How to fight climate despair

By Nell Miles

This article was originally published in The Oxford Scientist Michaelmas Term 2021 edition, Change.

Two nights after the IPCC released their 2021 Sixth Assessment Report, I sat on my kitchen countertop and cried.  My phone screen illuminated a barrage of statistics that predicted devastating planetary effects unless drastic and immediate action was taken. I was overcome with despair and couldn’t stop thinking “how are we going to do it?”.

Media outlets capitalised on the report, releasing articles about the irreversible damage to our climate, bookended by images of wildfires and bleached coral reefs. They told a story of human-induced dystopia that couldn’t help but make your heart tight. And for most of my life, that’s what climate journalism has been. It’s been vital to shout warnings of what humans are causing because for so long governments and corporations haven’t been listening. But while more institutions across the world are accepting the need for climate action, for individuals who have read a constant stream of “climate doomism” for years it’s becoming too much.

70% of 18-24 year-olds were more worried about climate change in 2020 than they were the previous year, and across the globe eco-anxiety is on the rise. The dystopian pictures painted by media channels make climate-induced devastation seem inevitable and unstoppable—and when those in power don’t seem to be taking the action that’s so desperately needed, it’s easy to think we’ll never limit global warming to 1.5°C to limit ecological breakdown. For so many, being overwhelmed with the torrent of heart-breaking stories of climate change creates a feeling of paralysis, which then translates to inaction. Countless people who could make a difference to the planet through their influence, individual actions and campaigning power are immobilised purely because they don’t think their efforts are worthwhile in the face of such an enormous task. People commonly cite the negligible difference their individual action would make as a reason to not make lifestyle changes. We’re stuck in a dark hole of helplessness constructed by our defeatist, pessimistic framing of the climate crisis and the change needed to tackle it.

But while more institutions across the world are accepting the need for climate action, for individuals who have read a constant stream of “climate doomism” for years it’s becoming too much.

But recently, a new narrative has begun to appear. The emergence of climate optimism, a movement of media, art and science dedicated to solutions-based climate narratives, represents a new approach to climate action and could be the beginning of a new era for climate stories. The organisation Conservation Optimism shifts narratives away from climate problems and instead publishes stories of progress and hope across the world on their blog and podcast ‘Good Natured’.  Another organisation called Pledge For Our Future focuses on positive change, offering a series of suggestions for actions individuals can take to live a more nature-friendly lifestyle whilst also providing inspiration through a resource hub. By painting climate stories in a hopeful light with inspiring case studies of action across the world, the movement is mobilising people instead of adding to their sense of hopelessness. The focus on the positive could be widespread: instead of pitting environmental organisations against one another based on nuances between them, we could work positively for change and support the work of all who do good for the planet. This isn’t a time for political rivalry or personal gain, it’s a time to take hope in each other’s efforts and find inspiration whilst we inspire others.

The emergence of climate optimism, a movement of media, art and science dedicated to solutions-based climate narratives, represents a new approach to climate action and could be the beginning of a new era for climate stories.

Positive framing can encourage individuals and businesses to take action to mitigate global warming, helping them truly believe they can make a difference—and the effect grows exponentially with more and more people discussing what they’re doing for the planet. These empowering stories of change are weaving a community of hope which is bound by the mutual support each of us gives and which moves us closer towards an equitable and planet-friendly future.

Last night I read Conservation Optimism’s weekly publication of ‘7 Stories of Optimism’ on my kitchen countertop. I know that there’s a lot of work to be done on all levels to fight the climate and biodiversity crises, but with the emergence of climate optimism I can have hope. It makes me want to be part of the fight, and part of this change.

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