International Journal of Appreciative Inquiry


Climate Action Starts Within 

Climate Action Starts Within 

In this four-piece series, A Practitioner’s Journey To Living With Climate Change, we have explored different ways to listen: listening to science, listening inside of us, and listening beyond the human, to the natural world. We have considered the many ways one can start a climate conversation: it can be about the gut microbiome, conscious influence or cosmology, to name just a few. The last article was a personal account of my experience witnessing a climate-related disaster. It makes sense to complete this series with a discussion about what to do. 

In this four-piece series, A Practitioner’s Journey To Living With Climate Change, we have explored different ways to listen: listening to science, listening inside of us, and listening beyond the human, to the natural world. We have considered the many ways one can start a climate conversation: it can be about the gut microbiome, conscious influence or cosmology, to name just a few. The last article was a personal account of my experience witnessing a climate-related disaster. It makes sense to complete this series with a discussion about what to do. 

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Alexandra Arnold | USA 

Alex Arnold (she/her) MSPsy, MSHR/ OD, ACC, is Executive Consultant for The Taos Institute and a climate resilience coach at Alma Coaching, where she uses positive psychology and Appreciative Inquiry to help introverted and highly sensitive people shift from climate anxiety to inspired action.

The timing of this publication is aligned with the 2023 AI Jam (October 19–21), the virtual conference hosted by the Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry. I had the honor of participating in a panel discussion on the topic: AI for Life: Putting Life-Centric Practices at the Heart of All We Do, A Dynamic Dialogue with Global AI Practitioners, in which I spoke about coaching as a tool to manage climate anxiety, build climate resilience and take inspired action. A question the panelists were asked was: “How do you see the work you are doing as a manifestation of the principles of Appreciative Inquiry?”

Rather than listing specific climate actions, let’s look at the core principles of Appreciative Inquiry and how they can guide us, as individuals, and as practitioners with our clients. 

The Constructionist principle 

Words create worlds. The topic of climate change is often associated with conflict, with others or within ourselves. It doesn’t have to be that way. When we open up to different stories, perspectives and conversations, we can create different realities. When we accept that there isn’t one Truth, and that our local truths are the outcome of our unique life trajectories, we can approach climate conversations with curiosity, care and respect. We can inquire into another person’s worldview without feeling the need to judge or convince. Connecting with others over shared life experiences, interests or values will have a much more positive impact than any scientific data we can share. How do we have conversations that connect or inspire rather than divide or deflate? 

This principle also invites us to reconsider the language we use around climate. (For more on the power of appreciative language, check out my co-panelist Claudia Gross’ book: Speak Green). What might happen if we replace statements like “We need to fight the climate crisis before it’s too late” or “We’re headed toward an apocalypse” with questions like “How might we learn to live differently in response to the changing climate so that people and the planet can thrive?” Or “What is the latest innovation, story of resilience or flourishing you’ve heard about?” We talk about the latest climate news story or comment on the unusual weather pattern in mundane small talk every day. Let’s slow down to consider the impact our word or story choices have. The language we use in conversations around climate shapes our future. 

The Simultaneity principle 

Change begins the moment we ask a question. One common experience in response to climate change is to feel powerless. We are stuck because we feel too small or inadequate to make a difference. Asking appreciative questions that bring out the best in people reminds them that they are skilful, capable, that they have resources, influence and control (at least over some things). Inquiring about past successes or peak experiences, even those not related to climate, can help people regain agency. They can start imagining how their skills can be applied in different ways. It also helps them clarify what really matters to them. Indeed, many people are overwhelmed because they don’t know where to start or what to do. We hear that we need to change our diets, electrify our homes, switch cars, move our investments, replace our wardrobes, vote, get involved politically or with environmental organizations and more. It’s just too much and we can’t do it all. 

Knowing one’s personal values can be hugely helpful in choosing a direction for action. One question that is sometimes used in climate coaching conversations is to ask the client to remember a movie, a book, a superhero, a cartoon character or a role model that the client admired as a child. When we inquire deeper into what this person/character/story stood for, we discover topics or causes that the person might feel really passionate about that they may have forgotten. This could lead someone to narrow their focus to social justice, or protecting a certain species or habitat – or maybe the food industry will call them most. A different way questions can be powerful, for example with someone being impacted by weather-related events, is to ask them about something they are grateful for, something they have learned, something that surprised them, or what helped them cope with the situation, instead of focussing only the distressing aspects. Use these questions thoughtfully and without dismissing the gravity of the situation, of course. 

The Poetic principle 

What we focus on grows, or what we appreciate appreciates. If all of our attention is on stories of apocalypse, doomsday, extinction, countdown, catastrophe, disaster and suffering, that is the world that we will be living in. But if we focus on stories of hope, innovation, resilience and thriving, we start to notice more and more of them. This creates a positive spiral, until we are surrounded by solution-focused news rather than what seems like insurmountable problems. One of the simplest things you can do right now is to subscribe to a source of positive news and limit or even stop taking in any traditional news. The impact on our emotional state is significant. By being mindful about what we pay attention to, we can balance despair, anger, sadness and hopelessness with hope, curiosity, interest, optimism, admiration or awe. This is not a linear process or a quick fix. These are coping strategies; they are not meant to replace, end or fix climate anxiety altogether. In fact, experiencing climate distress is not a problem we want to solve: it is what makes us human and what connects us all. We hurt where we care. 

The Anticipatory principle 

Images inspire action. According to this principle, we move in the direction of our vision of the future. What images come to mind when we think of climate change? Most of us only see images of destruction, suffering or death. Can we imagine a bright future for people, animals, ecosystems and all living things when we are taking in so many visuals of desolation and loss? To regain our ability to dream, let’s look at images of beauty, abundance, lush environments, thriving communities – human and non-human. Even looking at images of technological innovation like models of green cities or 3D-printed, eco-friendly, affordable houses can help create a positive vision of what we want to move toward. On a smaller scale, we can practice daily visualizations of small goals, rather than being lost in a blurry picture not knowing where we fit in. How about dreaming of a delicious vegetarian dinner, or imagining shopping at a local store, meeting the owner or the maker of the item you’re purchasing, instead of placing an Amazon order? How vivid an image can you get of the rich, fragrant soil you will harvest from your compost? What is one tiny thing you can see yourself doing to green-up your house today? Visualization can be applied to conversations: how can you prepare for a different exchange when the inevitable topic of the latest weather oddity or disaster comes up today? What we believe is possible will determine what is.

The Positive principle 

Positive images lead to positive action. There are many stereotypes associated with climate action: radical activism, confrontational conversations, public and sometimes violent protests, political involvement, extreme lifestyle changes like giving up meat, air travel, or switching cars: “I should be doing X.” Whatever we are doing, it seems that it’s not enough, or not the right thing. These actions are all great and necessary, but they are not useful if they are such a stretch that we are paralyzed instead. Unfortunately, self-judgment and societal pressure only exacerbate climate distress. 

What would happen if we gave ourselves permission to choose the type of climate action that brings out our best selves? No matter our skills, they are needed. When we build on our positive core, climate action becomes effortless, inspiring; it generates positive emotions that have physical and mental health benefits, and it can even be fun! Jane Goodall says that “whatever you do, do it out of love, not out of guilt”. 

If you love to write, try writing social media posts or a blog, an article, or a newsletter story on a topic you’re passionate about, directly or indirectly related to climate. If waste and pollution are topics that make your blood boil, consider how you might use your passion to model or educate others on Reducing- Reusing-Recycling-Refusing practices or on circular economies (the topic discussed by my second co-panelist, Tojo Thatchenkery, author of Appreciative Intelligence: Seeing the Mighty Oak in the Acorn, who with two colleagues, developed the Appreciative Intelligence instrument). 

If you’re a more private type, climate action can start by being more present next time you go to the grocery store and, rather than filling your cart on autopilot, experimenting with different items – for example, pick the peanut butter in a glass jar instead of a plastic one. You’ll be surprised how different your fridge and your pantry will look in a few months. 

If you’re a foodie, have fun experimenting with new vegetarian recipes and local, organic and sustainably produced ingredients – and tell your friends about it. Climate action no longer requires us to be loud, extroverted, risk-takers, angry or radical. Living in alignment with our natural world can be a life-giving display of strengths. 

Action starts within 

Using life-giving language and asking generative questions about climate change, visualizing the thriving world we want to live in, appreciating climate solutions that already exist and honoring our positive core as our best form of climate action are all tools that AI offers to build climate resilience. With all of these suggestions, let’s remember to ask, “what is the tiniest step you can take right now?” We are not looking for final solutions or big changes all at once. Climate resilience is not about getting rid of our difficult emotions to jump into action. It is about developing coping skills, new mindsets and shifting lifestyles the same way we would to manage a chronic illness. It’s about experimenting, learning, adjusting and being self-compassionate in the process. Climate action starts within. 

Intro by Keith Storace

In her four-part series “A Practitioner’s Journey to Living with Climate Change”, Alex Arnold has advocated for a transformative approach to climate resilience and action grounded in the principles of Appreciative Inquiry. She has emphasised the significance of positive language, values-driven questioning, hopeful focus, and aligning actions with personal strengths as tools to build climate resilience and inspire change from within. Alex’s final article in this series, “Climate Action Starts Within”, focuses on the five core principles of Appreciative Inquiry, emphasising that positive conversations about climate change can foster hope and inspire action. I would like to thank Alex for her depth of knowledge and the inspirational outlook she has shared throughout this valuable and timely series! 

Also, in this issue of AI Practitioner, Dr Nick Heap presents his work and focus on “Naturalising Appreciative Inquiry” where he emphasises that, by shifting our perspective towards positive interactions and shared experiences, we can foster deeper human connections and inspire hope. Contemplating key questions and sharing uplifting stories, such as moments of happiness, can help bridge cultural or organisational divides. Simple daily practices, like acknowledging a smile, can be a step towards embedding AI into our daily lives, cultivating a world with more love, understanding and cooperation. 

It is my pleasure to present Alex Arnold and Dr Nick Heap and their insightful work!

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