12 ways to delay climate action

Identifying 12 ways to delay climate action (bonus: LOL-able cartoons!); When will it be too hot to have birthday parties outside? What does collective climate action look like?

Welcome, friend!

Welcome back to We Can Fix It, your personal monthly guide from your favorite climate scientist (that’s me, Kim Nicholas!) for fixing the climate crisis with facts, feelings, and action.

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Otherwise, let’s dive right in!

Facts: 12 arguments for delaying climate action

Thankfully, denying the reality of human-caused climate warming is going out of style.

There’s a long, ugly, tragically successful history of climate misinformation campaigns. For example, Harvard researchers Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes show how Exxon misled the public to cast false doubt that human-caused warming is real, serious, and solvable.

But, good news! It’s a small, and shrinking, group that dismisses the reality of the current warming, its human cause, and the risks it poses. Just 7% of Americans belong to this group, according to the latest survey for Yale’s “Global Warming’s Six Americas” project. (Boy, are they loud, though! Not to mention, over-represented in Congress.)    

The new frontier in foot-dragging is “climate delay”: arguments that “accept the existence of climate change, but justify inaction or inadequate efforts.”

That’s the conclusion of an international team of researchers, including many of my favorite #ClimateTwitter peeps, in a study of 12 “discourses of climate delay”. (Spoiler alert: my fave is Doomism, brilliantly illustrated by this IPA-swilling hipster. )

In the analysis, William Lamb and colleagues identify four basic flavors of climate delay:

1.     Redirect responsibility.

For example:

  • focus only on fossil fuel consumption to let producers off the hook;

  • or imply that others must act before we do, creating a Catch-22 of inaction.

2.     Push superficial, non-transformative solutions.

Flavors include:

  • unrealistic techno-optimism;

  • framing fossil fuels as part of the solution;

  • focus on gradual progress so far, or ambitious goals, without referencing the scale of what’s actually needed;

  • or focus only on “carrots” like expanding high-speed rail, without acknowledging that “sticks” to restrict and reduce unsustainable systems are needed too.

These arguments tend to reinforce and benefit the status quo, and existing power holders.

3.     Emphasize the downsides of action (while ignoring or discounting the benefits of action, and the harms it avoids).

These arguments may claim:

  • the most vulnerable and marginalized will be hurt by climate action;

  • human well-being or poverty reduction relies on fossil fuels;

  • or it’s too difficult to build public support for ambitious action.

4.     Give up.

Instead of acknowledging the challenges in organizing large-scale socio-economic transformations, and looking for ways to overcome them, these arguments:

  • claim “change is impossible” (reinforcing the status quo)

  • or “we’re doomed” (so any and all action, other than building bunkers or downing bourbon, is futile).  

(Okay, I didn’t mention one of the 12, bonus points if you find it!)

The authors note that many of these arguments raise important issues, “often contain partial truths, and may be put forward in good faith.” However, they point out the risk that these arguments are used by interest groups resisting the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground.


What flavors of delay do you find in the next climate story you read?


Feelings: When Will It Be Too Hot to Have a Birthday Party Outside?

One of my biggest struggles in communicating about climate change is trying to make clear what’s at stake. The difference between a planet that’s 1.5°, 2°, or 3°C+ warmer are profound, but it can be hard to convey viscerally.

See how global warming has changed the world since your childhood” by Tim Leslie, Joshua Byrd, and Nathan Hoad from ABC news in Australia is one of the best pieces of science communication that I’ve seen. Please read it.

The interactive, illustrated story asks you to enter your birthday, then shows you how the climate in Australia has already changed since you were a kid.

Leslie and colleagues write:

“Think back to when you were six. By this point you’ve seen a few summers, probably run through a few sprinklers, burnt your feet on hot pavement — six-year-old you knows what hot feels like.

Well, not compared to a six-year-old today, you don’t. They’ve lived through four of the five hottest years in Australia; you were 36 years old before you experienced the warming they lived through in the first year of their life.”

Here’s what mine looks like, with the climate of my childhood at the top, and that of a six-year-old today at the bottom:

It was a gut punch to realize that for a six-year-old today in Australia, “their life has been dominated by drought.”

They go on to show how climate change means extreme events, like extremely hot days and the risk of wildfires, become more common. As they write,

“This is the reality of climate change — all the ingredients that are required for natural disasters start to collide with increasing regularity.”

