Climate and environment

‘The environmental crisis is also a crisis of hope’

Dr Elin Kelsey introduces some key arguments from her new book.

10 May 2021

Dr Elin Kelsey is the author of 'Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way we Think is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis' (Greystone Books, £14.99).

An emergency

Climate change is an urgent, global-scaled problem and it’s essential to talk about the climate emergency in many specific contexts. For example, the Canadian Mental Health Association labels the climate emergency a mental health emergency. More than 1000 psychologists signed an open letter endorsed by the Association of Clinical Psychologists UK demanding immediate and effective action on climate change in light of the enormous mental health impact of the climate crisis. Tackling climate anxiety and tackling climate change are inextricably linked.

Yet, when it comes to climate change media coverage we need to be mindful of the fact that we hear almost nothing about climate change solutions. Problems caused by climate change are deemed more newsworthy than solutions, and this coverage drives a sense of hopelessness according to Maxwell Boykoff at the University of Colorado Boulder. He and the team at the Media and Climate Change Observatory monitor how climate change is reported across 120 sources (newspapers, radio and TV) in 54 countries. ‘There’s still a pervasive doom and gloom’, Boykoff said in a 2018 interview. ‘When these stories just focus in on doom and gloom, they turn off those who are consuming them. Without being able to find their own place as a reader, viewer, or listener in those stories, people feel
paralyzed and they don’t feel like they can engage and have an entry point into doing something about the problem.’

This is a major concern in light of a 2018 study of 50,000 people from 48 countries, reported in the journal Climate Policy, which found that people who believe climate change is unstoppable were less likely to engage in personal behaviours or to support policies to address climate change. Record-high numbers of Americans worry about climate change, but only 5 per cent of them believe that humans can and will successfully reduce it, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Yale University and George Mason University. Indeed, Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, describes what he calls a ‘hope gap’ between people’s fear about climate change, and their feelings of powerlessness to do anything about it. The environmental crisis is also a crisis of hope.

Stories of success
To counter this crisis of hope, psychologists say it’s important to see how our individual actions make a collective positive impact. Indeed, research demonstrates that when the news focuses on success stories about entrepreneurial activism and actions ordinary people are taking in local contexts we can relate to, we feel more enthusiastic and optimistic about our capacity to tackle climate change.

In the burgeoning field of solutions journalism, reporters bring the same rigorous reporting skills they apply to covering societal problems to the investigation of what’s working. Solutions journalism reveals ways people are responding to crises and focuses on effectiveness and outcomes, not just good intentions. By bringing real-world solutions into view, solutions journalism plays a key role in counteracting destructive cynicism. It also helps hold those in power accountable to make change. According to a 2014 study by leading climate change communication researchers, when someone understands that climate change is a truly dire problem and they have a sense of the effectiveness and feasibility of the ways people are collectively acting to solve it, then they are more likely to take action themselves. Recognising both the threat and the potential solvability of the climate crisis is paramount to mobilising action.

Covering Climate Now is an initiative to create more and better coverage of climate change issues and solutions, at local to international scales and across a broad range of media. Launched in April 2019, it has rapidly grown to include hundreds of media outlets from around the world, reaching a combined audience of more than 2 billion people. It’s the single largest media project ever organised around a single topic.

Why hope matters
Hope is not about turning our back on the facts. It’s precisely because we do know how much trouble we are facing that millions of people all over the globe participated in climate protests. Protests are inherently hopeful acts. Researchers who study social movements tell us that hope plays a crucial role in mobilising individuals to take part in collective action, just as participating in collective action fuels feelings of hope. Research shared by the American Psychological Association demonstrates that hope helps us to stay engaged with stressful situations, promotes coping skills, and reduces denial – three important qualities given the misinformed concern that hope might breed complacency or foster climate change denial.

Hope is also not about feeling cheerful. When you love something and it’s being destroyed, it’s extremely difficult not to give up. Trying to move in a positive direction in the midst of a terrible situation takes fortitude. Being hopeful is, in many ways, the more difficult path than despair and cynicism. Hope doesn’t protect you from feeling disheartened. Feeling furious and upset at deforestation, coal-fired power plants, and politicians who fail to lead urgently needed climate reforms, or angry that you’ve inherited a screwed-up situation from previous generations, is justified. Outrage shows you know what’s going on and you know what absolutely must change.

Reaching the point of ‘enough is enough’ spurs us to protest, boycott, and stand up for the things we love and believe in. Anger and hope are not opposites. They have a symbiotic relationship. Both anger and hope are mobilising emotions. The 2019 climate strikes that drew millions of people around the world to demonstrate demand for change represent a mass social movement fuelled by both anger at the injustice of what is and hope for what should be. Hope is what sustains us to keep fighting for social and ecological justice.

A hopeful future
Hope for the environment is essential to addressing climate change, biodiversity loss, and the full suite of environmental crises we face. By focusing so heavily on what’s broken, we are reinforcing a starting-line fallacy that makes it feel as if nothing useful has ever been accomplished and that all the hard work lies ahead. We need to pry ourselves free from this disempowering rhetoric and situate ourselves within the positive environmental trends that are already well established and yielding the successful results we need to grow.

For example, half of the world’s population is under 30 years old. Youth represent the largest demographic of people on Earth. They are the first generation to grow up with an awareness of climate change, and they are committed to tackling the climate crisis. It’s a concern that crosses all socioeconomic sectors and national boundaries. A 2019 survey of Gen Z across every continent included 20 countries, classified by their level of economic development: either developed, emerging, or frontier. Young people in frontier countries, including Jordan, Kenya, and Nigeria, expressed the most concern about climate change and the highest commitment to creating a sustainable future, followed closely by those in emerging economies.

An astonishing surge of ‘climate emergency’ declarations happened in synergy with the 2019 climate marches. By November 2020, more than 1840 jurisdictions in 32 countries had signed on. Cities, associations of scientists, religious groups, major companies, whole countries, the EU – one in ten people on the planet now live in a place that has declared a climate emergency.

While it might seem counterintuitive to see these declarations as a positive trend, they represent a staggering show of global support for tackling the climate crisis. Cities, especially, are using that momentum to drive change. That’s important because more than half of the world’s population lives in urban and suburban areas. Cities are where emissions are the largest: they account for about 70 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions, according to a 2018 report released at the IPCC Cities and Climate Change Science Conference. In September 2020, more than 71 countries pledged to protect 30 per cent of land and oceans by 2030 and to put biodiversity, climate, and the environment at the heart of Covid-19 recovery strategies and investments.

Solutions are not final, perfect endpoints. They’re ongoing processes that require monitoring and adjustment to achieve meaningful results. Solutions are directions that require constant vigilance. But the need for vigilance shouldn’t prevent forward action. Emotions are contagious. The more you engage with trends that are achieving meaningful results, the more hopeful you feel and the more you spread those feelings to others who will, in turn, amplify transformative solutions.