Why The Washington Post is starting a climate advice column

(Eleni Kalorkoti for The Washington Post)
4 min

For millions of people, climate change is a deeply, unavoidably personal story. When interviewing people, I often ask if they recall the moment they knew climate change was happening to them right now, the moment when climate models and warnings became real. For some, it was the blistering heat against their skin during the 2021 heat dome in the Pacific Northwest. Or a cardboard sign asking “Is global warming the culprit?” on a car windshield smashed after Hurricane Sandy roared ashore in New Jersey in 2012.

For me, it was the morning of Sept. 9, 2020, when the dawn never came. All week, wildfires raged from Seattle to Mexico, depositing a thick layer of soot and smoke over California. Around 7 a.m., I watched a blood-red orb traverse the sky over my home in San Francisco. “Mother Nature just gave us a red card,” a friend wrote me later that night, shortly after deciding to move back to Britain, “and it’s going to get worse.”

Moments like these are a major reason I have begun hearing a question I hadn’t heard much in a decade covering climate change: “What can I do?”

We’re launching the Climate Coach at The Washington Post to answer this question. Don’t expect lists of “101 things” or symbolic gestures. No plastic straw campaigns here. We’ll be digging into data and giving evidence-backed advice and thoughtful analysis about what matters in protecting the planet, the environment and one another.

Each week, the Climate Coach column and newsletter will host an honest discussion about the environmental choices we face in our daily lives. We’ll approach these questions with curiosity, optimism — and vigilant skepticism.

You may have heard the argument that there’s nothing ordinary people can do that matters except voting: It’s the Green New Deal or bust. But there’s a second view, one that sees individual action as critically important.

While global problems don’t seem entirely amenable to individual action, that is only part of the story. Human culture and global warming are not linear systems. They are driven by exponential curves, social contagions and threshold effects. They exist at the messy confluence of biology, economics, psychology and physics.

Take solar panels. In 2021, researchers in the journal Nature published a paper studying why people install solar panels on their roofs. Subsidies, geography and policy were all considered. The most powerful factor? Whether a neighbor already had solar panels. There was even a proximity effect. People living within two blocks of homes with panels were the most likely to buy their own. Solar panels, in other words, were contagious. With climate, we must consider social norms as well as policies and incentives.

We’ll take this as a guiding principle at the Climate Coach column. Individual climate action is more than the sum of its parts, complementing, not substituting for, transformative political and economic change.

We’ll answer your concerns and follow your interests (let me know your questions here). We’ll explore how to change your career for the climate. Savor invasive species (pass the lionfish). How to invest your savings in a stable climate. Uncover the incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act. Meet the bugs that will feed the future. Repower communities in coal country. Swap cars for people on slow streets. Try on fashion’s mend-and-repair movement. Track down sources of air pollution in your home and neighborhood. And learn, perhaps, how to worry a bit less and act a bit more on the climate.

I’ve been working on climate issues for more than 15 years — including the last six as a reporter and editor at the news site Quartz — and I also spent several years developing climate policy for international organizations.

But for me, this column will also be personal. In June, my son, Vaughan, was born. The only Earth he has ever known is nearly 1.2° Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the one most humans have experienced. Once he is my age, he is expected to live in a world with carbon dioxide levels exceeding those that existed more than 4 million years ago, a period when forests took root in the Arctic and sea levels flooded where the cities we live in exist today.

That’s not a world I want to pass on to him or the 10 billion or so others he will be sharing the planet with by 2050, the year that scientists working under the United Nations advise the world should reach net-zero emissions to avoid the most catastrophic warming. I want Vaughan, and everyone else, to have the best possible chance in a warming world. Fortunately, that’s a choice we have as a society — and as individuals.

The Climate Coach column and newsletter will launch in January. Sign up now.