Power of Optimism: don’t lose hope in the face of climate change

There’s plenty of negative information out there about the impacts of climate change – so much so, that many people are starting to question the value of conservation efforts. Although there is a lot of publicity and research surrounding the topic, it might seem like nothing is happening – the oceans are still acidifying, more species are going extinct every year, and every year the Earth is hit with new, record-breaking heat waves. With the UN’s latest climate report warning of a catastrophic effects early as 2040 – unless “unprecedented” action is taken to prevent it – how are we to reconcile our wanting to save the planet with the small, seemingly insignificant actions that we, as individuals, are able to do. After all, if there any point in recycling if the Earth is doomed anyway? Have we lost?

No. Absolutely not.

While threats like habitat loss, pollution, over-harvesting, and poaching are certainly despairing, we need to remember that every single day there are positive changes happening, and victories are won where things one seemed hopeless. The driving force behind these changes? People. Everyday people, just like you and me, united by a common goal, and a hope, which gives them the courage to believe and keep fighting, even when the odds seem insurmountable. At the risk of sounding like a hippie, I would like to argue that hope is crucial to the conservation movement – and when it feels like all hope is in vain, that’s when we need it more than ever.

” The best antidote to feeling powerless is activism. It doesn’t make you less sad, but adds hope, solidarity and love.”

Bill McKibben, climate activist

Hope and mental health.

The increasing visibility of climate change, and the bleak scientific reports surrounding the issue, can take a serious emotional toll on people, especially the younger generation. I’ve experienced this myself: the feeling of being thrown into a raging problem and somehow being responsible for fixing it – this can feel overwhelming, especially when all of nature and humanity are at stake. Some mental health experts have even coined a new term: “climate grief”, to describe the feelings of depression, anxiety and mourning over the apparent hopelessness of climate change.

 According to a Yale survey from 2018, the proportion of Americans who are “very worried” about global warming has more than doubled since its lowest point in 2011, but few are actually confident that humans can combat it. This means a lot of people are left with a feeling of uncertainty, or even resignation, about the future. They worry about the implications for the health and safety of their families. These effects are most evident in young people, many of whom are now struggling with the ethical implications of having children.

This kind of resignation is detrimental to mental health. Climate change is a global issue, and the weight of responsibility and helplessness to stop it can be crushing. We feel sadness over the loss of animal species, anxiety over the unknown, worry that there might not be enough food in the future – and the increased levels of stress can get reflected in physical health as well. So what can we do?

A lot of the sadness over climate change comes from a feeling of inaction, but this sadness is, in itself, the primary cause of inaction, extinguishing all hope and leaving us to mope alone as we wait for the world to end. If we let the sadness consume us, we most certainly will not get anything done! Now, I know it is not fair to tell someone to suck it up and be happy, but it’s important to understand that many of us feel this way. A lot of people have the same fears and anxieties over climate change. A lot of us are scared. By realizing that, we can start to work together to find comfort in this shared anxiety, and the motivation to push past it. Climate activists are everywhere now, so find them! The more you engage with your community, and meet other people who are just as concerned with climate change as you are, the more motivated you will be. Working together is not only essential for the success of our efforts, it also provides a supportive network, so that no one has to feel like they are facing the world’s problems alone.

The best place to start making connections is in your own community, but if you are ever feeling lonely and want to chat about climate, nature, animals, or anything else, you can always send me an email as well! And if you are really struggling with climate-related anxiety or depression, there are lots of resources out there. For example, the Good Grief Network offers programs to help people deal with collective grief — issues that affect a whole society, like racism, mass shootings and climate grief. You are not alone!

It’s not you, it’s the corporations… or is it?

People talk a lot about changes on the individual level – reusable straws, canvas grocery bags, turning off the lights, etc. Of course, all of these are important. But at the end of the day, a good portion of the global carbon emissions, plastic waste and pollutants are emitted by big corporations. A Carbon Majors Report, released in 2017 by the Climate Accountability Institute, found that more than 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 – the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established – can be traced back to just 100 companies! ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron were identified among the highest emitting investor-owned companies. If fossil fuels continue to be extracted at the same rate, the report predicts global average temperatures would be on course to rise by 4°C by the end of the century.

“No company has, to date, committed to align itself with reducing its own emissions and its production and sale of products in line with science-based targets of 1.5°C, which is what the new UN report examines.”

Richard Heede, Principal of Climate Mitigation Services

However, this report has one major downfall: it makes no distinction between operational emissions (which companies are directly responsible for), and the downstream emissions caused by regular people using products the corporations sell, making it really easy to misrepresent the results.

