing is that we need to be scared. That
position probably won’t motivate
it very likely doesn’t inspire logical
and it certainly isn’t going to help you appreciate your good fortune in the
Like so many of life’s problems, this one was rooted in ignorance. I couldn’t
solve climate change by reading a bunch of articles, but I could drastically
improve my response to it. By learning the contours of my agency, I could more
confidently (and efficiently) contribute to the solution, and I could tolerate
the endless stream of concerning news.
Which is kind of a roundabout expression of the Serenity
Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept
what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.
It’s just that I’m not faithful enough to wait for divine insight.
Groping through activism
Although my focus was on climate change, I eventually recognized that I was
really learning about activism. If you feel compelled to address a problem
that’s beyond your control, you have to wonder, “how do I know that I’m doing
the right thing,” and “how do I know that I’m doing enough of it?” Now, this
next bit isn’t what I advertised in this essay’s title, but it’s how I
organized my thoughts. I’ll make it quick.
(It should go without saying that there are far better sources for this kind of
thinking. Then again, you’ve already decided to read a random computer
programmer’s guide on climate action, so your judgement is suspect.)
Folks who subscribe to effective altruism
would say that this is all about impact. “Your time, energy, and attention are
all limited resources,” they might argue, “so you should spend them on the
things that are most likely to get the strongest results.” That’s probably true
in a theoretical sense, but it fails to acknowledge a few practical realities.
Treating your cause like a pure optimization problem is a recipe for burnout
(especially if, like me, you have a tendency for perfectionism). I’ve found
that the following observations temper an otherwise robotic strategy.
First, individual action has value. If you optimize for impact alone, then
for most causes, you wouldn’t make many personal lifestyle changes. Influencing
groups generally leads to stronger results, and it also encourages a network
effect by inspiring those affected. That said, individual action still deserves
prioritization due to its intangible value. It demonstrates your personal
commitment, signaling sincerity to those around you (which is why people so
often praise folks who “walk the walk”). Individual action also provides you
with a sense of agency. “Small wins” have a motivating effect despite their
relative ineffectiveness. It might not be entirely rational, but neither are
we. Rather than denying that, it’s far better to accept it and use it to
Second, your self-interest is valid. You may wonder, “does my personal
comfort really measure up against the importance of this cause?” (That’s how I
felt whenever I thought about climate change, anyway.) Maybe comfort shouldn’t
matter, but the truth is that it does. Your cause is important but so are you.
Much as we may want to act perfectly selflessly, cherry-picking from our
conflicting motivations will only confuse our decision-making process. By being
honest with yourself about your desires, you can think more clearly (and, if
you insist, you can make changing your priorities part of your plan).
Third, better is good. Barack Obama worked for eight years in a position
that gave him incredible power over oodles of causes. His thoughts on the
are particularly relevant and characteristically lucid:
One of the things you learn as President is, as powerful as this office is,
you have limited bandwidth. And the time goes by really quickly and you’re
constantly making choices, and there are pressures on you from all different
directions–pressures on your attention, not just pressures from different
constituencies. And so you have to be pretty focused about where can you have
the biggest, quickest impact. And I always tell my staff, “Better is good.”
I’ll take better every time, because better is hard. Better may not be as
good as the best, but better is surprisingly hard to obtain. And better is
actually harder than worse.
A rubric for action
With all that in mind, I made a rubric to compare actions that could further a
given cause. It involves three metrics which get combined to produce a “score”
according to the following formula:
Certainty × Impact × Ease
“Certainty” describes how likely it is that performing the action will produce
the desired result. This is generally higher for individual action because you
have much more control over yourself than you have over others.
“Impact” describes how much closer the cause will be to completion if the
action is successful. Depending on the cause, this may be the least subjective
of the three metrics.
“Ease” describes how quickly and comfortably you can perform the action.
Remember to be honest; you don’t have to post your metrics on the Internet.
Applied to climate action
There is plenty to read online about fighting climate change. Too much, really.
A lot of it wants for rigor, like this
implicitly suggests that the effect of air travel and long showers are somehow
comparable. The best writing acknowledges the importance of impact by citing
empirically-derived data. Some recommendations for you:
That’s all rooted to a specific point in time, though, and some is already
pretty dated. We need more advanced research to get a clearer picture of our
footprint, and we need infrastructural change to create better choices.
Advances on those two fronts will change the calculus, so don’t forget to check
for newer studies once in a while.
And remember that not all actions are appropriate for all people. Some depend
on one’s lifestyle, and others depend on one’s location. For instance, I live
in the northeast of the United States, I don’t own a car, I eat less than a
pound of meat per week, and my home is a condominium. If your conditions
differ, then so should your candidate actions.
Here are the actions my research turned up for me:
And here’s how I apply those metrics:
|HOA solar panels
|reduce meat & dairy
|eliminate meat & dairy
|train instead of plane
I’m not giving much weight to the impact of carbon offsets because they’re
really more of a penance than a constructive action, and I’d hate to
internalize the fine as though it were a
The test of time
I’m curious to see if this response will stand the test of time. My personal
rubric will need recalibration in about a year–updating impact metrics,
changing out actions, and tweaking my comfort levels. Will I have any interest
in doing that? Or will the whole thing seem desperately naive and embarrassing?
Time will tell.
Until then, this framework actually reduces the anxiety and doubt I’ve been
feeling. I don’t intend to take every action, but the rubric helps me deal with
that. It gives me some confidence that I’m prioritizing the right things, it
helps me justify the decision to skip the others, and it highlights
opportunities to improve.
Nerdy formulas notwithstanding, I think the best strategy for engaging with any
cause is to recognize what you’ve done, what you might still do, and the
relative significance of all of those choices. That puts you in the best
position to move forward with compassion for yourself and for the world around
you. Or, as activist Mariame Kaba so wisely put
Just do the best you can, holding true to your principles and working to
shrink the gap between your values and your action. That’s the best possible
way of living, in my opinion, without losing yourself in a spiral of constant
anxiety and worry and maybe even despair.
Here’s to shrinking the gap!