Thinking – and Acting – Expansively to Fight Climate Change
November 20, 2023 by Rachel Garwin
Can broadening visions for climate action and building solidarity across social movements protect against climate anxiety and encourage the urgent emissions reductions needed by the end of the decade?
Compared to climate change’s overwhelming scale, the potential of individual action, the goodwill of businesses, and government as usual, seem inadequate to truly address the problem. This can lead to demobilizing anxiety and hopelessness. However, diverse forms of collective action allow us to build hope and make real change.
Climate change anxiety, including feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness, are common. One in ten Americans report experiencing anxiety due to climate change. A survey of 10,000 young people, aged sixteen to twenty-five years, across ten countries, found a statistically significant correlation between climate anxiety and feelings of betrayal by their governments’ inadequate responses. These feelings are understandable, considering the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent findings that climate change has already caused “substantial damages” and “irreversible losses,” and that meaningfully slowing warming requires “deep, rapid, and sustained” emissions reductions. Moreover, business and government as usual provide poor avenues for immediate, cooperative, equitable, and adequately financed climate action. The failures to date of market-based solutions like carbon offsets to reduce emissions demonstrate difficulties in trusting market forces to achieve social goals. Likewise, it is easy to lose faith in government action when climate change deniers can easily influence federal policy. Even the Inflation Reduction Act, the most aggressive climate legislation to date, mandates additional oil and gas leasing in exchange for new solar and wind approvals. The Act also incentivizes carbon capture and storage, which raises significant environmental justice concerns, and may emit more carbon than it stores.
So, what are we to do when individual actions and incremental reforms feel insufficient? Fortunately, collective action can protect against climate change anxiety by fostering feelings of hope, fighting despair and helplessness, and building social support. Beyond conveying personal mental and emotional health benefits, collective action can also bring about real change. Varshini Prakash, one the founders of the Sunrise Movement, went from feeling “alone, small, powerless” in the face of the climate crisis to feeling “powerful” after joining her first protest against fossil fuel infrastructure with a few hundred other students. Using a three-prong theory of change centering people power, building political power, and advocating for a people’s alignment, the Sunrise Movement has subsequently influenced the national conversation about climate solutions.
Collective action can also take less obvious forms. Dean Spade argues that mutual aid is “one of the least visible and most important” forms of work needed by social movements. Reproductive labor, including cooking, cleaning, and caring for others, is often undervalued – and thus hidden – in social movements compared to activists who give speeches, negotiate with adversaries, or run for office. Mutual aid work instead emphasizes political change through taking responsibility for caring for each other, which builds new social relations. Like other forms of collective action, mutual aid shows an alternative system, builds visible people power, and fights hopelessness and individualism.Mutual aid work also builds solidarity across difference and otherwise siloed movements.
While Spade focuses on actual mutual aid projects, such as disaster response, his analysis provides a conceptual framework to expand visions of climate action. Building solidarity across movements and disciplines, while taking responsibility for caring for others, allows viewing economic and social justice demands as opportunities for climate mitigation and adaptation work. For example, the U.S. housing crisis can be addressed simultaneously as a climate issue and an economic justice issue. Building sustainable, affordable housing can reduce energy and materials consumptionwhile addressing record-level housing cost burdens and increased numbers of unsheltered people. Retrofitting aging, deteriorating housing stock can help mitigate the twenty percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions contributed by homes and protect them from climate-related disasters. Such rehabilitation would materially benefit the people living in 9.5 million U.S. homes with severe structural deficiencies or those that lacked plumbing, electricity, water, or heat in 2021.
Going beyond traditional models of investing in affordable housing and housing rehabilitation and adaptation, efforts to prioritize housing for people, not profit, can also be a site of climate action. Though different cooperative and community housing models have existed to some extent in the United States, Canada, and Europe for decades, practitioners argue for collective investment in limited or nonprofit housing solutions to provide affordable housing. Community land trusts and other cooperative housing models can also provide climate mitigation and adaptation benefits. Community land trusts create a decentralized and community-directed form of land ownership and control, thus allowing communities to manage land and affordable housing development in ways that prioritize emissions reductions, efficiency, and other climate mitigation strategies. Cooperative ownership models, such as those used by residents of some manufactured housing communities, can both reduce displacement and increase residents’ capacity to adapt to climate change-exacerbated hazards. Cooperative ownership increases access to financial resources, builds capacity for community decision-making and conflict resolution through democratic self-governance, and shares skills and knowledge within the community. Thus, residents and community members participating in community land trusts and cooperative ownership models can direct land use toward affordable housing and climate goals, while building social and institutional skills that will prepare them for future collective climate action.
By envisioning diverse forms of collective climate action, we can thus build solidarity across movements, take responsibility for caring for each other, and directly hasten emissions reductions and climate adaptation.
