Student activists carry posters and shout slogans as they participate in a protest march against climate change in Delhi, India, March 19, 2021.

Author Kim Nicholas on the five stages of ‘radical climate acceptance’

Kim Nicholas, a climate scientist at Lund University in Sweden, has a new book out this week, “Under the Sky We Make: How to be a Human in a Warming World,” to help people understand where they fit into solving the climate crisis. 

The World

“It’s warming — it’s us, we’re sure — it’s bad, but we can fix it,” is Kim Nicholas’ mantra.

Nicholas is a world leader in thinking and writing about climate change solutions.

In her new book, “Under the Sky We Make: How to be a Human in a Warming World,” Nicholas discusses how individuals in rich countries should understand their climate privilege and the best ways to think about individual change.

Related: Climate divestment activists draw inspiration from South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle

On The World’s weekly segment, “The Big Fix,” Nicholas, a climate researcher at Lund University in Sweden, tells host Marco Werman about the five stages of “radical climate acceptance” — and the unexpected beauty and romance of cutting her carbon footprint.

Related: Climate change scientist trades in the halls of Oxford for YouTube

Marco Werman: Tell me more about the mantra that I just read. When do you say it? How often and why do you say it? 

Kim Nicholas: So, this is a phrase that I’ve been using for over a decade now in my teaching. It helps us orient because this is what science shows people actually need to know in order to both support more ambitious climate policy and make changes in our own lives.  

In your book, you outline the five stages of climate acceptance. What are those and what inspired you to think about kind of acceptance as a necessary step for confronting this challenge of climate change?  

So, I talk about the five stages of “radical climate acceptance,” which are ignorance, avoidance, doom, “all the feels,” and purpose. And that’s based on both my experience and on research from psychology. What I’ve seen is that people can get really stuck in the first stages of either not knowing about the problem or knowing about it and being afraid to confront it or face it. I think the feelings, they are really at the heart of that and going from what we know about the facts to experiencing all these feelings, including grief and rage and anger and harness those feelings for action and actually stabilizing the climate. 

You’ve been thinking about climate solutions for a long time. We are The World. We focus on solutions, in part, because we’ve got to remain hopeful that there is a way to fix things. What do you think, though, that the media has gotten wrong when talking about climate solutions? What reframing do you think might need to happen?  

Well, from some of our work, we’ve seen that actually there is not much focus from the media in general on the climate crisis, on connecting the dots between our burning of fossil fuels and the land-use change that we’re causing primarily from agriculture, and the breakdown of the climate system that we’re seeing and the really urgent and critical danger that that’s putting us all in.

One really good example is a Swedish newspaper a couple of years ago told every story in the paper from a climate angle. So, rather than having a separate reporter, a separate section, they really told the story of how everything from the economy to education to culture to sports can be told and should be told as a climate story because climate underpins human civilization and life on Earth. It’s just that basic. So, we really have to see how our destabilizing of the climate is really putting everything we love at risk. 

We also know the effects of climate change do not impact everyone equally, and we’ve reported that on the show quite a bit. And crucially, some of us are more guilty than others for causing the climate crisis, whether we know it or not. Who are the climate privileged and how do you encourage people to confront their climate privilege, shall we say? 

Well, I am one of the climate privileged, and that was something that has taken me some time to realize and kind of acknowledge because about 10% of the global population are responsible for almost half of household climate pollution. It’s those who have incomes over about $38,000 a year that are in the top 10% of income globally. And the more income you earn, the higher your climate pollution tends to be. 

Are you able to parse out what the climate privileged are doing? Is it about flying in planes, or food or particular driving habits?  

So, our research has shown that the three highest impact personal climate actions that someone can take to quickly cut their own climate pollution are to go flight-, car- and meat-free. Any reduction you can make in those three areas makes a really big and important difference for the climate. 

I’m curious about your own journey to confronting your own contribution to the problem. Was it facing the statistics about personal carbon budgets or was it another “aha!” moment? 

Well, maybe the biggest one for me was flying. I mean, I’m a recovering frequent flier, so in 2010, I took 15 round-trip flights and that definitely put me in this tiny group of the 1% of the population that does half of the flying and half of emissions from flying. 

But once I decided to stop flying within Europe, adventure and romance actually followed from that. So, I met my husband in 2016, and it turned out we were both planning to go to Paris, and not long thereafter we ended up taking — our fourth date was a 15-hour train trip to Paris. And I sort of thought, well, this is going to be like a good test, and I didn’t even expect that it would pass the test. I was like, “We’re going to be sick of each other by the time we get into Paris.” But actually, we liked each other better by the end of that train trip. And I think that was a very good sign. And we ended up basically having a wedding by train. He comes from Canada, I come from California, and we have friends and family all over. But instead of asking them all to fly to us for one wedding, we went to them by train. So, we gathered people together in these small local gatherings where almost no one else had to travel and we went by train between them.  

So, you were doing like, a little marriage ceremony at every stop you made?  

We did, yeah. And I mean, they looked different in every place, but yeah, it was really lovely.  

So, Kim, I’m intrigued. You started a Spotify playlist called “If My Book Were Music.” Is there a song on there that you feel captures the mood of “Under the Sky We Make”?   

I tried to capture the feeling of each chapter in a song and at least something about the feeling that it gave me. So, my book is divided into facts, feelings and actions. Those are the three sections. So, I think the facts are more sort of waking up to uncomfortable information and figuring out how to confront it and having sort of “aha!” moments. The middle section is about a song that makes me really, really sad every time I hear it, and then a song that makes me really pissed off and filled with energy. And then I get into the action, so some of it is about money and politics and power and the feelings behind actually getting change started and making change.

We’ll go with something under the action theme because, you know, getting busy is what it’s all about, and maybe there’s an option here to dance. 

There definitely needs to be dancing at my climate revolution. I think one that really speaks to me is “Shake It Out” by Florence and the Machine. To me, that song is about daring to be yourself in the face of challenge and to persevere, to not give up and to help each other out through tough times. So, I’ve found that really helpful. And I would love it if my book played that role for some readers.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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