Climate Optimism

It’s not going well.

After all-time heat records were shattered worldwide during heat waves across all continents and ongoing wildfires eradicated 5 % of the entire forest area of Canada, 2023 will be the hottest year ever recorded (1.43°C above the 1850-1900 pre-industrial average to date). At the same time, it feels like nobody is really listening to the scientists who have been warning about the consequences of burning fossil fuels for decades. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster than ever, the fossil fuel industry is making record profits (I don’t need to look for a link for that one, right?) and – despite all the greenwashing – is investing billions into new oil and gas projects. Meanwhile, governments in Germany and elsewhere are still subsidizing fossil fuels and even invested billions into gas and oil to prevent an energy crisis brought about by one of the world’s major gas exporting countries by inflicting war on a neighboring country. And now, the highest German court has ruled a €60 billion climate fund unconstitutional, because reallocating unused debt from the COVID-19 pandemic for climate action and the green energy transition “does not satisfy the constitutional requirements for emergency borrowing.“ Well…

It’s not going well. There’s no denying it.

But there’s also simply no alternative to rapidly changing our energy sectors, agriculture, housing, and transportation systems, if we want to avoid the most severe impacts of global warming. So what can we do? Repeat the warnings and share ever more depressing news about the growing impact of a rapidly changing climate? This did raise awareness for the problem in the past, but it also creates feelings of guilt and powerlessness, even in the most determined amongst us. Or, even worse, fear paralysis.

As Jason Kottke writes, “climate scientist Kate Marvel is done warning people about the problems with our climate and has moved on to highlighting our success in combatting it.” Why? Because, as grim as the outlook might seem, there are also lots of reasons to be optimistic:

In the last decade, the cost of wind energy has declined by 70 percent and solar has declined 90 percent. Renewables now make up 80 percent of new electricity generation capacity.

As a result, Portugal just ran on 100% renewable energy for six days in a row and China’s CO2 emissions may be falling already, seven years ahead of their already ambitious schedule.

Humans are allergic to change. And, as Jeremy impressively demonstrated, we tend to overlook the changes that happen more gradually. We want the Big Bang, the sudden change, the headline that reads, “successful nuclear fusion solves climate change for good.” But that’s (usually) not how change works. Change often happens gradually, first very slowly, and then, once it reaches a certain threshold, it can happen overnight. The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed yet. Another reason to be hopeful.

But the most important reason is that humans thrive on stories. We need them to guide us. Stories, in particular shared stories within a group, unite us in our endeavors and lead the way when things get tough. And herein lies the power of the narrative that there is indeed a way forward, a way out of this mess into a more healthy and less deadly future. It works for everyone: Suddenly, being a climate activist doesn’t mean to be against something or someone (okay, let’s still be against fossil fuel companies). Suddenly, being a climate activist means being for something, rewarding your dopamine system with little steps towards a worthwhile goal: bringing about positive change now.

I could still tell you scary stories about a future ravaged by climate change, and they’d be true, at least on the trajectory we’re currently on. But it’s also true that we have a once-in-human-history chance not only to prevent the worst effects but also to make the world better right now. It would be a shame to squander this opportunity. So I don’t just want to talk about the problems anymore. I want to talk about the solutions. Consider this your last warning from me.

It’s not going well. But that’s about to change.

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