The state of the climate is indeed perilous but contrary to the prevailing pessimistic narratives, we have seen major improvements since the signing of the Paris accord. This includes climate emergency declarations around the world, the climate advocacy of young activists like Greta Thunberg, and mass public protests. We have witnessed the proliferation of climate groups like the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion. We have also seen leadership from countries around the world (Sweden, the UK, Denmark, Norway, Morroco, and Chile)*. In the U.S. politicians like Washington Governor Jay Inslee promoted the Green New Deal and drove climate change to the top of the agenda in the U.S. Democratic primaries. The election of President Joe Biden in 2020 also represents a major improvement in global efforts to address the climate crisis.
The rapid rise in environmental, social, and good governance priorities are optimistic signs that signal a change in thinking is taking place in both governments and businesses, This is the view of Gaya Herrington, the Sustainability and Dynamic System Analysis Lead at KPMG in the U.S.
From energy to efficiency we are seeing reasons for optimism The fossil fuel industry is increasingly under siege from the courts, investors, banks, and insurers. We are consistently outpacing projections for installed renewable energy development and electric vehicles will soon be mainstream. There are even hopeful advances that bode well for the future of high-carbon industries like steel and concrete.
The case for optimism is being made by climate scientists like Michael Mann, Katharine Hayhoe, and Andrea Dutton. It is also the central premise of an article titled “More reasons for optimism than we have Seen in Two Decades” by climate experts Gabi Mocatta, and Rebecca Harris. They describe what they call a “groundswell of change” and they point to global polls that show almost two-thirds (64 percent) of respondents consider the climate crisis a “global emergency” and more than 2,800 scientists and1,990 jurisdictions in 34 countries have formally made similar declarations.
In a Guardian article, Rebecca Solnit has also made the case for climate optimism, albeit cautiously. She supports her argument by pointing to the Green New Deal, as well as advances in science and technology (eg energy storage). She cites optimistic projections including the prediction that there will be 145 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030. She explains that just because change is hard to envision does not mean it is not possible:
“That we cannot see all the way to the transformed society we need does not mean it is impossible. We will reach it by not one great leap but a long journey, step by step. If we see how impossible our current reality might have seemed 20 years ago – that solar would be so cheap, that Scotland would get 97% of its electricity from renewables, that fossil fuel corporations would be in freefall –we can trust that we could be moving toward an even more transformed and transformative future and that it is not a set destination but, for better or worse, what we are making up as we go. Each shift makes more shifts possible. But only if we go actively toward the possibilities rather than passively into the collapse.”
Combating despair with action
It is understandably hard to hope when recent history offers us a plethora of reasons to despair. In the U.S. the GOP has succeeded in delaying climate action, their toxic combination of science denial and racism culminated in lies, a coup attempt, and an insurrection under the leadership of the former president. Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that a large minority of people continue to support the failed presidency and dismal legacy of President Biden’s predecessor. Even more concerning is the GOP”s ongoing efforts to sell the Big Lie of election fraud and foment authoritarianism through voter suppression.
While it is often hard to see as it is unfolding, sometimes good things come from bad. Trump and Covid are good illustrations of tragedies that may contribute to a better world. As paradoxical as this may seem, recent events offer valuable lessons to anyone who is receptive to facts. Even the deadly Coronavirus may have a silver lining. While it is as yet uncertain that we will learn from COVID-19, there is reason to believe that the pandemic may augur hope for climate action and may help to herald a paradigm change. Just as we value life more in the face of death, we may come to value democracy and truth more now that they are under attack. Perhaps we will also value our planet more now that a significant majority of the world has acknowledged the perilousness of our situation.
Jeff Goodell a contributor to Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets, made the case for hope in 2019. When Goodell wrote his piece the world was on fire and awash with floods, two years later we are experiencing more of the same. “It’s not easy to feel hopeful at this dark hour,” Goodell wrote. He nonetheless pointed to the protestors and politicians that are “stepping up and fighting for the future we want”. Goodell thinks we may have finally acknowledged the extent of the threat and summoned the moral courage to act. He also made the following optimistic prediction for 2029:
“[W]hen the climate revolution is fully underway and Miami Beach real estate prices are in free-fall due to constant flooding, and internal combustion engines are as dead as CDs, people will look back on the fall of 2019 as the turning point in the climate crisis. At the very least it will be remembered as the moment that it became clear that people were not going to give up their future on a habitable planet without a damn good fight.”
Goodell wrote his piece before the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. A strong argument can be made in support of the view that the combination of the deadly iteration of the coronavirus and the former American president has exposed the fault lines of a broken civilization that may impel us to act on multiple fronts. Rather than lead to apathy and avoidance, despair and uncertainty can auger action and give us reason to hope. Ben Piven is another writer who has made the case for hope. He acknowledges that climate change can be overwhelming but he adds: “[T]hose of you who fear it’s too late to change the planet’s fortunes, take heart. Because some experts think humanity can still turn things around for Mother Earth.”
A study conducted by Herrington finds that technological progress and increased investments in public services could avert the risk of collapse, and lead to a new stable and prosperous civilization operating safely within planetary boundaries. Herrington points to the rapid rate at which we developed vaccines for Covid-19 as an illustration of human capabilities. “The necessary changes will not be easy and pose transition challenges but a sustainable and inclusive future is still possible,” she wrote.
Stubborn optimism and the fierce urgency of now
Fourteen thousand scientists recently signed a declaration warning that we are in the midst of a global climate emergency and they warned us of untold suffering if we ignore climate change. This is consistent with a large body of scientific evidence that clearly calls for urgent action, While there is still time to avert a climate catastrophe, we are running out of time. We are an often irrational species so it is far from a foregone conclusion that we will do what we must within the time we have.
As explained by Mark Carney, the Head of Impact Investing at Brookfield Asset Management and former Governor of the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, those who fail to heed the call to action will fail. However, government and corporate leaders who drag their feet to protect their short-term financial interests could take us all with them. We don’t have the time to wait for them to wake up. As Bill Mckibben said, “winning slowly on climate change is losing”.
We know what must be done, but to do it we must marshal popular support that will unlock the political will to act at the required scale. The effort to address this threat is emboldened by the hope that we can succeed. The belief that we can accomplish something meaningful (ie avert the collapse of civilization) is not merely wishful thinking it reflects the best science we have. It also contributes to building the critical mass we require. It takes more than courage to hope for a better world, as Greta said “hope requires action“.
Christiana Figueres is an advocate of stubborn optimism which she sees as a catalyst for action and change. Figueres was executive secretary of the United Nations framework convention on climate change and she was instrumental in the signing of the Paris climate accord in 2015. She has expressed an unshakeable determination to fight for the generations that will come after us and she urges everyone to envision and work for the future they want for humanity. She recently spoke to the urgency of collection action saying:
“This decade is a moment of choice unlike any we have ever lived. All of us alive right now share that responsibility and that opportunity. The optimism I’m speaking of is not the result of achievement, it is the necessary input to meeting a challenge. Many now believe it is impossible to cut global emissions in half in this decade. I say we don’t have the right to give up or let up.”
As Greta wrote on Twitter, “We need to stop focusing on dates and numbers and actually accept and acknowledge the fact that we need to reduce our emissions right now. We can talk about 2030 or 2040 as much as we want. But it is what we are doing now that really matters.”
We are likely to blow past 1.5 C above preindustrial temperature norms, but with a consorted effort we can stay below 2C, and over time we may be able to siphon enough carbon out of the atmosphere to get back down below the 1.5 C. Mann is among those who believe we will.
“I’m committed to the belief that there will be a moment, perhaps not in the too distant future, where the political winds writ large will be more favorable. I think at that point, we will see the tipping point on climate action because the groundwork has been laid, the scientific case is compelling, nature is compelling, and nature is communicating the profound impacts of climate change directly to us, and that means we’ll be able to hit the ground running,” Mann said last summer.
There is reason to believe that we may finally do what needs to be done. However, the urgency of the need for immediate climate action cannot be overstated. It’s now or never, this is our last chance, if we do not do what we must in the coming years it will be too late. We are faced with a stark choice between the path of hope or the path of surrender. The road ahead is arduous and uncertain but we do not have the right to succumb to pessimism. Stubborn optimism is only a downpayment on the debt we owe to future generations.
* As determined by the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI).