Photo of people protesting, but people's faces are turned the other way. Someone is holding up a sign that says "Climate action is so, so hot right now."

The Optimist's Guide

The Optimist’s Guide to Addressing the Climate Crisis

A planet in climate catastrophe is overwhelming, to say the least. Climate grief is normal, but it's optimism that can sustain the energy we need for solutions.

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Zahra Biabani has built a social media following around her hopeful climate messaging. Every week, she posts a video to Instagram where she shares the latest environmental wins, all while she dances in the background. It’s an inspiring display of joy, but Biabani’s approach to the climate crisis wasn’t always rooted in the positive.

Before the optimism, there was burnout, grief, tragedy. In 2017, after Hurricane Harvey hit her community in Houston, Texas, Biabani signed up for Al Gore’s climate reality leadership training. In 2020, her perspective on the issue switched from alarmed to hopeful as the pandemic and police brutality hit a fever pitch. 

“People were passionate, but they were also discouraged,” Biabani says. “I realized that [climate optimism] was not only something I needed but other people needed.” 

The climate crisis can often feel like this impossible, gargantuan issue we must address. We’re talking about mass extinction of species, underwater cities, and heat levels that are literally deadly. It’s easy to give in to doom and shrug your shoulders as you contemplate, “Well, we’re screwed, right?” We’re not—and optimism is how we can power on to ensure the planet’s changes don’t reach a point of no return. Optimism is the fuel that activists on the ground must cultivate to keep working on the issue. It’s how the rest of us can grow motivated to act, too.

Optimism is also how individuals can maintain the energy to keep pushing government leaders and corporate players to act. Ultimately, they’re the ones with the ability to shift policy and infrastructure away from the dirty energy sources that are fueling the climate crisis. They’re the ones that need to stop prioritizing profits and begin prioritizing people. In Los Angeles, community health organizers helped push the city to ban new oil and gas drilling after years of door knocking and complaining at town hall meetings. And let us not forget how the outspokenness and fearlessness of residents in Flint, Michigan, put safe water infrastructure at the forefront of the public mind—President Joe Biden has pledged to replace all lead pipes in the U.S. That’s thanks to Flint.

“If you don’t believe change is possible,” Biabani warns, “we’re not going to make a change.”

The problem dates back centuries

Understanding climate change requires a deep analysis of how different human societies have functioned over the centuries. What brought us here? Well, the capitalist, colonialist system that incentivizes exploitation of not only the land but of people, too. This predates climate change.

European enslavement of African people and colonialism of Indigenous people launched many ecological crises the world currently faces. After all, climate change is one problem: There is also mass extinction, pollution, and deforestation. First, came the cutting of trees. As forests fell, species suffered. Then, Europeans needed more resources, so they built ships to sail. They didn’t respect the people already living in these new lands—people who had developed completely different relationships with the natural world. Many Indigenous cultures treat nature not as a resource but as kin. 

All the wood and forests of the world weren’t enough. Neither was the forced labor of the African people that Europeans eventually enslaved. Or the lands they stole from Indigenous communities. As humanity began to advance technologically around the 19th century, we discovered that burning coal was a better energy alternative to burning wood

Human potential felt limitless as we discovered how to stay warm year round and how to use this newly discovered fuel to transport products (and people) around the globe. We see now that the planet, indeed, has its limits. And when they’re pushed beyond reason, Earth roars back—through cataclysmic storms, wildfires, and droughts. 

“The climate crisis is a symptom of multiple systems that have locked us into this precarious situation,” says Andrea Cristina Ruiz, an environmental economist who specializes in resilience, decarbonization and environmental justice. “It’s also a huge opportunity to revisit what got us here.”

Even during these times of crisis and genocide, marginalized communities made sure to sow the seeds for their future: Enslaved people used leftover food to grow gardens to keep themselves nourished. The Cherokee, kicked off their land by the U.S. government, made sure to take their ancient seeds with them to maintain a connection to their traditional foods. Where some saw waste, they saw gifts. Their trauma didn’t paralyze them; their survival instinct, instead, mobilized them. It’s an instinct many of us have forgotten in the modern age as threats hit us from all directions. It’s something we must relearn to meet the climate challenge. 

Leaders can address the climate crisis while also improving the quality of life for their constituents. What if access to clean energy were a human right? What if sustainable cities provided housing to all? What if Indigenous nations managed forests and rivers? The old way of doing things created this mess. Why not try something new? 

There’s no simple or easy way to stop climate change. In fact, we can’t really stop it at this point. There’s enough greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere from all those decades of burning fossil fuels that we’ve already locked in some level of devastation. But there’s still time to avoid the worst, says Petteri Taalas, the secretary-general for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). 

Our ability to reach the best-case scenario—where the planet only warms 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—has become a “very ambitious” target, Taalas says. That doesn’t make it impossible. There’s a 50 percent chance, according to a recent report from the WMO. That all depends on the actions world governments take. Only 32 countries have actually reduced their emissions in the past 15 years, says Taalas. 

