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  • Writer's pictureKrista Kurth, Ph.D.

Daunted by the Climate Challenge Before Us?

Updated: May 13, 2021

Use your feelings and Dr. Lippitt's model of managing complex change to keep moving forward

Image by Brad Barmore, Unsplash

After recently writing about the world’s climate targets and roadmaps to net zero by 2050, I felt overwhelmed by the uphill climb on climate before us. I mean, we have to change the way we do everything in society! - how we make and power things, get around, grow food, spend our money, live in our buildings, consume, work together, and relate to nature.

To say this is a huge, complex task with a lot of obstacles along the way is an understatement. I’m usually optimistic in my thinking and writing. After all, as a human society, we have solved other complex problems, like developing vaccines for the global pandemic in record time in 2020. But with greenhouse gases continuing to rise (recent reports stated that we’ve crossed 420 ppm for the first time), it feels like we’re trying to turn an enormous ocean liner around in rough seas.

Image by Cameron Venti, Unsplash

As urgent as the climate is, we can’t simply stop the current trajectory, throw the engine into reverse, and turn on a dime. We have to slow our momentum on GHG emissions down and move in a new direction by ramping up green alternatives. Only after we’ve done this can we pick up steam.

I could deny my anxiety, overwhelm, and frustration over the climate crisis, but I’ve learned that if I ignore feelings like these, they eventually drain my energy and paralyze me or keep me stuck, like the EverGiven ship in the Suez Canal. I might eventually pull and dig myself out of my morass, but I’d still have to deal with my inner chaos and clean up any mess I created while getting unstuck. It’s much better to acknowledge and accept what I’m feeling for a few minutes and then move back into action with new insight.

So, I’m going to take a moment here to say that climate action, on all levels - personal, communal, national and global, is hard, frustrating, confusing, worrying, scary, exhausting, daunting, and stressful. It is also urgently and existentially necessary.

Image by Mehrpouya H., Unsplash

It takes a lot of thinking, physical effort, skill and ability, time, money, collaboration, and persistence, all of which can sometimes be a lot to handle and take in, particularly if we don’t want to be taken under by them or stopped in our tracks. I have found that besides techniques like deep breathing and giving myself a break from time to time, there are ways I can use my feelings to help me identify where to focus my climate action energy next.

Dr. Mary Lippitt’s model on Managing Complex Change is one such tool. It offers a way to use what we are feeling to identify what might be missing in our climate efforts. Dr. Lippitt posits we need to have the following six elements in place to motivate and activate us when dealing with complex change. If one of these six elements is missing, it can lead to uncomfortable and dissatisfying feelings.

  • Vision: We need an image of what the world will look like when we’ve turned the climate emergency around. We need to see how we will benefit from taking action now. We want to inspire resonance and action with our vision.

  • Incentives: We need to understand what’s in it for us. People often need to know how changing the way they do things will benefit them before they commit to an effort. The benefits must also outweigh the perceived effort of making the change. We need to put specific incentives in place to entice people to take climate action.

  • Consensus: Are we in alignment and agreement on what needs to be done to reach specific outcomes? Without consensus, people not in agreement will undermine or block climate action.

  • Action Plan: Once people are motivated, they need a clear plan that spells out how to get from where they are to where they want or need to go.

  • Skills: To take action on climate, we need knowledge and an ability to act. We can assess our abilities and use them to take action and/or enhance our skills to increase our capacity.

  • Resources: We need enough resources to succeed—time, money, supplies, collaborative support, etc.

The table below, created by Mike Donahue using T. Knoster’s adaption of Dr. Lippitt’s work, depicts which experience/feeling shows the essential element that might be missing from our efforts.

  • Confusion is a signal that the vision is unclear or meaningless to your audience.

  • Resistance indicates that people don’t understand the incentive or don’t find it meaningful.

  • Sabotage (people behaving at odds with the goal) intentional or not, suggests that you don’t have alignment or agreement.

  • Fatigue shows you might be spinning your wheels in false starts and wasted effort because of an incomplete or unclear action plan.

  • Anxiety signals that you might worry about reaching the goal because you think you’re not capable of taking effective action.

  • Frustration is a sign that you don’t have the resources you need to take effective action.

Image by Lili Popper, Unsplash

Not that the situations the model describes are the only source of your dissatisfied feelings. However, it offers a pathway to hope and action. We can use it to see what might be contributing to what we're feeling. We can then take action to work on remedying our situation by strengthening the associated elements.

Here are some beginning questions you can ask yourself to help you keep taking action to turn the climate crisis ship around in the face of challenging feelings.

  • Vision: Does taking climate action make sense to me? What vision of the world will inspire me to take consistent action?

  • Incentive: What would lead me to leave my comfort zone and make significant climate action changes in my life? What’s in it for me?

  • Consensus: In what ways am I on the same page as the climate experts in terms of what needs to be done? Where can I help build more consensus on climate action

  • Action Plan: Do I have a climate action plan or know what steps I can take to contribute to a 50% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030? Am I regularly taking action to make changes that are under my control? Am I participating in community action?

  • Skills: What skills and abilities do I have that I can use to take climate action? Where can I best use those skills? Are there new skills I can/want to learn?

  • Resources: What resources (time, money, etc) do I have that I can use to take climate action. Can I shift resources from somewhere else to support my climate action? Can I help raise resources for community climate action?

I wish you well as you play your role in turning the climate crisis ship around.



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