Tom Rivett-Carnac: How Can We Shift Our Mindset To Fight Climate Change Together? It's easy to feel powerless against looming challenges we cannot control — like climate change. So what should we do? Political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac says the power is in our mindset.
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Tom Rivett-Carnac: How Can We Shift Our Mindset To Fight Climate Change Together?

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Tom Rivett-Carnac: How Can We Shift Our Mindset To Fight Climate Change Together?

Tom Rivett-Carnac: How Can We Shift Our Mindset To Fight Climate Change Together?

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And for the past couple months, while we've all been doing our part to keep ourselves and others safe, we've also had some time to think about what we value most.

TOM RIVETT-CARNAC: I'm walking through the woods near my home just a few minutes' walk away from the village that I live in in southern England.

ZOMORODI: And for a lot of us, including Tom Rivett-Carnac, it's planet Earth.

RIVETT-CARNAC: This is a beautiful forest. It's early May. I can see the light coming through the trees.

ZOMORODI: Tom is an expert in climate change policy. Back in 2015, he helped bring together nearly 200 countries to support the Paris Agreement, which was the U.N. deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But, of course, right now, Tom's been spending his time closer to home.

RIVETT-CARNAC: One of the amazing things about this forest over the last few weeks, of course, is that it's deserted. Now there's no one here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: For many of us, the pandemic marks the first time the whole planet is having one shared experience, maybe the first time we feel like we are one species. And Tom says this moment is an opportunity.

RIVETT-CARNAC: None of us who are alive right now have ever lived through anything like this. We are all facing one challenge, which is how are we collectively going to deal with this moment? Now, the best outcome of this is that we as humanity remember that we can no longer afford the luxury of feeling powerless.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Like the rest of the world, the TED stage is now happening remotely, so Tom Rivett-Carnac delivered his talk from those woods near his home.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RIVETT-CARNAC: Right now, we are coming through one of the most challenging periods in the lives of most of us. The global pandemic has been frightening whether personal tragedy has been involved or not. But it has also shaken our belief that we are powerless in the face of great change. In the space of a few weeks, we mobilized to the point where half of humanity took drastic action to protect the most vulnerable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STEPHEN ANDERSON: Friday morning, the 20th - since my shift yesterday, I came back in to find the emergency department full.

JULIE SULLIVAN: It was like a war room in the respiratory report room. So many people were trying to figure out what assignment to take. I'm tired. I've just been running around.

ANDERSON: Unfortunately, it's not over. We're still going up, and so I'm still going back to work tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RIVETT-CARNAC: These people are caregivers and nurses who have been helping humanity face the coronavirus, COVID-19. Now, that's interesting because it shows us that humans are capable of taking dedicated and sustained action even when they can't control the outcome. But it leaves us with another challenge, the climate crisis. 'Cause make no mistake, the climate crisis will be orders of magnitude worse than the pandemic if we do not take the actions that we can still take to avert the tragedy that we see coming towards us.

ZOMORODI: There's a line in your TED Talk that kind of hit me like a brick wall where you warn us that the climate crisis will be worse than the pandemic.

RIVETT-CARNAC: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: You know, we're just so in the pandemic right now that it's hard to take the longer view on that. Make the case for why we should (laughter).

RIVETT-CARNAC: Yeah. I mean, one simple answer to that question is that the climate crisis will be permanent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RIVETT-CARNAC: The pandemic is, you know, a major global emergency that we are right in the throes of right now. But we will find a vaccine. We are learning about this virus all the time. We are working on social measures to reduce its spread. We're working on vaccines. Those will take months or maybe years, but we'll come to that point, and we'll come through it, and the world will return to some form of normality, although it will probably look quite different.

In the climate emergency, the climate crisis, if we allow ourselves to pass these tipping points after which we begin to lose control of the climate system itself because certain things about the planet change - like when the sea ice reduces, it exposes the dark water underneath. That dark water absorbs more sunlight, which leads to more sea ice loss. So you get these feedback loops where it becomes runaway, so you lose control of the climate system. If we get to that point, we can't find a cure for that. That's just the planet flipping into a different, hotter state.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Before the pandemic, climate change and our struggle to do anything about it was on a lot of our minds, like a consistent, dull ache. But now, coping with COVID-19 and fighting the climate crisis - well, it can feel emotionally overwhelming. But climate change isn't going away. And like Tom said, the way communities have reacted to the pandemic might prove we can come together and fight an invisible threat. And so on the show today, can we make the psychological shift we need to stop global warming and capitalize on this moment?

