Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Demonstrators are seen chanting slogans during the global climate strike in March 2019. In September 2019, thousands of people from all over the world plan to rally to mark the one-year anniversary of the climate strike movement, which teenaged advocate Greta Thunberg began last year.

Demonstrators are seen chanting slogans during the global climate strike in March 2019. In September 2019, thousands of people from all over the world plan to rally to mark the one-year anniversary of the climate strike movement, which teenaged advocate Greta Thunberg began last year. (Photo: Ana Fernandez/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

How to Live With the Climate Crisis Without Becoming a Nihilist

'Today, despite all the grim climate news, I actually feel more optimistic than ever.'

Peter Kalmus

 by the Los Angeles Times

The climate crisis has moved into everyday life and it can feel overwhelming.

Hurricane Dorian, which left more than 70,000 people homeless, was an instance of this climate breakdown. A hotter ocean means stronger storms, a higher sea means worse flooding, a hotter atmosphere means more rain. Worsening wildfires in California and elsewhere, devastating flooding in our agricultural heartland, swaths of dead forest in the Rockies, the global collapse of coral reefs — these are just a few examples of the long and lengthening list of the catastrophic impacts of climate breakdown.

The evidence that human-caused global heating is dangerously disrupting Earth systems is unequivocal, and it no longer takes a scientist to see this. Denying this reality puts billions of lives at risk, and will surely come to be condemned by history.

Faced with this reality, it may be tempting to say, “We’re doomed,” as Jonathan Franzen recently suggested. This view comes from a deep misconception about how the crisis is likely to unfold. We will not suddenly pass a tipping point to doom at 2° Celsius of global heating above preindustrial levels, as Franzen incorrectly claims. Instead, climate breakdown exists on a continuum where every 10th of a degree of additional heating means more death and suffering. No matter how bad it gets, we must keep doing everything we can to keep it from getting worse.

My own climate wakeup call came about 13 years ago when, as a physics graduate student at Columbia, I heard a lecture by the climatologist James Hansen. His talk terrified me even through its scientific jargon, and led me to begin reading the peer-reviewed climate literature. Around the same time, my first child was born.

My love for my son made his future mine. This love expanded to include all the life on this planet, this marvelous spaceship. I felt a sense of responsibility to do something, but I didn’t know what. I felt confused and panicked.

As my awareness grew, I went through stages of grief. I’ve cried over ecosystems disintegrating, over the looming possibility of social breakdown, over the scale of suffering and death this will unleash. Letting in the grief allowed me to reach acceptance and get to work. I switched careers from astrophysics to climate science — and I changed my life.

I realized that bringing my actions into alignment with my principles could reduce my panic and cognitive dissonance. Reducing my carbon emissions was something concrete I could do, and it turned out to be interesting and fun.

In 2010, I examined my carbon footprint and realized that most of my emissions came from flying and food, so I became vegetarian, found ways to cut food waste, and started flying less. I also began to bike and discovered a love for gardening and growing fruit. These and other changes turned out to be so satisfying and joyful to me that I started going out into the community to let others know.

Over three years, I reduced my emissions to about a 10th of an average American’s. It wasn’t always convenient, and if there were carbon-free planes, I’d probably fly once a year or so. But overall, I prefer my lower carbon life. It’s slower and less hectic, and more connected to the Earth and to my community. But while I like it much better, I have no illusions that it represents a solution.

Instead, after years of activism, it’s extremely clear to me that the most important thing any one of us can do is to raise our voices to shift the culture as much as possible. We need mass global climate mobilization — the faster we transition to a carbon-free civilization, the better. To unlock collective action, we need people to view climate breakdown with the urgency it merits, and to view burning fossil fuels and clearing forests as socially unacceptable. We need a billion climate activists.

Burning less fossil fuel in our own lives is one way to empower our voices. I’ve found that taking this step makes my voice more authentic and allows me to speak out more freely. Actions do speak more loudly than words, and the fact that I feel this is urgent enough to change my lifestyle isn’t lost on my audience.

While I think using less fossil fuel will benefit anyone who is concerned about climate breakdown (and this should be everyone!), I realize it isn’t easy. But there are many other ways to empower your voice. I’ve started to talk about climate breakdown every chance I get — with friends, family, colleagues, supermarket cashiers and other activists.

Anyone can do this, and it will naturally connect you with communities of climate activists, such as FridaysForFuture, Sunrise Movement, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, 350.org and Extinction Rebellion. On Friday, Sept. 20, young people around the world will be holding a global climate strike to demand action. Joining a community of activists adds your voice powerfully to a chorus of other voices, helps you become quickly informed, and helps you stay sane as you deal with some very challenging knowledge.

As you get more experience, use your creativity. I’ve been working to move people in academia toward flying less. We can all use our unique skills and interests to move the needle. At this point, it also makes sense to bring lawsuits against industry and government. It’s rational to practice nonviolent civil disobedience. These are all forms of speech that can make a difference.

For me, it has been a long road and I often felt like a lone voice in the wilderness. But my journey isn’t all that remarkable. What it requires is a willingness to stare this monster straight in the eye and then rise up to protect what we love about this wondrous place.

Today, despite all the grim climate news, I actually feel more optimistic than ever. People are waking up! Maybe there’s a bit of panic, but that’s a sensible response and a good place to start. I’m hopeful we’ll see broad climate mobilization and systems transformation at a pace and scale I wouldn’t have dared dream of even a year ago. Together, we’re on our way to becoming those billion climate activists.


© 2021 Los Angeles Times
Peter Kalmus

Peter Kalmus

Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (speaking on his own behalf). He lives in suburban Los Angeles on one-tenth the fossil fuel of the average American. His book is “Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution” (2017).

... We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'Congress Must Act': Bernie Sanders Demands End of Filibuster to Codify Abortion Rights

"We must pass legislation that codifies Roe v. Wade as the law of the land in this country. And if there aren't 60 votes to do it, and there are not, we must reform the filibuster to pass it with 50 votes."

Jon Queally ·


Human Rights Defenders Warn Biden Border Policy 'Quickly Transforming Into Trump 2.0'

Like his predecessor, President Joe Biden now being accused of "using racist, xenophobic tropes about immigrants to weaponize Covid-19 against migrants and asylum-seekers."

Jon Queally ·


'Bombshell': Israeli Spyware Used to Hack iPhones of US State Department Officials

Calling the Israel-based spyware maker NSO Group an "in-plain-sight national security threat," one expert warned that "a multi-agency investigation is immediately needed."

Jessica Corbett ·


US Progressive Caucus Hails Honduran Election as Chance for 'New Chapter' in Relations

"We encourage the Biden administration to use this opportunity to make a clean break with previous presidential administrations, which worked to ensure that the 2009 coup d'état succeeded."

Brett Wilkins ·


'The Facts of This Case Are So Egregious': Parents of Michigan School Shooter Charged in Killings

"There were a lot of things that could have been so simple to prevent," the Oakland County prosecutor said of the mother and father now being sought by law enforcement.

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo