Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File
A wind farm shares space with cornfields in Latimer, Iowa, on Feb. 2, 2020. Marcy Franck, host of "The Climate Optimist" newsletter, says she draws hope from the sight of windmills when she visits family in Iowa. The gently rotating blades translate into clean energy supporting daily life across the region.

Rise of the climate optimists, pushing back against gloom

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Marcy Franck is part of a growing movement of thought leaders who are opting to focus their attention on the positives in humankind’s effort to address climate change. Their message is not just that progress is happening, but also that hope is a crucial enabler of it. Without some focus on hope, the daunting scale of the climate problem can too easily lead toward doomerism, depression, and inaction.

“It’s human nature to focus on the problem,” says Ms. Franck, author of “The Climate Optimist” newsletter, from a branch of Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “But it feels so much better to focus on the solution.”

Why We Wrote This

Against a backdrop of dark or doom-filled outlooks regarding climate change, a rising movement seeks to emphasize hope without sugarcoating the crisis.

The focus on hope – visible in books, podcasts, and nonprofit efforts – is partly a response to pessimism, to a rising sense of feeling either overwhelmed or that there’s nothing humanity can do. One sign of the times: In a 10-nation survey last year, 59% of young people age 16 to 25 said they are extremely or very worried about climate change. 

To take a fatalistic approach is “to risk people throwing up their hands in the air and not doing anything,” says Christopher Barile, a researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno. 

There’s a sense of calmness in rural Iowa. Its beauty isn’t lost on Marcy Franck.

But the beautiful vastness of corn and soybean fields across the horizon isn’t what sticks with Ms. Franck each time she pays a visit to her parents-in-law in the Midwest. Rather, it’s the wind turbines she sees in the distance. It’s the thought of how the machines’ gently rotating blades generate clean energy destined to travel across the region, and into peoples’ lives.

It’s the fact of progress in innovation.

Why We Wrote This

Against a backdrop of dark or doom-filled outlooks regarding climate change, a rising movement seeks to emphasize hope without sugarcoating the crisis.

“They’re an emblem of hope and our future,” Ms. Franck says.

Ms. Franck fashions herself as a prophet of optimism – by job title as well as by her approach to life in what many call the Anthropocene, an epoch of human dominance over the planet. She is the author of “The Climate Optimist” newsletter from the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 

She’s part of a growing movement of thought leaders who are opting to focus their attention on the positives in humankind’s effort to address climate change. Their message is not just that progress is happening, but also that hope is a crucial enabler of it. Without some focus on hope, the daunting scale of the climate problem can too easily lead toward doomerism, depression, and inaction. 

“Being optimistic and having hope, I think, is a practice where you can recenter, focus on the things that are going right, and focus on the solutions that are already taking hold,” Ms. Franck says.

While hard to measure, climate optimism in the United States has become more visible in the past few years. In part it’s a response to pessimism, to a rising sense of feeling either overwhelmed or powerless – that there’s nothing humanity can do. 

One sign of the times: In a 10-nation survey last year published in the health journal The Lancet, 59% of young people age 16 to 25 said they are extremely or very worried about climate change. Confronted with this, the optimists are not dismissing the urgency but arguing that action can make a difference – and that sometimes alarmism has been counterproductive.

Voicing hope, acknowledging anxiety

So, for Ms. Franck, some of her newsletters deal head-on with topics like how to maintain poise amid “the emotional roulette wheel of climate change” while others have pointed to “climate things going right.” 

Other examples of the trend: The book “Generation Dread,” new this year from researcher Britt Wray, tackles how people can strengthen their resilience in the face of eco-anxiety. Podcasters and advocacy groups are working to counter pessimism, as are bloggers inside and outside the environmental realm.

Meanwhile, an initiative called Global Optimism is backed by Christiana Figueres, the former United Nations climate official who helped broker the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate, seeking to convey that the climate crisis is both daunting and “conquerable.”

Markus Schreiber/AP/File
Christiana Figueres, the former U.N. climate secretary who helped forge the 2015 Paris climate agreement and co-founded an organization called Global Optimism, is pictured here in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 20, 2020. The group promotes the message that climate change is daunting but “conquerable.”

Scientists too are pushing back against the notion of a point-of-no-return for the planet. 

“We are not through a threshold or past the threshold,” University of Maine climate scientist Jacquelyn Gill told The Associated Press earlier this year. “There’s no such thing as pass-fail when it comes to the climate crisis.”

Some who track the climate issue say optimists are meeting a genuine need.

If we’re to collectively face the threat of climate change as a whole, “the thinking is that if I can show you a future you want to aspire to, I will unleash your creative energies, and you will strive towards the best,” says Dr. Andrew Hoffman, a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan and the author of “How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate.”

“People should understand the consequences” of global warming, Dr. Hoffman adds, but they can’t stop there. To truly understand is to “take a look at all the possibilities.”

Even as signs of the climate challenge mount, there are indications that innovation is opening new doors and that people can act effectively when they feel agency.

In California, consumers recently saved the state from blackouts during a severe heat wave by responding to an official appeal to curb their energy consumption.  

In July, Texas faced a similar situation. Not only were citizens called into action, the state’s renewable energy sector was also able to step up its production. Data released by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas noted how solar plants provided an additional 8 gigawatts of power to the grid at peak temperatures, contributing 9% more power than the state agency had expected.

Successes such as these, however modest, should be noted more widely, researchers say. Because to take a fatalistic approach is “to risk people throwing up their hands in the air and not doing anything,” says Christopher Barile, a researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno. He recently penned an essay on why scientists must remain optimistic in combating climate change.

Hope may be a boost not just for climate action but also for people’s individual wellness, judging by research on the correlation of optimism with better overall health

“We can actually solve this problem”

As optimism tussles with doubts in public thought, the question looms: Can we define the climate crisis before it defines us?

Millions of people are already being displaced each year by extreme weather-related events. Humanity is having to focus on adapting to climate change, alongside efforts to stabilize Earth’s temperatures by curbing greenhouse emissions.

Still, Dr. Barile says big ideas and action are not just needed but possible. 

“The fact is, we can actually solve this problem,” he says.

The Inflation Reduction Act recently signed by President Joe Biden, which authorizes $369 billion in energy and climate spending, is a step in the right direction, climate policy experts say. 

The elegance of turbines across the wide Iowa horizon is another example.

It’s in those moments that Ms. Franck, “The Climate Optimist” newsletter author, sees an opportunity to take stock in our shared success.  

“It’s human nature to focus on the problem,” she says. 

“But it feels so much better to focus on the solution.”

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