RIVETT-CARNAC: Coronavirus and climate - there are many ways in which they're connected. They're both global challenges that are coming at us at this moment. They both require us to step up as individuals and as society. They require us to replenish our trust in our faith in science. They require us to collaborate, and they make us realize that we are only as strong as the weakest member of our societies. And the other thing that they do is they require us to take strong action without being able to control the outcome. No one individual can take action that can prevent the spread of coronavirus. And in my talk, I talk about some of these health care workers. And what was kind of instructive to me as I looked at it was I realized that as long as you feel like you're - what you're doing has meaning and purpose, you'll take action even if you can't control the outcome. That's why those nurses, you know, so - in such an inspiring way, take such action, put themselves in such risk to do all these different things. That's also the story of transformation of the world going back generations in times of great challenge and conflict and difficulty. People couldn't control that, but they felt a sense of purpose and meaning in engaging with the issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RIVETT-CARNAC: So let me give you a historical story to explain it.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Poland, September 1939 - the German foe begins its ruthless march of conquest.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RIVETT-CARNAC: In the late 1930s, the people of Britain would do anything to avoid facing the reality that Hitler would stop at nothing to conquer Europe.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Along a dozen roads, the iron cross and the eagle wave in the breeze.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Freedom of speech - now that meant the concentration camp, torture, death.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

RIVETT-CARNAC: They were terrified of Nazi aggression and would do anything to avoid facing that reality. In the end, the reality broke through. Churchill is remembered for many things and not all of them positive. But what he did in those early days of the war was he changed the story the people of Britain told themselves about what they were doing and what was to come.

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WINSTON CHURCHILL: We shall go on till the end. We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall never surrender.

RIVETT-CARNAC: An island alone, a country that would fight them on the beaches, a country that would never surrender - he wasn't promising an easy ride. He wasn't promising victory. He was promising blood, toil, tears and sweat. That's literally what he said. But he was promising meaning. He was promising something that people could get engaged in and, as a result, be part of a great shared endeavor. And that's what motivated people to action. It's not actually the sense of an easy victory.

And, I mean, I live in the west of England, and dotted along the river right by my house is a series of little brick buildings. And they were constructed by the old men of the village during the war because they wanted to feel like they were part of this great shared endeavor. I mean, the Germans were never going to come up the river Froome to attack Britain, right? But they felt like they wanted to be part of this great shared endeavor, so they built these things to contribute. And everybody felt that what they were doing was part of this purposeful shared mission. Now, that doesn't mean it was always easy - right? - or it doesn't mean that every day was filled with joy, but it does mean that it provided a North Star for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RIVETT-CARNAC: Now, on climate, we've allowed ourselves to not feel purposeful, to not feel meaningful, to have the sense of, if I can't control it all myself, therefore, the meaning and the purpose drains away. And that is a major mistake. We can do big things together. It's not beyond our ability to cooperate, to have a shared objective, to work together towards it, to - yes - have national interests but also have international solidarity. And we can live enormously purposeful and meaningful lives right now by deciding to take action on these collective issues and thereby transforming the world through our own actions.

ZOMORODI: I mean, it almost sounds like what you're saying is that we need a leader who can reframe the narrative around climate change, around things that are outside of our control.

RIVETT-CARNAC: I'm not actually saying that. I can see why you would draw that conclusion from what I've said. I mean, I think what's needed is an animating story that we can get behind and that provides meaning for us. There's probably going to be multiple different stories for different people and different ages and different industries and different countries. What I'm saying is we can choose what story that is, and we can actually choose to have a more animating narrative that moves us towards action. I mean, if you look at the components of this crisis - right? - it is overwhelming odds. It is clock ticking down. It is great peril if we fail. It's all the ingredients of a great adventure story.

We're either going to do this or we're not, but no one else is going to do it. And if anyone's going to do it, it's going to be us, right? And to me, that's kind of the beginning of a really inspiring narrative. I want to do that. I want to be part of the generation that faced this challenge, decided it wasn't too much for us. And then we'll always be the generation that was able to do this. That's still a chance for us, right?

ZOMORODI: Yeah, but what do we need to be that generation? Like, how do we even start motivating ourselves to do this?

RIVETT-CARNAC: Optimism - gritty, determined, stubborn optimism.

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