• Jenna Rines

Making Use of What We Have

If you have been seeing headlines like this, this, and this and have been feeling pretty hopeless lately, know you are not alone. Even in small doses, consuming news and social media these days (or simply being aware of changes in your local weather/environment) makes it quite easy to sink into despair about the climate crisis.

Fortunately, we have amazing leaders who are normalizing this experience and inspiring action:

(Check out Dr. Sawin's whole Tweet thread here.)

However, for many people (and mostly white, privileged people at that), the climate crisis is perceived to be an 'all-or-nothing' problem; that if we don't meet these targets, then we're doomed. To be clear, it's not going to be good if targets are missed - it's why we have them in the first place. Instead, what many climate leaders are calling for is the recognition that the climate crisis truly is a "Matter of Degrees" (borrowing the name of a podcast by Dr. Leah Stokes and Dr. Katharine Wilkinson - link here). Every fraction of action that we can take now will result in less suffering.

As climate experts and leaders share their thoughts on this, I am becoming increasingly aware of the emergence of concepts pulled from outside of climate science to deepen understanding, such as in the example below:

Aside from the example above and the odd academic paper (e.g. Stephen et al., 2018), the idea of taking a 'harm reduction' approach to climate change seems to have mostly been used by the scientific community in contexts that minimize or lack awareness of its roots in safety strategies by people who use drugs. This is unfortunate as it sidesteps the wealth of wisdom and experience that can be learned by the climate change community from those with clinical and lived experience of harm reduction practices.

However, I found a gem of an article by Maia Szalavitz (2021) titled 'How Drug Users Developed a Key Approach to Fighting Covid'. Although centered on the pandemic, Szalavitz makes the case that harm reduction has informed approaches that have saved lives beyond those of people who use drugs:

"Harm reduction is a gift from some of the most stigmatized people in the world. And it will continue to have influence beyond drugs: Epidemiologists promote harm reduction to combat Covid while minimizing pandemic fatigue; environmentalists use it to help cut climate-harming behaviors." - Maia Szalavitz

When abstinence is unrealistic, a harm reduction approach focuses on minimizing risk. Given our fossil fuel predicament, that certainly sounds like something the world could use more of right now. So, while respecting its roots, how might the climate change community learn from harm reduction? Is there a scenario where harm reduction is not 'co-opted' and instead makes space for opportunities to collaborate and engage in knowledge sharing?

Regardless of where you stand on this issue, this mini case study is an example of something that I have been thinking about: What other knowledge and tools do we (as social workers) already have that can be applied to the climate crisis? How do we get this information out to the climate change community and collaborate with others? Because we don't have time to reinvent the wheel, and we already have what we need.

As the newest IPCC report is released, we need this reminder more than ever:

We would love to hear your thoughts on this. Are there areas of social work expertise that you have been able to apply to the climate crisis? We are brainstorming ways to highlight our community's work, so please get in touch with us.

Additionally, to learn more about this field, consider joining our

Post-Graduate Certificate in Environmental Justice for Social Workers:

Climate Work is Social Work

in partnership with Adelphi University this fall!

The live course meets over Zoom from 7 - 9 pm ET for 12 consecutive weeks on Tuesdays, September 14th-November 30th

As always, please help us keep the conversation going by following us on Twitter (@theISWEJ), reaching out to us with your questions using this form, and letting us know how you would like to engage with the ISWEJ in this survey. Thanks for reading!


Heglar, M. A. (2019, September 12). Home is Always Worth It.

IPCC. (2018). Summary for Policymakers. In Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (Eds.), Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.

IPCC. (2021). Summary for Policymakers. In Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S. L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M. I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T. K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu and B. Zhou (Eds.), Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press. In Press.

Stephen, C., Wittrock, J., & Wade, J. (2018). Using a harm reduction approach in an environmental case study of fish and wildlife health. EcoHealth, 15(1), 4-7.

Szalavitz, M. (2021, July 23). How Drug Users Developed a Key Approach to Fighting Covid.

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