Is Optimism Detrimental for the Climate Crisis?

Optimism is only warranted if we use it to drive further, faster, and deeper.

Activists hold signs as they participate in the Power Shift '09 rally on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol March 2, 2009 in Washington, DC. Youth activists called for urgent congressional actions on climate change, energy and the economy.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last week, oil majors suffered a slew of defeats, both in the courts and in shareholder battles, and the Australian government was also found legally responsible for the well-being of future generations. It prompted some within the climate movement to declare that the game had changed and to grapple with a feeling that’s sometimes in short supply: optimism. 

True, ice caps are melting faster than ever. Yes, national and international climate pledges are still far short of what they need to be. And yet, there is undoubtedly a temptation to declare—as Christiana Figueres recently wrote for CNN—that the wind is now at our backs, at least in terms of mainstream culture taking this threat seriously. 

It all gave me a certain sense of déjà vu. Way back in 1997, I was a young undergraduate student. I was deeply involved in environmental activism and concerned even then about the growing threat of climate change. While we protested and wrote letters, planted trees, and (occasionally) blocked roads, we were up against a media and political narrative that suggested resistance was largely pointless. So-called "developing" countries would just keep developing, and already industrialized nations would never sacrifice their economies for the sake of spotted owls. 

And yet the Kyoto Protocol was signed that year, to much fanfare. And even the cynical, anti-establishment hippy in me breathed a tentative sigh of relief. After all, if our political leaders could recognize that there is no healthy economy without a healthy environment, they would surely now have to enact reforms and incentives, penalties and policies that would gradually start moving the needle in the right direction. 

Wouldn’t they?

Well, some of us are old enough to know how that worked out. On March 28, 2001, then-president George W. Bush effectively torpedoed the Kyoto Protocol, and international climate politics never quite looked the same again. And yet that wasn’t the last time we felt this thing called hope. We saw, for example, a huge upsurge in support for climate action when former vice president Al Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth" was released, with even Newt Gingrich posing for an ad with Nancy Pelosi, and calling for government-level change:

Once again, I was left optimistic that things would be different. And yet, that optimism didn’t last either. Gingrich would later call the ad the single stupidest thing he had done in his career, and the decade or so that followed was marked by deep political polarization, international discord, and a failed climate treaty in Copenhagen—not to mention a concerted political effort to undermine the very real societal benefits of clean energy

So what’s the lesson here for those of us who once again feel the pang of hope? Are we simply naïve? Should we assume that nothing will come of it? Still, an incurable optimist, while I understand the temptation, I would urge us all not to give up on the sense that things might be turning for the better. But I would also argue that we cannot allow optimism to turn into complacency. The real truth is that this fight was always going to be messy, it was always going to be contested, and the progress made was never going to make itself known in obvious or linear trends—certainly not in real-time.
The fact is that incredible progress has indeed been made since 1997. We’ve seen the cost of renewable energy plummet. We’ve seen carbon emissions fall dramatically in some nations. We’ve seen the coal industry collapse in many quarters and the politics of fossil fuels have shifted as a result. Yes, these trends are not yet manifesting in a global reduction in emissions just yet, but they are exactly what would need to be happening just before such a reduction in emissions became apparent. 

And that, really, is the lesson. Optimism is only warranted if we use it to drive further, faster, and deeper. In other words, we need to transform it into determination.
It’s healthy to celebrate our victories. And it’s good to take a break from the relentlessly bleak headlines about the ongoing crisis. But we also need to recognize that we have a terrifying amount of work left to do.

While once upon a time the Kyoto Protocols could have kickstarted a concerted and somewhat manageable effort to transition our economies, that luxury is no longer with us. As risk analysis consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft recently warned investors and institutions, a "disorderly transition" to a low carbon future is now all but inevitable. 

So yes, the optimism I felt as a teenage activist was possible grossly misplaced—or at the very least incomplete. And yet that same spark is something I refuse to give up on now. Instead, this time, I am determined to transform it into (renewable) fuel for real, sustained change. 

That means supporting organizations that hold our governments and the powerful to account. It means continuing to speak out for bold and aggressive climate action and environmental justice. And it means finding my place within a movement that is bigger and more complex than any one of us can even understand

OK, let’s get back to work. 

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