It’s Okay to Get Stuff Wrong


By: Alex Lee

Photo by Adam Clark

Jumping into climate conversations can feel a bit like having a go at a new sport. It’s scary, uncomfortable, and uncertain. But it’s also worth it.

Sometime late in the summer of 2012, I sat in a packraft, teetering through rolling white water certain my doom was just over the next wave crest. It was one of my first times boating, and I was loaded up with climbing gear floating out of the eastern Alaska Range. “Joe, I’m sinking!” I remember shouting through the tempest to the buddy in front of me. He looked back with a grin, “Actually, you’ve got a pretty good float!” 

Alex Lee packrafting in Denali National Park

The waves soon subsided and flat water guided us down the valley. I was clumsy, unsure, slow, and indecisive in the boat. But I made it. Over the subsequent decade, I’ve gotten better at packrafting, but I love being bad at stuff. Sure, it’s great to hone a skill, perfect a craft, or top a field, but taking on new challenges opens the door to learning and growth. I realized this only after spending a good bit of my early adulthood rolling through grad school exams while relishing an alpine skillset hard earned through bad decisions in my youth, only to find I had more questions than answers both in the classroom and in the mountains. I am an environmental philosopher and I study moral obligations and environmental change. I love that in philosophy, the journey to the answer can be just as important as where you land. Philosophy aims to clarify questions, understand arguments, and unpack assumptions, all ways to investigate what we don’t know as much as what we do. I also love that as a mountain athlete, there is always a new peak to explore, a new sport to try, and new experiences to find on any given day.

Alex Lee exploring a new peak in Alaska

‘Try new things’ might sound like a well-trodden, boring, and obvious lesson, but it still holds untapped wisdom for all of us imperfect climate advocates. The same fear that tells us to stay in our comfort zone can make it difficult to talk about the things we care about. What if someone disagrees? What if I’m wrong? The truth is that none of us are experts on every aspect of climate science or policy—when we stand up for climate action, we are stepping out on a ledge and, of course, get some stuff wrong and, yes, people will disagree. But jumping in is also empowering. It is a chance to express our values, engage with our community, and learn along the way.

A couple of weeks back, I spoke at a POW-sponsored get-out-the-vote event in Anchorage, Alaska with Athlete Alliance Member and U.S. Olympian Gus Schumacher. Gus also recently testified before Congress as a skier concerned about climate change. As some may have seen, Gus was ‘gotcha-ed’ on CO2 by a climate-denying senator during his testimony in D.C. (John Kennedy R-LA). Gus, of course, was not testifying as a climate scientist, but as an athlete who cares deeply about our winter environment. He shared his first-hand experience seeing climate change impact training and competition, but when pressed on a bit of climate science, he undeniably got some stuff wrong. Back on stage in Alaska, Gus made light of the tense exchange at the Capitol by saying he has now learned quite a bit more about the carbon cycle. Gus didn’t shy away from his experience but encouraged all of us to jump into tough conversations even if we might mess up. I found this inspiring. The lesson is not ‘hey, learn more climate science,’ but rather, engage with the conversation wherever you are at—we need good facts to move the climate conversation forward, but you can speak to your expertise and your experience better than anyone else. Learn on the way, grow on the way, and don’t be afraid if you sometimes get a few details wrong, it comes with the territory.

Gus Schumacher testifying before Congress in April 2024 | Photo by Sam Masters

It’s easy to think we need all the answers to be effective in any conversation, but none of us can ever paint the full picture of climate change. A truly great thing about the POW community is that if we can each share powerful stories from our own perspectives, expertise, sport, and endeavors, then together, we can bring a picture into focus through a collective wealth of knowledge and lived experience. It’s always okay to say “I don’t know” in a conversation. It’s okay to be wrong in a conversation. The worst that happens is you learn something new. No one can hold the weight of a challenge like climate change alone, together we can find an opportunity for our voices to each fill their own gap. Be confident knowing that you can lean on other climate stories or climate experts when you need to. 

Unpacking values, communication, and priorities when it comes to climate, I see an old philosophical problem rear its head in how disagreement often bubbles up. Fortunately, it can also offer a way to jump in like Gus.

The Scottish Philosopher David Hume wrote ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’ in 1740 (sorry, can’t help it, I’m a philosophy professor), with an ambitious goal of explaining human nature using scientific reasoning (hey it was 1740, this was cutting edge stuff!). In perhaps his most famous observation, Hume points out a gap between two ways people talk about the world. We describe the world, talk about how it might be, see trends, and look for patterns. These descriptions are a different kind of claim, Hume says, from prescriptions for the world, statements about how the world should be, what’s best, and what’s good or bad.

The problem is that we often use descriptions of how the world ‘is’ to tell us how the world ‘ought’ to be without explaining why. For example, suppose I see six chairs at the dining room table- “there are six chairs” describes something in the world. If I then think, there ought to be six chairs at the table, this introduces something new, because it’s a normative claim that depends in part on where the ‘ought’ comes from: why ought there be six chairs? Do I need six chairs for something? Was I promised six chairs?…afterall, maybe the sixth chair I saw was just borrowed for a special occasion and doesn’t quite fit. Suppose it snowed less than it did last year, and I say it should have snowed more: I might mean something like historically it used to snow more (a description of the past that I could explain in the data), or that I wish it snowed more (a claim about what I care about that I could defend further). Facts and values express different aspects of the world, we need both. 

Climate science gives us really good descriptions of how the world looks and models that predict how the world might look in the future. This helps us understand the climate challenges we face, policy options we can explore, and what’s ahead. We need the data, but you don’t need to be an expert in those climate stories to be an expert in your story. The accuracy of our facts reflects how well our descriptions correspond to the world (that’s what climate scientists work so hard to get right), but our values emerge from how we see the world, what we care about, and what our goals might be – we all have something worth sharing when it comes to why we care about our climate. 

POW Athlete Alliance & Board member Hilary Hutcheson finding connection and sharing climate stories at a POW Summit | Photo by Donny O’Neill

This is good news for us imperfect advocates because while we might get facts wrong, we can’t get values wrong, so long as we are speaking about what we care about. If I tell someone I am worried about climate change and care about my environment, they might see things differently, but they can’t really say I am wrong. This is always a great place to start tough conversations. I wish it snowed more, I am worried about glacial recession, species loss, and coastal erosion. I want clean energy, a clean environment, and a sustainable economy. I want my daughter to be able to ski when she is my age. These are things I care about. 

It’s easy to let fear, discomfort, or the malaise of the well-known hold us back from exploring beyond our horizons, but if we wait for certainty and comfort, we will wait forever. We have to keep paddling through to find calm water. Advocacy is messy. Go ahead and get stuff wrong, don’t worry we can get it right together.

This blog post was made possible by

Alex Lee

Author: Alex Lee

Alex Lee is a writer, skier, climber, gardener, wanderer of wild places, fisherman, dog walker, and environmental philosopher. Alex studies moral obligations and environmental problem solving as Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Institute of Culture and Environment at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, Alaska. He earned his Ph.D. in environmental ethics from the University […]