The truth is, these 100 corporations are producing the fossil fuels that we all use. It’s easy to point the finger and say that large corporations must bear all the responsibility for our carbon economy, because they’re in the driver’s seat about which resources are extracted and marketed. But to be clear, it’s the consumers that actually produce the demand for fossil fuels. The companies may have some responsibility for their product, but combatting climate change is not going to be as easy as regulating or shutting down a few bad actors, with no pain or sacrifice from the rest of us.

A lot of things we do cost energy, so cutting down on our use is an important first step towards reducing carbon emission. Small things can have huge impacts: turning off the lights, air-drying clothes in the summer, using less hot water — these commitments are free for us, and can save several hundred pounds in CO2 emissions per year. Of course, that alone won’t help if all of our energy continues to be derived from fossil fuels. Every part of society has to participate for change to happen: citizens, corporate leaders, local politicians – everyone has to play their part. 

This is where optimism comes into play again. Being optimistic implies being a positive, constructive, and creative thinker. We need to adapt to the situation by finding new, creative solutions, building networks, and experimenting. On one hand, companies need to invest in new research and designs to maximize energy efficiency in buildings, cars etc., but we as consumers need to create a demand for these products, and boycott the companies that refuse to be climatically responsible!

Investors also play a big part, as they can choose not to invest in fossil fuel companies in the first place. This is happening more and more: Shell is a good example, with a commitment to invest 1 to 2 billion  dollars a year in renewables. Most of these proposals are still too weak, but shareholders ought to be pushing for this change, demanding that corporate management address climate change.

Humans have a great capacity for innovation, intelligence and compassion – now we need to put it to use. By working together we will collectively help solve this problem, or at least avoid the worst of what climate change has to offer.

Voting is a civic duty.

Pledging commitment to the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle mantra is important, but given that people can just opt out of making these choices we also need a structural ways to implement changes, which requires new laws and legislations to keep both companies and individuals accountable. We need to elect better political leaders, that are conscious of the climate crisis emerging and willing to do something about it. First world countries in particular are the primary responsible party for increased CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, so the burden to implementing changes, politically and individually, lies with us and with our leaders.

So vote!! Get to know your political candidates, and tell them that you don’t want to be burning fossil fuel electricity anymore; you want to participate in a renewable energy program! Send a letter asking, “What are you doing to reduce our country’s carbon footprint?”

We can’t just screw in an energy-efficient lightbulb and say, “That’s all I’m doing.” I mprovements in the household sector and personal consumption are big components, they won’t solve the problem to the degree that we need. We need leadership that puts a price on carbon. We need leadership that supports sane energy policies. You have the power to voice your opinion so do it – don’t let other people decide this for you!

Improvements in the household sector and personal consumption are big components, they won’t solve the problem to the degree that we need. We need leadership that puts a price on carbon. We need leadership that supports sane energy policies.

PS: did you know that you can write directly to your MP, the ministers of Environment and Climate Change, Fisheries and Oceans, or even the Prime Minister? All of their emails can be found on the Canadian Government website.

Staying a realist.

Optimism itself cannot work alone – it has to be based is realistic actions and mindset. Climate change is a huge problem, and it will not get fixed overnight, even if every person in the world full-heartedly committed to the cause. The process has already started, and some of the consequences will continue to be felt years after the root cause gets addressed. We need to accept that, and develop strategies to deal with things like food shortages, disease resurgence, and natural disasters, all while working towards a sustainable future. And we need to stay hopeful that we will succeed!

The way I see it, we can either have hope and work together to leave behind a better legacy for our children and grandchildren, of face the alternative, which is really no alternative at all. It might often feel like nothing is getting better, but if we succumb to that feeling then, indeed, we will get nothing done. So when you feel like a small, insignificant piece of carbon in a vast, uncaring universe, find someone who feels the same way attempt to do something together, rather than saying, “My actions don’t matter anyway.” Because they do matter! They matter symbolically. They matter financially. They matter morally. It wasn’t our choice to be born into a doomed world, but it is our choice to save it.


Marine biologist, nature enthusiast, and artist on a mission to promote ocean education and conservation 🌊

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  1. It’s nonsense to say “it is our choice to save it,” referring the doomed world – there is absolutely no evidence for that capacity, potential, effect, ambition, whatever. That’s messianic thinking , promoted by religions, the academic-industrial complex, celebrity spiritualists, and the fossil fuel burning tech corporations.
    Back on planet earth, humans will have to reject that and just get busy living with climatastrophe – as you seem to understand well.

    1. perhaps I used a bit of hyperbole there with the “doomed world”, but in general I think you misunderstand my point. Yes we need to accept that things have already gone too far, and learn to respond to natural disasters better. BUT, we should not let it get worse. Whether we just sit back and watch the carbon levels in the atmosphere slowly climb, or actually do everything in our power to prevent it, that is up to us. Actually it’s more of a responsibility than a choice.

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