Opinions & Insights

“Rare Conversations” with Heather White

The role of individual action in the climate fight

September 19, 2023

Heather White has worked in environmental policy for over twenty years. But, it was not her decades-long career that sparked her to take on her latest endeavor to help individuals take personal climate action.

It was a dinner table conversation with her fourteen-year-old daughter.

White, an environmental lawyer, policy expert, and author of the book One Green Thing: Discover Your Power to Help Save the Planet, shared the story during her recent appearance on Rare Conversations, Rare’s virtual conversation series with leaders working at the intersection of conservation, sustainability, behavior change, and the environment.

“She said to me, ‘I’m so sick and tired of all this praise for Gen Z activists like Greta. Where are the baby boomers, Mom? Where is Gen X? Where are the millennials? You can’t leave this crisis on our shoulders.’ And then she started crying,” recalled White.

It was a life-changing moment for White, who realized that while she was focused on policy for her entire career, she was not having intentional personal conversations about what she was doing in her daily life to create a healthier, greener future for the next generation. The conversation opened White’s eyes to issues like eco-anxiety, intergenerational collaboration, and, crucially, the power that individuals have in addressing climate change.

“When we get really technical, and we talk about these global and market solutions, what most people hear is ‘I don’t matter,’ and that’s not true,” she asserted. “They do matter.”

White’s book One Green Thing is a response to that feeling of hopelessness. The book helps individuals to start seeing themselves in climate action by starting with a simple question: Who are you in service? The question is meant to get people thinking about how they show up for the people they love, what their strengths are, and how they can focus on doing one thing for the movement. The idea is that by empowering individuals to take action that inspires them, cultural norms can shift, which leads to systems-scale policy and market solutions.

“It’s so simple,” said White. “Individual action drives culture change, and we’re all cultural change agents in our community.”

It’s this idea that drives Rare’s work as well. White, who spoke with Zach Lowe, Rare’s Senior Director of Communication and a former colleague from her time on Capitol Hill, discussed Rare’s role in leading the nonprofit world in the importance of individual action, and working to erase the narrative of “getting it wrong.”

“I think a lot of people are afraid of getting started in climate action because they’re afraid of doing sustainability wrong,” said White. “So much of Rare’s work is inclusive and invites more people into the conversation. We have to create an opportunity for people to understand it’s about progress, not perfection.”

Rare’s work with Project Drawdown showed that individual behavior change can contribute up to 36% of the carbon reductions needed to stabilize the planet by 2050.

White and Lowe both acknowledged that this journey is full of challenges: constant negative news cycles showing the destruction of the planet through extreme weather, anger at oil and gas companies that are most responsible for emissions, and the eco-anxiety present in younger generations. According to a global survey, of 10,000 young people aged 16 to 25, nearly half said that climate anxiety interfered with their daily lives.

“Talk to the young people in your life, and then listen,” advised White. “We [may not] be responsible for these emissions, but we’re all part of the solution.”

And finally, White believes that we can inspire more people to join the climate movement by shifting the narrative away from what we’re fighting against to what we’re building toward.

“Climate action can be beautiful. A clean energy economy with justice and equity at the center can be beautiful. And we need to really let people see that.”

To view the entire Rare Conversation, click the video above.