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Is it possible to be a climate optimist? The case for hope in the climate fight

Photography By JEREMY BISHOP, IVAN OBOLENINOV
Published 15.10.21

Fear has always been a popular motivator. 

From the moment we’re born our parents and guardians begin a lifetime quest to scare us straight. We’re bombarded with information about all the things that could hurt us: drinking, drugs, fast cars, faster sex and jay walking are presented as pathways to destruction. With that context, it’s not surprising that we’ve adopted a similar approach for climate change. 

The power (and limitations) of fear

Since the 1960s climate scientists and activists have presented dystopian scenes of what the world could look like if we don’t commit to emissions reductions and drastically change the way we live. This tendency towards doom is understandable. The news is scary and, in theory, fear is a great motivator. 

The media, climate scientists and activists have long leveraged fear as a way to inspire people to do more. In many ways this has been a success. But as anyone involved in activism work will attest, it’s also leading to less favourable outcomes.  

The climate trauma fallout

For every budding activist stirred to action there are countless other individuals overwhelmed by despair. Recently this played out in the wake of the IPCC report. In the days after the data was made public, we were bombarded with terrifying predictions for how the future would look. On the surface that spike in collective anxiety could be viewed as a twisted form of success. It highlighted how people around the world are listening to the science and talking about topics like carbon emissions in their own communities. But on closer inspection, the fear-focused reporting had an unintended impact. Rather than calling on each other to organise and act, the broad public response was heartbreak and, chillingly, resignation.  

What else we learned from the IPCC report

While the IPCC report dominated public and private conversation for a few days, the rush of attention largely failed to sustain a noticeable shift in broader plans or changes. As journalist Liza Featherstone observed, “the chatter around the IPCC report and the report itself still managed to be unhelpful, scaring us to death while missing an opportunity to galvanize us into action.” 

Alaina Wood witnessed that emotional fallout in real time. Better known as @thegarbagequeen on TikTok, she is a sustainability scientist and “climate communicator” who has amassed a huge following (many of whom are very young) for her accessible, solutions-focused, decidedly not terrifying environmental content. She commented to RIISE that afterthe report, and its accompanying wave of terrifying media coverage, “the fear just got played up to an exponential degree on social media…People were messaging me having mental health problems, saying, ‘Hey, do we really only have 20 years left? I’m depressed.’” 

LEWIS PARSONS

Fighting climate apathy 

In her excellent newsletter Heated, climate writer Emily Atkin recently wrote, “The most harmful lie being spread about climate change today is not that it is fake. It’s that nothing you can do can help save the world.” 

She was reflecting a growing opinion in climate communications: that the greatest challenge to this work is no longer climate deniers – it’s disconnection. Something fear has a tricky way of ensuring. 

Again, Wood witnessed this play out in her DMs. “People were like, ‘Well, it’s too late. It’s all bad. Why am I an activist? It’s not worth my time.’” Even though she could hardly be accused of being an alarmist, the intense reaction led Wood to re-evaluate her own relationship to fear. “I wasn’t necessarily spreading climate doom or a lot of fear-based information. But I realised that in addition to the realism of the climate crisis, the fact that it is an emergency, we still need to hear about the positives. Because if people never hear about the positives, they don’t want to get involved.” 

Fourteen-year-old Austin Caetano has been on both sides of this experience: as a young person dealing with this barrage of bad news, but also as a climate organiser and member of School Strike 4 Climate. In that role he’s constantly looking to combat apathy and burnout in future generations. “We’re all scared; we are terrified of what can happen,” he admits. “I definitely think the scary thing does work in some way. I mean it got me into [climate activism].” But like others, he stresses that fear is not a solution on its own.  

The power of climate change hope

In response to this problem of disconnection, anincreasing numberof activists and climate communicators are exploring climate optimism as an alternative way to re-engage their audience and convince them that this is a fight worth joining. 

Wood has already witnessed the difference this approach makes in her own content. “In response to a more positive message I’ve noticed people are saying, ‘Okay, well, how can I get involved in this? How can I help? How can I push these projects forward?’ It goes from inaction to action.” 

Her observation was mirrored in the experience of writer Kate Lindsay, who shared how hope directly inspired a personal journey to activism in her newsletter Embedded. In this case, it was the realistic but not cataclysmic reporting of the aforementioned Atkin that sparked something with the simple assurance: “There will be more opportunities to get it right in the future; more good days for the planet are coming.”  

That glimmer of climate optimist thinking “inspired more interest in sustainability for me than any anxiety-inducing headline ever had. That small flicker of hope—that good climate news exists and the future isn’t as doomed as it seems—prompted me to engage in the online climate change conversation for the first time, subsequently stumbling upon other voices that made me feel energized, rather than paralyzed.” 

BLAKE CHEEK

Balancing climate change optimism and realism

One criticism of climate optimists is that their work could lead to a false sense of security. Maintaining a singular focus on the good can be as destructive as binging on the bad. It puts us at risk of losing sight of what’s at stake, assuming things will be alright and once again lapsing into inaction. 

It’s a catch-22 Wood struggles with personally. “I deal with [criticism over a hopeful focus] all the time. Both from other environmental communicators and just people on the internet saying, ‘You’re leading to people not doing anything because they think,alright, we’ve solved the climate crisis.’” 

The solution is not to ignore the bad altogether, but to strike a balance between optimism – feeling good about the possibilities and progress being made – and the gravity of the situation. 

Responsible climate dialogues require us to face reality – the good and the bad – but find a way to not destabilise people by either. For Wood, that means striking a balance of facts, hope and action. Between her signature good news she offers frank and honest updates on breaking environmental stories. While she doesn’t shy away from distressing updates, she is careful to present them with full context, AKA not just the clickbait friendly quotes.  

But most vitally she also frames this news within a larger conversation about what can be done. “I try my best to have a good balance of ‘Well, here’s a really serious, sad, scary thing.’ But then talk about the solutions, or end in a more positive way so people don’t think that it’s hopeless.” 

The success of this approach is observable in her swelling group of dedicated followers. But it’s also backed by the work of Kris De Meyer, a neuroscientist at King’s College London. Speaking to the BBC world service about the role the media has played in the current attitudes towards climate changes, he explains: “fear only works as a predictable driver of action if you can communicate a scary message and a solution to the fear…and with climate that has been consistently missing. And that’s another reason why fear is not going to do it to get to climate action.” 

Finding our own climate hope

Like many parts of the climate fight, this is an intensely public but also private issue. We need to champion narratives that help people believe in successful outcomes, as well as encouraging individuals to locate hope in their own lives. 

There won’t always be a global good-news report to cling to, so the responsibility falls on us to not simply ask, what gives me hope? But rather, what am I fighting for? 

In response, many look to their children, their homes, the nature they want to protect, and the memories and experiences they want to preserve. But answers don’t need to be complex or lofty. Simple can be brilliant.  

As Caetano concluded when asked how he managed to maintain hope and spread optimism within his work and community: “One of my favorite things to do is I just look up non-polluted places around the world and think, Wow, that’s going to be amazing when that happens for all of us.”

Feeling optimistic and want to join the climate fight? Listen to School Strike 4 Climate’s ‘Naarm Strike’ playlist below.  

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