Whether you're looking at headlines or your weather app, there are plenty of reasons to feel pessimistic about the future of this planet—natural disasters like the devastating floods in Nigeria or Australia, and the U.S. experiencing its most active wildfire season in 2022 in more than a decade, to name but a few. Yet a growing number of activists (and everyday people) are feeling the opposite about our climate future. In fact, 57 percent of people globally who participated in the Institut Public de Sondage d'Opinion Secteur (IPSOS) annual Earth Day report for 2022 said they feel optimistic that countries will have made significant progress in reducing climate change in the next 10 years. Heck, Prince William dubbed himself a “stubborn optimist” about the planet’s future in a December op-ed he penned for HuffPost about his Earthshot Prize for climate initiatives.
These are not toxically positive folks burying their heads in the rapidly heating sand. Thanks to a growing list of new policies and improved technologies, we have a fighting chance at addressing the environmental crisis, which is why 2023 is shaping up to be the year that climate optimism breaks through the cloud of “doom and gloom” coverage to shed some light on the progress being made to combat climate change.
“Climate optimism isn’t about denying what we can see with our own eyes, or ignoring our grief for what we’ve lost—it’s recognizing that we have the solutions, public support, political will, and now, funding to tackle climate head on,” says Marcy Franck, author of The Climate Optimist newsletter (which launched in February 2019) from the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“Climate optimism isn’t about denying what we can see with our own eyes, or ignoring our grief for what we’ve lost—it’s recognizing that we have the solutions, public support, political will, and now, funding to tackle climate head on." Marcy Franck, author of The Climate Optimist newsletter
This outlook may be a necessary step in overcoming one of the largest obstacles to tackling the climate crises, what psychologists call “learned helplessness.” “It’s a term that describes a state of mind where people give up and begin to believe that nothing they do will make a difference, which leads to feelings of hopelessness,” says Monica Vermani, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of A Deeper Wellness: Conquering Stress, Mood, Anxiety and Traumas. “Learned helplessness leaves people feeling powerless, but we can replace it with hope and optimism—we can learn to be optimistic by challenging negative self-talk and negative cognitions and reframing feelings of hopelessness.”
If addressing climate change hinges on our collective ability to believe our actions can make a difference, then learning to be more optimistic has the potential to have a significant impact on the measures we take individually and as a global community. This is why how you think about climate change is so important, according to Dr. Vermani. “Optimism impacts our ability to meet challenges and affect change,” she says, citing research that finds a positive correlation between the two, meaning you’re more likely to put in the effort before an event occurs in order to get the outcome you want if you feel hopeful about your prospects.
The media and content you consume can impact your outlook on the world—for better or worse—which is why, when it comes to climate change, optimists are making an effort to raise awareness around stories that show positive progress. “We need to change the narrative—and our mindset—from doom to hope,” Franck says. “It’s hard to find motivation to join the fight if you think your actions are pointless. If you’re feeling doom, it might just be because you’re not aware of all the things that are going right. That’s why we publish The Climate Optimist newsletter. I’ve been writing it for nearly four years, and there’s always more good news than I can fit in a single issue.”
Readership, Franck says, is on the rise, showing an increased interest in climate change coverage from an optimistic lens. “We’ve definitely seen an uptick in subscribers, just in the last year,” she says. “There’s a real hunger for news about communities, cities, and states stepping up to take climate action to counterbalance all the scary headlines.” And there is a lot to be hopeful about on this front at the moment, according to Katharine Hayhoe, author of the national bestseller Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healingin a Divided World. “It’s true that there are reasons to feel optimistic,” she says.
The fact that there’s finally forward motion on funding and legislation to give us a fighting chance against climate change could be the reason there’s a greater sense of climate optimism in the air at the moment.
One recent example of progress is New York voters passing the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act in November—the largest of any in the nation at $4.2 billion. Three more examples on a federal level: “The CHIPS and Science Act [signed into law in August] will spur clean energy innovation and smooth over supply chain issues, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act [enacted last November] provides the means to deploy green technologies at scale,” says Franck. To complete the trifecta, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law this past August. Together, they allocate $514 billion to move away from fossil fuels, Franck adds.
“This is America’s biggest-ever investment in green energy and electrification, and we’re already seeing projects breaking ground,” Franck says. “Our government is working across all agencies and with the private sector to implement this legislation, which will create jobs, lower our energy bills, and improve our health. The IRA alone could save nearly 3,900 lives per year by 2030 and avert up to 100,000 asthma attacks per year, thanks to decreased pollution. Many newly elected officials also have big plans on climate, and are poised to hit the ground running when they are sworn in early next year. ”
Franck also cites the rise of climate optimism on social media led by younger activists—and their rally cry of, “Okay, Doomer”—as a sign of shifting tides. “Thankfully, there’s a new wave of creators on TikTok and YouTube who are also tackling misinformation and are reaching audiences, especially kids in middle and high school, who are suffering under the false narrative that we are doomed,” she says. A TED Talk on climate optimism by activist (and Gen Z influencer) Zahra Biabani has accrued nearly 1.2 million views since the end of July—already almost half the total views of former Vice President Al Gore’s TED Talk on the same topic from 2016.
