By Kermit Hovey

“What does success look like for you?” The UW Madison doctoral student lobbed that query at me to start off a one-on-one Zoom meeting last week. I had said yes to their interview request weeks earlier. Their first discussion question now exploded in my mind as superficially simple, deceptively short, and painfully complex. 

Multiple lines of response came to mind. Success looks like succeeding, solving the main problem, getting recognized, accomplishing what you set out to do, making an impact, always learning, doing something, anything, everything, persuading somebody, anybody, everybody. More specifically to our interview’s focus on recognizing and reporting climate action success stories, it most essentially and conclusively means RCC.

At least that’s one of the things I remember I told her. RCC. Three letters written in big capital letters on a post-it note stuck to the front of my desk-top PC monitor. Short for “Reversing Climate Change”. For most of the more than a decade since I plunged into the deep end of the sustainability, climate change advocacy and creation care pool it has hung there taunting, reminding, inspiring, and focusing. Absurdly aspirational, insanely improbable, ever elusive, this carrot at the end of a stick remains out of reach and tantalizingly in my view. Yet, so important, I continue to strain forward to reach it, to taste it, to see it happen.

I recall in my earliest days of action and advocacy feeling something of a burst of unbridled naive optimism. All I had to do was tell people the truth of the crisis – “Human caused climate change is really happening, really serious, really human caused and we can still really do something about it”. It just “felt” like if I had learned about the problem of climate change, it wouldn’t be that hard for anybody and everybody else to also learn and act.

The scientific case was clear cut back then. It has become increasingly more so over time. Now more and more of us live with the predicted consequences of climate change. Wildfires rage more intensively, extensively, and frequently. Likewise breathtakingly (literally) low air quality spreads with particulate pollution hundreds and even thousands of miles from those flames. Global temperature reaches record high averages as extreme heat waves all but literally fry parts of the planet from North America to Saudi Arabia. Extreme precipitation events, of the sort predicted with climate change, replace road rage with raging torrents. Tropical diseases like malaria, long eradicated from the United States, begin to spread domestically. 

No need to rely on me to recount these stories from the headlines for you. Read, watch, and listen to reliable news sources yourself. Assign credibility to those experts and media that have recognized the increasing severity of the crisis and erred only by not recognizing the problem as even worse than previously thought. Dismiss those denialist voices hiding behind claims that the “climate models” are wrong. Those have been consistently wrong mostly, if not only, in not predicting the full extent, severity and speed of climate change and its consequences.

Unfortunately, action massive enough to truly address the scope of the crisis still escapes the grasp of humanity and its leaders. The fossil fuel industry in particular tries to impede progress with its decades long propaganda campaign sowing doubt and confusion in the face of growing evidence (see Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway for more). Growing evidence long ago justified precautionary action to adopt clean energy and eliminate fossil fuels.

So how can we have climate action success stories if success looks like RCC? By acknowledging that anything and everything we can do to move our world towards it represents success – incremental though it may be. Anything we can do to reduce dirty fossil fuel use and replace it with clean energy sources is a success. Anything we can do to reduce greenhouse gas pollution will reduce the severity of climate change and its consequences. 

Take action locally, globally, politically, economically, individually, and cooperatively. Do what you can and encourage others to do what they can. Campaign, support and vote for leaders willing to take action. Tell them climate action is needed. Reach out to groups like 350 Wisconsin to find out how you can help advocate for the clean energy we need.

Will we succeed? Will it be enough? Will it be soon enough? If we ever want to succeed ultimately, we need to succeed incrementally — drop by drop, step by step. And to succeed incrementally, we need to try! Achieving RCC will reach the even bigger and more ultimate success of a flourishing world with a livable climate for all. To do so will require each of us to succeed uncountable times in uncountable ways, large and small.

So, what does success look like? Foundationally, it looks like trying because if we don’t try, I can guarantee we won’t succeed.


Kermit Hovey is a Climate StewardCitizens’ Climate LobbyistWisconsin Creation Care Climate Advocate, and Middleton Sustainability Committee Member.

An earlier version of this post appeared in the Middleton Times Tribune.