Back in 2019, in what we now fondly remember as The Before Times, Earth Island Journal published a conversation I had with scientist Susanne Moser. That article, “Despairing about the Climate Crisis? Read This,” went somewhat viral. It offered new ways to think about hope and a vision of the better world we could build from the wreckage of climate change.
So much has happened since then.
I wondered if recent events — including the pandemic and our partial reckoning with systemic racism — had changed Moser’s thinking about the climate crisis. So I reached out again and sought her help navigating the psychological demands of this fraught moment.
Moser has a unique perspective on these issues. She understands what we are up against on climate: Her long resumé includes stints at the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, as well as academic postings at Harvard and Stanford universities. She was a pioneer in thinking about climate change adaptation back in the early 1990s, before that was a thing. She has long advocated for more active collaboration between scientists and policy-makers. And she helped shape the field of climate change communication.
Today, in addition to advising governments, nonprofits, foundations, and others on climate adaptation, resilience, and transformation, Moser spends a lot of time thinking about climate and mental health. Her Adaptive Mind Project focuses on making sure that those who work on the frontlines of climate change have “the psychological skills, capacities, and peer and institutional support to effectively and compassionately face the challenges of a rapidly, continually, sometimes traumatically and profoundly changing world.”
During our conversation, she emphasized the importance of tending to ourselves and each other during crisis, the need to work toward meaningful community engagement, and why it’s so critical that we question who we are at this moment in time. Here’s what she had to say.
It’s been an eventful three years. Fallout from the pandemic, in particular, has reshaped so many aspects of society. Has it had an impact on how you think about climate change?
Yes, it’s been a rough few years for so many. One thing it showed is that we can respond to a recognized crisis very quickly and with drastic actions. So, we could do the same if we took the climate crisis seriously enough. But the pandemic also showed that it takes agreement to come together on a global threat, as well as perseverance, a sustained focus. Only then will we succeed in minimizing harm. When we don’t agree, we limit our collective capacity.
For me, that has solidified a particular focus to the work that is most needed now. I have never been interested in just the technical aspects of the climate crisis, whether it’s mitigation or adaptation, but I’m very much interested in the social, the human, side of climate change. That is where we will make or break it.
Say more about the social side.
The climate adaptation field is shifting into a more routinized, professionalized, technologized era. We’re getting a lot more lawyers, engineers, and financiers into this space. Which is one indication that adaptation is becoming the norm — out of sheer necessity.
But we’re in danger of forgetting that what holds communities together in crisis and through difficult shifts is the social fabric, our ability to see ourselves as dependent on and interdependent with others. We cannot lose what so many of us have been emphasizing for years: the need to work toward social cohesion, justice, and meaningful community engagement.
“Many things must end now: all the ‘-isms;’ chauvinism and patriarchy; racism; anthropocentrism.”
So, when people ask me, “What can I do?” I say, “What do you like to do?” They might tell me that they are involved in a garden club or a knitting circle or a food pantry, or some other way to give to their community. I say, “Do that.” They may feel it’s not helping with climate change, but it does: It builds and maintains community and that builds resilience.
Another thing that came out of the stresses of the pandemic is that people began to talk a lot more about mental health. There’s a lot more recognition in the climate community that people need to tend to that part of themselves. So, a lot of my work has moved into building psychosocial support for climate professionals in this prolonged emergency.
What does that entail?
It starts with building the skill for self- and community-care, so you don’t burn out — which is unfortunately a big and growing problem in our field. It also means building the skills to be with others who are in distress. If you work in this area, you have to do public engagement where you are facing people who are scared or traumatized, and worried and angry with you, because who else is there to be angry with?
And so, those working on climate change need what I call the adaptive mind: basically, the skills to deal with constant, traumatic, and transformative change. The transformative part is the master frame, because what are we going through — the polycrisis, the collapse — is not the end of the process. Many things must end now: all the “-isms;” chauvinism and patriarchy; racism; anthropocentrism; and all the ways we marginalize and diminish the worth of far too many people and Earth itself. It is very difficult work; it involves a lot of grief. None of us happily or easily give up our identities. It’s a descent from the height of hubris. And then we have to go and grapple with what’s worth keeping and from there, build something new. The adaptive mind work is trying to help people go through that process, and to lead others through it.
Also, since we spoke last, the horrific police murder of George Floyd — and so many others — re-energized a movement for racial equity in the US and around the world. That movement has reverberated through the culture, including the climate and environmental movements. I’m interested in your perspective on how that’s played out, and whether we now have a more equitable climate movement as a result.
Well, we haven’t undone centuries of White supremacy in just a few years. But many organizations are asking, “What should we do? What should we no longer do? What needs to happen now?” That reckoning is more serious in many places where it wasn’t before, or where it was only performative. That is no longer feasible. I can completely understand the impatience and skepticism of many people of color who feel like, Where have you been for the last 400 years? But at least some of it is now happening. There is a tide building. And we have made some important strides in the adaptation field.
