Even the Most Dystopian Climate Activism Is Rooted in Hope

Scientists and activists seem to be living out the movie "Don't Look Up." Yet there is reason for optimism.

Source: Piqsels

On April 11, 20-year-old Just Stop Oil activist Miranda Wheelan appeared on Good Morning Britain to share her cause. Richard Madeley, the interviewer, came in hot from the start with an avalanche of questions designed to undermine Wheelan’s work. I would argue some questions were fair, some were poorly phrased, and some were plainly inappropriate. For example, Madeley repeatedly asked Wheelan if she was a hypocrite for wearing clothes, since manufacturing clothing requires oil. Madeley interrupted Wheelan again and again, turning the interview into a deeply uncomfortable encounter.

The same week, more than 1000 scientists in 25 countries engaged in climate protests. Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, was shown on video having glued himself to the front door of a Chase Bank building in Los Angeles to protest the bank’s funding of fossil fuels. Kalmus was trembling as he expressed his frustration that climate science was not being taken seriously.

While these moments may have drawn comparisons to the movie Don’t Look Up, the demonstrators never seemed bent on sowing apocalyptic dread. Kalmus tweeted, “The Scientist Rebellion gave a lot of overwhelmed people new hope. […] This is the time to keep pushing.” In a column for The Guardian, Wheelan wrote, “The response to the interview on social media has been very supportive, but we need to translate that support into action.” Demonstrators went to great lengths to express the dire extent of the climate change situation. But at no point was it implied that a better future is a lost cause. Quite the opposite, in fact.

If demonstrators had in fact argued that climate change is beyond hope, they would have been wrong. To claim that humans don’t have the power to combat climate change and create a better future is to deny science — in the same way as claiming that climate change isn’t real, or that it is not caused by humans. The latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which summarize tens of thousands of academic papers, found that many practical solutions exist for slashing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as for adapting to irreversible climate change. Many of these remedies save costs, and most also help with public health, social justice, and other global concerns.

A pessimistic attitude about climate change that may have a little more merit might be expressed along these lines: “I know climate change can be gotten under control, I just don’t think policymakers and companies will actually do anything about it.” Or, “Policymakers and companies want to do something, but between the slowness of bureaucracy and the weakness of global governance in general, rapid climate action is too difficult to coordinate.” These are fair observations. According to Nature, six IPCC scientists in ten believe the world will warm 3°C or more above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. The world is currently on track to warm by 3°C based solely on current trends and policies, so achieving any number larger than 3°C would mean nations renege on their current climate policies.

But the counterargument — that the world will succeed in addressing climate change — is also fair. In fact, progress has been made in this direction already. In the United States, greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 2007, and have come down 12 percent since then. Coal consumption for electricity in the U.S. is down 58% since 2007. Before 2015, the planet was on track to warm by nearly 4°C by 2100. Clean energy and good policy have since brought this projection down to 3°C — and if nations should honor their current climate pledges, the figure could be reduced to as little as 2°C by 2100. Nearly every nation on the planet agreed when signing the Paris Agreement that climate change constitutes a real threat and the world needs to combat it. These numbers suggest that, at the very least, policymakers are aware of climate change, and are willing to work for progress. 

There is good reason to remain hopeful on climate change. If there weren’t, it would be hard to imagine Miranda Wheelan pushing through that difficult Good Morning Britain interview. It would be hard to imagine Peter Kalmus risking his career and ultimately getting arrested in a civil but disruptive demonstration. If there were no better path forward, why would they bother? Activism can inspire hope, and hope can inspire activism. The two go hand in hand.

Climate advocates often are seen on social media exchanging ideas on how to stay happy while working on climate. The dialogue leans toward work-life balance, finding hobbies, and other distractions. I agree these ideas are good. But I also believe it is okay to be happy while working on climate change. It may even be considered a requirement, assuming progress is rooted in hope. According to Dr. Per Espen Stoknes, psychologist and author of What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, feelings of fear and guilt actually can lead to disengagement around climate change

Is it a dystopian experience to see scientists chaining themselves to buildings in protest, and a Good Morning Britain newscaster repeatedly accusing a young activist of hypocrisy for wearing clothes? Sure. But there is another side to these experiences. They are evidence of sincere and unapologetic hope.

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Ethan Brown

Ethan is a recent graduate of Boston University from Bethel, Connecticut with a dual degree in Environmental Analysis & Policy and Film & Television.


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