This professor wants you to give up your climate guilt
These days, we all could use a little good news — so we’re presenting a few of this year’s Grist 50 Fixers, in depth. For a quick dose of hope and optimism, meet 2020 Fixer Leah Stokes.
In Leah Stokes’ new book, Short Circuiting Policy, she investigates how electric utilities undermined and hollowed out state laws that should’ve transformed the U.S. into a renewable energy leader. Her research focuses on climate and energy policy, and she has become a go-to resource for both traditional media and social media to explain new findings on climate change.
Stokes was recently named to the 2020 Grist 50, an annual list of emerging climate and justice leaders. She spoke to us about why the individual-martyr approach to addressing climate change is a dead end — and pointed to paths that might actually get us to a better future. Her responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q.For an academic, you have a big social media following.
A.I do an enormous amount of media work. I do lots of radio interviews, podcasts. I talk a lot about how to talk about climate change.
Q.And what’s your message?
A.Basically, burning fossil fuels is the cause of climate change — and we can stop burning fossil fuels. Step one is to stop burning fossil fuels. Step two is to sequester the carbon you’ve already burned. The real problem is: How do we reduce emissions in transportation, building, oil and gas, agriculture?
Q.People obsess over their personal climate footprint, but you say that’s a red herring.
A.People think: “If I recycle, I’m doing my part.” And the second thing they think is: “I fly for my job. I have kids, so I need a minivan.” And so they take themselves out of the fight. The reality is, only 3 percent of emissions in the United States come from flights.
Q.So if what I do as an individual doesn’t matter that much, what does?
A.It’s not about individual change. The big lever is policy. That’s where the money is. I ran behavioral-change campaigns at the University of Toronto between 2005 and 2007, to get people to save energy. It impacted thousands of students, but at the end, I felt it wasn’t enough. The lever for individuals isn’t enough. The goal is not self-purification. The goal is institutional and political change.
Q.What would that change look like?
A.Specifically: a federal clean-electricity standard, and significant government spending on cleaning up the electricity and transportation systems by 2030.
Meet all the rest of the fixers, doers, problem-solvers, and visionaries on this year’s Grist 50 list.