Biabani is also the author of the forthcoming Climate Optimism: Creating Systemic Change Around the World (being published in April 2023). But if you can’t wait that long to begin deep-diving into the topic, you can pick up a copy of Chris Turner’s How to Be a Climate Optimist: Blueprints for a Better World, which was published in May 2022. Or, there’s All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis (Sept. 2020), a collection of essays edited by marine biologist and policy expert Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, PhD, and climate change activist Katharine Wilkinson, PhD.
"I believe the past decade of doom and apocalyptic messages and media about the climate crisis has led to burnout, fatalism, and less interest in fighting." Leah Thomas, founder of the Intersectional Environmentalist
On Instagram, activist Leah Thomas, author of The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet, says she’s witnessing more interest in optimistic climate change coverage. “We are seeing higher engagement around hopeful and positive environmental stories vs. negative content—so it seems like something that is really resonating with people right now,” she says. “I'm definitely shifting a lot of my work toward joy and hope in the environmental space because that feels authentic to my personal outlook on life, and I think that'll resonate with a new audience of people.”
In particular, she says she hopes that climate optimism will help younger people who are struggling with feelings of burnout around the environmental crises. “There's a study by the agency Futerra that shows that many Gen-Zers experience something called 'climate fatalism’—lack of any hope for the future due to the climate crisis,” Thomas says, “and I believe the past decade of doom and apocalyptic messages and media about the climate crisis has led to burnout, fatalism, and less interest in fighting...We also can't forget about all the intensity of the past two years—from racial movements, a pandemic, global crises and more—people are looking for something to give them hope."
Fortunately, there are several harbingers of hope to feel buoyed by right now. “Before the Paris Agreement [in 2015], the world was headed for a 7 to 9°F warmer world,” Hayhoe says. This range may seem small, but it’s significant, as it will lead to more frequent and extreme heat waves like the ones many parts of the world experienced this past summer, as well as increase the risk of severe droughts in some areas and excessive precipitation in others. Water availability will also become a greater issue at higher temps, among other adverse side effects, according to NASA.
“Now, thanks to policies that countries have already implemented, ranging from the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act to carbon pricing in Canada, Chile, and Sweden to Norway’s EV [electric vehicle] policy, we’re headed for about a 4.5°F warmer world. That’s still not 2.7°F (1.5°C), and the risks are still too high—but it’s a lot better than where we were just eight years ago.” (FYI, 1.5°C is significant because staying beneath that benchmark could stave off the worst, most severe impacts of climate change like those listed above, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).
At the time of this interview, Hayhoe was attending COP 27, the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference hosted in Egypt. “At COP27, there are many conversations, panels, presentations, and discussions highlighting actions already taken or soon to be made,” she says. “I am personally encouraged by all the good news I have heard of actions that are being taken to reduce emissions, invest in nature-positive solutions, and build resilience to the impacts of climate change, all around the world.”
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COP 27 often gets blowback from climate activists for not doing enough and playing too nice with large corporations whose industry practices are notoriously detrimental to the environment. The flack is fair, but COP is also the place where the biggest global players on climate change converge to discuss macro decisions about how to move forward, so what comes out of this gathering has the potential to affect us all.
In particular, this year, countries finally agreed to loss-and-damage funding for vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters, and that the International Capital Market Association has agreed that these countries will automatically be able to freeze debt payments. What’s more: “An increasing number of countries are teaming up with private financial organizations for ‘debt for nature’ swaps, where they refinance their national debt for a much lower interest rate and use the savings to preserve unique ecosystems and carbon-rich biodiversity, such as 30 percent of their marine area [in the Bahamas] or the Galapagos [in Ecuador],” Hayhoe says. “These innovative financial deals carry a one-two punch as they tackle both the climate and the biodiversity crises.”
By definition, optimism is having a hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something. But Hayhoe says that, in the case of climate change, it’s essential to define our hope properly and to understand where it comes from. “Hope is the small chance that, if we try as hard as we can, we can have a better future,” she says, reciting a core belief for climate optimists. “And that hope can only be fuelled by action—ours, and everyone else’s.” Or, to put a solutions-based spin on it, Hayhoe quotes a line from another activist: “As Joan Baez said, ‘the antidote to despair is action.’” ✙
Opening Photo Credit: Stocksy/Danil Nevsky, Hero Photo Credit:Stocksy/Jen Gratham
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