“Globally, we should get rid of coal-fired power plants,” Taalas says. “As individuals, we can have an impact on means of transportation—electric vehicles, public transportation, biking—to reduce emissions.”

There’s a wide range of stakeholders—and, sure, that complicates efforts—but climate change affects every single one of us. We should all consider ourselves stakeholders, too, Ruiz says.

The solutions start with accountability

Let’s start with an end to fossil fuels, and a disaster plan. We must prepare for what’s to come by building safety nets for the world’s most vulnerable: taking people off the streets and giving families a living wage. All that, however, requires people in power who actually give a fuck. Governments hold the tools (i.e., writing policies and regulations) to drive the clean energy transition, explained Danielle Deiseroth, lead climate strategist with Data for Progress, a progressive research tank. 

That’s why it’s so important voters are engaged and electing politicians who prioritize the climate crisis. Local elections can be especially impactful given the way city councils and county commissions establish building codes and public infrastructure investments. Those are the kinds of local changes that revolutionize society so we no longer need oil and gas. Solar panels on all new housing developments? Yes, please. More mass transit and parks? Absolutely. 

“All those kinds of local plays can add up and snowball to make a really big difference,” Deiseroth said.

Lawmakers are not the only ones with power, though. There are also fossil fuel companies that are profiting off the planet’s destruction and the banks funding it. Many student activists have organized their universities to divest from the fossil fuel industry—with Harvard University serving as a recent success. Meanwhile, everyday people can boycott banks that finance fossil fuel projects and choose ones that operate more responsibly.

Tech companies investing in clean energy development have slowly become another bucket of stakeholders. As have the organizers and researchers guiding conversations on how to respond. Across the globe, lawyers are even trying to give a voice to natural bodies, such as rivers and lakes, by litigating for the rights of nature. These lawsuits may help protect ecosystems and reduce emissions. If we’re going to adequately address climate change, we’ll need a power shift with local communities and Indigenous nations at the helm. 

“Who impacts climate change and who can drive change keeps growing as it becomes more of a relevant issue,” Deiseroth said. 

Ultimately, measurable change won’t come until wealthy nations that created the climate crisis through industrialization take responsibility and offer financial support to lower-income nations struggling to conserve their resources amid climate disaster and social instability. They can’t afford to skip coal, oil, and gas—not when there are millions without access to electricity. 

Countries in the Global South will need support to develop clean energy grids. And that help will have to come from people like you and me—the ones privileged enough to sit in front of a computer screen in a home where the heat or the cold is not an issue thanks to our countries’ histories of developing dirty energy. For far too many others, their reality couldn’t be more different. It’s on our governments—and our taxpayer dollars—to offer a hand to the ones bearing the cost of our comfortable living.

Every action makes a difference

So, what can you do? Well, start with demanding that your elected officials give your community the life it deserves. Voting and community engagement are essential. Visit your local farmer’s market. Buy seasonal produce. Attend a city council meeting. Challenge someone you disagree with. Without a sense of community, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the gravity of the climate crisis. It’s easy to feel alone, and to give into that sense of doom. Building community can help you embody climate optimism, instead.

“Your voice matters. Too many people feel like their voices don’t matter,” said Deiseroth, a self-proclaimed climate optimist. “There’s still a lot that we have left to fight for, and we need to be bringing our best selves to that fight.”

Eco-influencer Biabani encourages individuals to look back at history to inspire optimism. The global community was able to respond to previous apocalyptic-level threats (like nuclear war). The climate crisis isn’t the first time Black, Indigenous, and other people of color must confront such darkness, either. It wouldn’t be the first time BIPOC overcame the darkness with love.

“That gives me a lot of hope—seeing that change has been possible, radical, and big change has been needed and has been made when people really came together,” Biabani says.

Biabani also fuels her optimism by looking forward to the future she’s working toward. She suggests others should envision the world they want to see, too. Is it a future with more bicycles? Well, try to drive less. Is it a future where garment workers are paid a living wage? Make more mindful purchases. 

Economist Ruiz also considers herself an optimist—but not as a result of the climate crisis. She’s always been optimistic because she grew up with no other choice. “My struggles taught me resilience and optimism,” she said. “That’s how my family has crafted the narrative of existence. To exist is to be resilient.”

Ruiz comes from a strong line of pioneering Ecuadorian women. They couldn’t afford to dwell on the magnitude of whatever obstacles they faced. Ruiz now approaches the climate crisis similarly. It’s a lesson from which we can all learn. We need optimism to trigger a creative response to climate change. Optimism propels us forward. Giving up is not an option. 

“I don’t think we have the privilege as humans to panic or be paralyzed,” Ruiz said. “It’s a privilege to feel hopeless. It’s a privilege to do nothing and be a bystander.”

We must all act, especially those of us who are most privileged and contributed the most to climate change. Action is our obligation. Our optimism can be channeled to change the course our planet is headed.

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