The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report due to be published Monday provides the most updated assessment of how to stop climate change from getting worse. The science has become all too familiar: The planet is warming faster than we thought and human activity is the cause. The consequences of this warming are already manifest in our daily lives. Depending on where you live, you may have experienced hotter temperatures, destructive floods, more extreme storms, or prolonged droughts. We are not yet on track to limit global warming to the levels set by countries for the critical decades to come.
There exist effective solutions to slow emissions and limit warming that are already beginning to work. For instance, climate pollution in the United States has declined since 2005, and CO2 emissions from electric power generation decreased by approximately 12 percent from 1990-2019, reflecting a shift from coal to less carbon-intensive sources of energy. Furthermore, efforts to build resilience to current and future climate change, such as upgrading coastal defenses or redesigning urban landscapes, are already proving beneficial.
The bottom line across every IPCC assessment is that every fraction of a degree of warming matters — meaning that every single action to prevent that warming can make a difference. Younger generations are calling on leaders to act. Those of us with the ability to inform and enact change owe it to them to tenaciously pursue progress.
When the stakes are high, that’s when innovation tends to flourish — just look at the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines, or the way in which humanity has rallied to provide refuge to millions of displaced Ukrainians. Governments have demonstrated the capacity to do big things time and again. Although the solutions must be as big as the problem itself, that doesn’t mean small actions don’t matter. Everyone has a role to play.
Individually, we can influence change on multiple levels. The easiest is in our daily lives. Many of our personal decisions offer us the chance to reduce our contribution to climate change: our transportation choices, energy use, diets, use of natural resources and purchases — all contribute to the solution. Of course, these individual contributions don’t provide the entire solution, but these small changes add up.
We also can’t underestimate the power of collective action to encourage us to become more resilient to climate change and reduce emissions in innovative ways. There are endless opportunities to get involved: by participating in community solar programs, urban tree-planting initiatives, and conserving water in the face of persistent drought. A growing number of cities are making net-zero carbon pledges ― demonstrating the potential of community-based action to spur global climate ambition. What’s more, by talking about the possibilities with our friends, families, and neighbors, we inspire others to join us — leading to a ripple effect of action.
Finally, as individuals, we can collectively push for transformational change. Motivated groups are getting creative in their organizing. Youth activists are organizing on Tik-Tok to share information about science and activism all while pushing back on defeatism through their tongue-in-cheek catchphrase, “Ok, Doomer.” Likewise, the emergence of groups and campaigns like #VoteLikeAMadre, Moms Clean Airforce, Mothers Out Front, and Science Moms, have demonstrated the organizing ability of parents concerned with how climate change will shape the future of their children.
When we join a movement larger than ourselves — with diverse people and viewpoints, armed with knowledge — we can collectively push for transformational societal change at the levels that are essential for solving climate change.
Humans are responsible for our warming world — and humans have the capacity to solve this problem. Given that the window to forestall the worst impacts of climate change is closing quickly, feeling overwhelmed or hopeless is understandable. Taking action can be the most effective antidote to those feelings. The first step leads to every step that follows, and builds the necessary momentum to thrive in the face of a changing climate. Individually, we can take action. Collectively, we can change the world.
Ko Barrett is a vice chair of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.