Does that affect prospects for action? For centuries, we have “outsourced” all kinds of impacts to vulnerable communities. And for some privileged folks, there’s less urgency about addressing the problem if it is affecting marginalized groups. So, does the attention to equity broaden the coalition? Does it increase the sense of urgency?
Yes, but only when we have the willingness and ability to be in difficult dialogues together. If you’re just adding on a few people and moving on with the same agenda that you pursued before, then you run into trouble pretty quickly. But when adaptation spaces become transformative spaces, when we begin to grapple with and address the deeper causes of why communities are underserved, when we look at the values and beliefs and resulting structures that limit who gets to be at the table, and therefore, why we only made certain types of decisions — then we can see the shift.
We need to be in a different process together. For many, outreach or engagement is still a checkbox, and it can’t be anymore. We have to get skilled at this, and fast! We have to become knowledgeable about the systems that keep people in vulnerable places. That means broadening the agenda. If you’re working on climate justice, you’ll want to bring in housing, transportation, social services, and so on. As someone recently said to me, “Too many things are broken and we don’t have the time, money, or energy to fix them one by one.” The sooner we see that and solve them together, going as far upstream as we can, the better.
To play devil’s advocate, there are also those who look at that expanded agenda and say, we just don’t have time to do all of this. We need to focus like a laser on reducing emissions. What do you say to those people?
Wendell Berry said it best: “The situation you’re in now is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience. And to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial.”
We are in a terrible trial. But in times like this there is no quick fix, no Band-aid.
There’s a story about a guy sitting by the side of a river who sees someone floating in the river, nearly drowning, and he jumps in to save him. Then he looks up and there comes another one nearly drowning in the river and he jumps back in. Saves him too, but more and more people come floating down the river, and more people come to help save them. Eventually, someone says, “Hey, let’s go upstream and see who’s pushing all these people into the water.” That’s the work that is called for now: going upstream to prevent the things going wrong that are beyond our capacity to deal with. When we address the root causes, we tend to solve multiple downstream problems at once, so what we think we don’t have time for, actually saves time.
This is not to dismiss the people who are in triage mode, pulling people out of the river. We need them, and we need the people working upstream, and we need people who connect the dots between them.
In our last conversation, you talked about the many different kinds of hope. What kinds of hope are sustaining you in this moment?
Yes, if you recall, I introduced a spectrum of hope. On one end, there’s the passive, Oh, somebody else will take care of it, kind of hope. It’s all going to turn out fine and I don’t have to do anything to help. That to me is not a realistic, nor a sustaining, hope, and it’s certainly not how I want to live my life. I’m not a good bystander, I guess.
“We can’t look away from the hard realities that confront us. And we can’t ignore that we live in deeply interconnected systems.”
On the other end of the spectrum is radical hope, where you move to an unknown future and don’t even know how to get there, but you are willing to show up for all the difficult conversations on the way. Those conversations involve grappling with the existential questions we now face. That is the place I like to work. Usually, we find plenty to cry about there, but also something to be joyful or laugh about. Both help us to go on and do the work that needs to be done.
It’s so critical that we name the existential crisis that we’re in. It’s existential both in the identity sense — of questioning who we are and what makes us human and who we want to be at this time. But it’s also existential in a very physical sense. And for many people, these questions are not new because they’ve been put at the margins forever. But for many of us who have enjoyed a lot of privilege, these questions are new, and therefore uncomfortable. That is the grappling that we must do. This is the work of our day, and if we succeed, we will be adaptive and persist as a better society, and as a species. If we don’t do that work, we’re just moving the deck chairs on the Titanic. And we know where that ended.
Let’s go with persisting.
Yes. But that means we can’t look away from the hard realities that confront us. And we can’t ignore that we live in deeply interconnected systems. In the climate context, we now better understand things like tipping points, thresholds, and irreversibility. While many say that all adaptation is local, we are beginning to understand that if something bad happens in a faraway country, we’re not shielded from that. Some virus got loose in China and look what happened!
The same is true with climate impacts. So, we’re starting to get that we’re not separate. It comes to us, unfortunately, in this very painful way, that we’re deeply interconnected. What’s true is that we’ve always been interconnected and we’ve just ignored that; we lived as if that’s not true. And now we have to relearn it. We must become conscious of the web that we’re woven into — the natural and the social. We have to work with and for the continuation of the web as a whole, instead of our own little strand. It’s a very new way for most of us to think, but there are people who have thought and lived that way for generations, and they must be at the table to share their wisdom to help the rest of us come to grips with the nature of reality.
In a society where loneliness is an epidemic, perhaps there’s comfort in that connectedness.
Exactly! We actually can’t fall out of that web. For better and worse, we’re deeply connected with each other, and the Earth.
We can’t fall out of the web, but we could take it down with us. But let’s not end on that note!
I agree. But look at it another way: The fact that we’re connected to everything is ultimately our salvation if we are smart enough, and humble enough, to accept and act on it.
This interview, published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, has been edited for clarity and length.
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