 Allie Volpe, Anxious About Climate Change? You’re Not Alone, Vox: Even Better (July 2, 2023, 8:00 A.M.), https://www.vox.com/even-better/23778284/tips-cope-climate-anxiety; Sarah E.O. Schwartz et al., Climate Change Anxiety and Mental Health, 42 Current Psych. 16708, 16719 (2023) (“[Q]ualitative responses also reflected perceptions of the insignificance of individual action in the face of the immensity of the problems posed by climate change.”).
 Caroline Hickman et al., Climate Anxiety in Children and Young People and Their Beliefs About Government Responses to Climate Change: A Global Survey, 5 Lancet Planetary Health e863, e870 (2021).
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers, in Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 5, 12 (Core Writing Team et al. eds., 2023) [hereinafter IPCC], https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/syr/.
 Lisa Song, An (Even More) Inconvenient Truth: Why Carbon Credits for Forest Preservation May Be Worse Than Nothing, ProPublica (May 22, 2019), https://features.propublica.org/brazil-carbon-offsets/inconvenient-truth-carbon-credits-dont-work-deforestation-redd-acre-cambodia/ (finding two decades worth of carbon credit programs either failed to offset claimed emissions or quickly reversed claimed gains).
 See David Hasemyer & John H. Cushman Jr., Exxon Sowed Doubt About Climate Science for Decades by Stressing Uncertainty, Inside Climate News (Oct. 22, 2015), https://insideclimatenews.org/news/22102015/exxon-sowed-doubt-about-climate-science-for-decades-by-stressing-uncertainty/ (describing former oil lobbyist’s role as Bush-Cheney’s White House Council on Environmental Quality’s chief of staff, his heavy edits of government research, and subsequent employment by Exxon); Mazin Sidahmed, Climate Change Denial in the Trump Cabinet: Where Do His Nominees Stand?, Guardian (Dec. 15, 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/15/trump-cabinet-climate-change-deniers (noting Exxon’s former chairman and CEO, Rex Tillerson, as Trump’s Secretary of State, in addition to a Secretary of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, and Energy Secretary who denied overwhelming scientific consensus about human-caused climate change).
 Allegra McLeod, Abolition and Environmental Justice, 69 UCLA L. Rev. 1536, 1561 (2023) (citing Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, Pub. L. No. 117-169, 136 Stat. 1818).
 Jean Chemnick, “Down Your Throat”: Biden Pushes CCS on Polluted Places, E&E News (Aug. 22, 2023), https://www.eenews.net/articles/down-your-throat-biden-pushes-ccs-on-polluted-places/.
 Mark Jacobson, No Miracle Required, New Scientist, Feb. 18, 2023, at 27, 27.
 Schwartz et al., supra note 1, at 16718.
 Varshini Prakash, We Are Sunrise, in All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis 187, 187-88 (Ayana Elizabeth Johnson & Katharine K. Wilkinson eds., 2021).
 Id. at 191 (noting introduction of Green New Deal resolution in U.S. Congress, passage of a Green New Deal for Maine, and passing ambitious climate policy in New York state legislature); see Robinson Meyer, So Has the Green New Deal Won Yet?, Atlantic (Nov. 2019), https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/11/did-green-new-deal-win-look-after-one-year/602032/ (arguing that despite not winning many of its concrete demands by 2019, Sunrise had succeeded in increasing the scope of Democratic climate policies).
 Dean Spade, Solidarity Not Charity: Mutual Aid for Mobilization and Survival, 38 Soc. Text 131, 136 (2020).
 See id. at 135.
 Id. at 136.
 IPCC, supra note 3, at 29.
 See Joint Ctr. for Hous. Stud. of Harvard Univ., The State of the Nation’s Housing 2023 5-7 (2023), https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/reports/files/Harvard_JCHS_The_State_of_the_Nations_Housing_2023.pdf.
 Id. at 7-8.
 Id. at 7.
 See, e.g., Ren Thomas, Housing as a Collective Investment, Versus a Means to Individual Wealth, 23 Planning Theory & Practice 269, 272-73 (2022); Lisa K. Bates, Introduction: “Housing for People, Not for Profit”: How?, 23 Planning Theory & Practice 268, 268-69 (2022); Kristin King-Ries, Community Land Trusts: Protecting Affordability and Promoting Equity in Homeownership, 30 J. Affordable Hous. & Cmty. Dev. L.393 (2022).
 Geoff Gilbert, Who Plans Our Political Economy? A Solidarity Economy Vision for Democratic Political Economy Planning, 12 Harv. Unbound 101, 121-22 (2019).
 Zachary Lamb et al., Resident-Owned Resilience: Can Cooperative Land Ownership Enable Transformative Climate Adaptation for Manufactured Housing Communities?, 33 Hous. Pol’y Debate 1055, 1065 (2023).
 Id. at 1065 tbl.3.