Turning to future projections, they compare a world where we limit warming to 1.5°C, with a continued high emissions scenario where warming approaches 4°C by 2100.

In a high-emissions world where we fail to keep fossil fuels in the ground, when a child born today turns 50, “they’ll probably be celebrating indoors” as almost three quarters of the world population faces at least 20 days a year of deadly heat and humidity.

On the other hand, if we get halfway to zero emissions by 2030, and succeed in limiting warming to 1.5°C, that child “may still have the opportunity to visit a living Great Barrier Reef,” extreme heat will be far more manageable, and the temperature will be stabilizing.

We all have to push hard to get to zero emissions fast. But how? I’m so glad you asked! Lights, camera, …


Action! What does collective action actually look like?

We Can Fix It reader Barry in Canada wrote me that he feels stuck about how to motivate collective action at various levels of government.

I hear you, Barry!!

Right now, government policies and pledges are “blatantly inadequate” to achieve the Paris Agreement climate goals, in the words of the UN Emissions Gap Report. Only two countries, Morocco and The Gambia, are judged 1.5°C-compatible by Climate Action Tracker; a handful more are judged 2°C compatible, of which the only large emitter is India.

The top four ways to help get bold climate policies in place, drawing from the excellent SOS: What You Can Do To Reduce Climate Change by Seth Wynes:

1.     Vote

Every election is a climate election, and every leader needs a serious plan to go fossil-free fast.

2.     Get active in a political party or climate organization

Elections only come up a few times a decade, though, and climate action can’t wait. That’s why getting active in political and civil society organizations is essential, to pressure the politicians in office to adopt ambitious climate policies now. Social movements also build community, capacity, relationships, and trust.

  • Check out lo­cal chapters of climate movements like 350.org or Fridays for Future worldwide, or Sunrise Movement in the US, to find one you like.

  • For more groups to check out: Climate Action Network is an umbrella organization with more than 150 member organizations in over 130 countries.

  • Don’t forget to look for homegrown initiatives nearby.

  • You can also start a conversa­tion with your neighbors about how you can meet a local need.

3.     Create media attention

A free and independent press plays so many important roles, including shaping public opinion. A US study found more media coverage directly increased public concern for climate change.

  • For example, you can write op-eds, or work with groups organizing media-worthy actions (see recommended reading below).

4.     Contact your rep

Finally, directly contacting your elected rep­resentatives is a highly effective political strategy. But it’s under-used. Research by Rebecca Willis found that UK politicians understood the need for climate action, but felt very little pressure from their constituents to make it hap­pen. So get in touch!

  • Real letters are more effective than emails.

  • Phone calls to your rep’s local district office, focused on your personal story related to the issue, are even more effective than writing.


What does collective climate action look like for you? What are your next steps? Reply or comment below!


Parting Thoughts & Tidbits

Talking about Wine with Teenagers

I was interviewed by three high school students about my research on wine and climate change, high-impact climate actions, and my new book, UNDER THE SKY WE MAKE (T minus 26 days to launch AAAH!). About halfway through I come to the awkward realization that I seemed to be exalting alcohol consumption to teenagers. Oops. Listen here:

Here’s €26 billion the EU could be spending better

My talk last week, “Billions in misspent EU agricultural subsidies could support climate, biodiversity, and equality,” was covered by former Reuters journalist Thin Lei Win in her excellent Substack newsletter on food and climate, Thin Ink.

Recently Enjoyed:  

Read: Youth to Power: Your Voice and How To Use It, by Jamie Margolin. This is an excellent guide for everyone (youth or otherwise) on the practical work of collective climate action. The founder of Zero Hour offers solid advice on everything from writing op-eds to organizing protests and lobbying politicians.

Eat: I found a source for dried chiles in Sweden, and may have ordered them… all (thanks Atticus for the pro tip!). I was super stoked to make this delicious yellow mole with grilled fennel and portobellos from Rick Bayless last weekend.

Watch: Path to 100% Clean Electricity by 2035 webinar. This was a great 1-hour overview on the science (Michael Mann says it’s not too late for 1.5°C!), policy (Leah Stokes says regulations requiring clean energy are popular and effective!), and politics (Jamie DeMarco says there’s a critical window right now until August to get 100% clean energy mandates into US law!).

Drink: Simon and I opened a special bottle of 2008 Château de Chamirey Mercurey for my birthday, and it was delightful. I can’t wait until we can drink wine with friends again.


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