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Environmentalist Bill McKibben discusses climate anxiety and overcoming inaction

A man sits outside in a gray long-sleeve shirt and smiles at the camera
Third Act
Bill McKibben is the founder of Third Act, an environmental organization that helps older Americans get involved in the climate movement.

After historic flooding in Vermont this summer — in addition to flooding worldwide, tropical storms and wildfires — climate change is only becoming more apparent. The growing climate crisis can also bring along climate anxiety, which can make it hard to interact with the topic.

Bill McKibben is a local environmentalist, author and educator who has spent his career working on these climate concerns. He's the founder of two organizations — and Third Act — which aim to help people of all ages interact with the climate movement.

Climate anxiety

Climate anxiety is a common feeling, especially when faced with story after story of climate change-related events, or experiencing the impacts firsthand — like Vermonters did this summer with the extreme flooding, record-setting high temperatures and Quebec wildfire smoke.

More fromVermont Public:The connection between extreme rain and climate change in Vermont

Even McKibben gets the feeling, having followed the topic for decades — and knowing what opportunities we've missed along the way.

"On the other hand," McKibben said. "I also have a sense of the possibilities still, and of the way that things have opened up in certain ways."

Climate change knowledge has been around for awhile. While we knew decades ago that this was happening, we didn't have as much knowledge on what we could do.

But now, our possibilities are increasing. Even in just the past decade, solar power — which we know is a reusable source of energy that can pull us away from fossil fuel dependence — has become increasingly accessible, even at the individual level.

So, while we know we aren't currently doing everything we can to end the climate emergency, McKibben said we are taking some action, and we have more knowledge and options now than we did in the past — which can make looking ahead to the future a bit less scary.

McKibben also said something that can help ease climate anxiety is getting involved — specifically, getting involved in a community setting.

"That's the key: Find other people to work with," McKibben said.

McKibben also mentioned that climate change is a lens we can look at the world through. Where our lens used to be about economic growth, it's shifting to take human survival into consideration. This shift in how we look at the world big-picture can help us tackle the problem.

It is also inspiring — and requiring — a social solidarity that can be powerful in taking action and making change — and can make it feel a bit easier to think about.

Some climate anxiety may also stem from a worry that the problem isn't being taken seriously, either by corporations or the government or even your own family.

McKibben said that there are some people that you won't be able to engage with on the topic. However, he also said that the climate movement doesn't require every single person to be involved to be successful.

"But we need enough people to make this call unstoppable," McKibben said.

How to get involved

Getting involved in the climate movement can be a powerful way to enact change — but it can also be a daunting task. Everyone is able to engage in different ways, and we also know that a lot of the most powerful actions against climate change won't come at the individual level. But if you're wanting to get involved and don't quite know how, McKibben has some tips on how to get started.

"We're not under any illusions. As with everything to do with climate change, the things that you can do by yourself are A) important and B) limited," McKibben said.

So, while you could change from a national bank that funds fossil fuels to a local bank that doesn't, it may not hold as much weight as organizing with others against banks, or getting companies with larger sums to make those changes.

"The goal is not to make yourself feel good. The goal is actually to lower the temperature," McKibben said.

Taking steps at the individual level is important, but don't be too hard on yourself about if you're helping "enough." Take steps that work for you, but also think about how your actions are fitting into the larger movement.

The climate movement is a worldwide effort, and some of the most successful actions to minimize our dependence on fossil fuels and lower our rising temperatures is not going to be done by one person. The companies and people that profit off of fossil fuels hold power in the climate movement, and "we are not gonna get this done one Tesla at a time. We have to be coming together," McKibben said.

But, choosing to produce less waste, or driving less often, can be good places to start in your daily life to work towards larger climate goals.

We're not under any illusions. As with everything to do with climate change, the things that you can do by yourself are A) important and B) limited.
Bill McKibben, environmentalist

Another successful way is opting for renewable energy, like solar power.

"The sun and the wind is everywhere and if we use it we take away the power," McKibben said.

Another option is participating in protests or demonstrations. McKibben has organized climate protests across the country through and Third Act, the environmental organizations he founded. McKibben founded at Middlebury College with students, and Third Act is an organization specifically helping older Americans participate in the movement.

Engaging with the climate movement through a community can not only help with climate anxiety, but can be more powerful by amplifying more voices.

McKibben said that legislators know there is a climate problem, but that they are reluctant to work with the necessary speed — and sometimes what is needed is a bit of pressure. The more people that become engaged with the topic and push for change, the harder it is to ignore at those higher levels.

And getting involved with the climate movement isn't just for younger generations. McKibben said it's important for all ages to come together on these topics.

McKibben's organization Third Act specifically encourages Americans over the age of 60 to get involved, because older generations have numbers and voting power. And while younger generations are involved in the movement, they may not have all the power necessary to be heard.

McKibben said younger generations are doing a lot of good for the movement, and have energy, ambition and intelligence, but it's not enough to rely on them for a problem this big.

"It's neither fair nor practical to demand that high school students solve the biggest problem that we've ever faced. They don't have the structural power to do it. If you look around for who does have structural power, well, it's people with hairlines like mine. There are 70 million people over the age of 60 in America, we punch way above our weight," McKibben said.

So for people wanting to push on legislators and businesses to address climate concerns, it's going to take a lot of voices to do it.

Broadcast at noon Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.