Hope in the time of climate change


Finding hope in a world spiralling into climate disaster – while watching on hamstrung as the government fails to act on it – can feel impossible. But if we’re going to get ourselves out of this mess, it’s up to all of us to tease out some threads of hope.

By Joana Partyka

If Scott Morrison were as persuasive as his executive-level marketing background indicates he should be, you might suppose Australia is making strides on climate action. “Australia is meeting and beating our emissions reduction targets,” he insists. “Australia is taking real action on climate change and getting results.” “Australia is doing our bit on climate change and we reject any suggestion to the contrary.”

The science, as we know, indicates the opposite. The 2020 Climate Change Performance Index ranks Australia among the worst in a list of 57 countries on climate change policy. The OECD holds that Australia will fail to meet our 2030 emissions target without a focused effort to get us there – something the UN echoes, alongside the charge there has been no improvement to our climate policy since 2017.

As the fourteenth-largest emitter of 208 countries, to suggest we’re too small a nation to make a difference – as Morrison repeatedly has – is not just misleading, it’s patently untrue. And in the same breath the PM proudly trumpets Australia’s world-leading response to coronavirus, he firmly denies our ability to act on climate change on the convenient pretext that no one else is.

It’s pretty disheartening, and it’s left many of us traversing this dimly gaslit landscape firmly clutching the hand of despair. Hope, meanwhile, is harder to make out in the shadows. As activist and essayist Rebecca Solnit asks in her seminal 2004 book Hope in the Dark: “What are the grounds for hope in this world of wrecks?”

Ask yourself that question and it’s likely the answers won’t come at you as thick and fast as carbon sluices into the atmosphere. And for those with their heads firmly in the cold, hard data, like environmental and climate scientists, hope can be even harder – but not impossible – to catch sight of.

High hopes

Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick is a senior research associate at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. She admits she often finds it hard to be hopeful at the moment. “But I don’t really have a choice,” she says. “I have two young kids and I have to be hopeful about their future, otherwise what’s the point?”

University of Western Australia professor and Director of the WA Biochemistry Centre Pauline Grierson agrees. She shares in Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick’s despondence, and in her belief there is no other choice but to stay focused “on the science and the evidence, and to keep the younger generations engaged”.

For Dr Alex Sen Gupta, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales and senior lecturer at UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre, it’s much the same. “We feel we are making progress – that the public and the leaders are coming on board and finally appreciating the science – and then it all comes crashing down,” he says.

“I think we are still a long way away from most world leaders taking a meaningful lead on climate action.”

And while the spike in public interest following the bushfire crisis earlier this year is a potential boon for climate action, Dr Gupta is not overly optimistic it will stick – particularly since it’s been eclipsed by that other big event of 2020.

“A similar surge and decline in interest happened after the mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef a few years ago,” he says.

Hope in hopelessness

That some of our country’s most erudite climate and environmental scientists feel hopeless feels, well, hopeless. It makes sense, though, that in the face of total climate collapse and government inertia, hope is an investment with little promise of return. It’s risky. It carries the potential for pain and disappointment. And it can seem misplaced, unrealistic or just plain futile.

But maybe that’s ok – essential, even. Maybe hopelessness is the precondition necessary to tease out a thread of hope. “Isn't it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties?” the Czech Republic’s first president Vaclav Havel once asked. “Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope.”

Environmental activist and author Joanna Macy says hope, despite what many people think, is not an expression of blind optimism or wishful thinking. “I’m not insisting that we be brimming with hope – it’s OK not to be optimistic,” she says.

What we must be, Macy says, is active. Hope is something to be practised, not just passively felt. At the very least, it’s a readiness. It’s something Solnit expounds further in Hope in the Dark: “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky,” she writes. “It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency … it should shove you out the door.”

Hope in the dark

Many find hope in what is already happening in the climate change space; in the trail of splintered doors left behind by others’ axe strikes. As Greta Thunberg astutely points out in a 2018 TED talk: if you’re looking for hope, look first for action – the hope will follow.

For Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick, that action comes in the form of progressive policy developments, like the UK’s ban on petrol and diesel engines over the next 10 to 15 years.

“Also, the younger generation not only accept the science behind climate change but they also want action,” she says. “When they run the country in a few decades at most that can only mean good things.”

It’s the mobilisation of young people that also gives Dr Gupta a lot of hope. “The sooner these young people kick out the old white men – like myself – the better,” he says. “I think their passion is contagious, affecting parents and others.”

Grierson, too, has a great deal of hope in her young students, while for Gab Abramowitz, also of UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre, it’s that societies across the world are more widely coming to embrace the reality of a low-carbon future, which has led to a crop of innovations, initiatives and investments. “People do actually care about it and want to make it happen,” he says.

The politics of hope

It’s clear the current government isn’t willing to act – so-called energy and emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor did, after all, declare in an Australian piece last year that Australia should be proud of its efforts on climate action. But there are some small flickers of light, politically speaking.

Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick finds hope in the break from the status quo among conservative leaders – like NSW Minister for Energy and Environment Matt Kean, who publicly stated his belief that climate change caused the bushfires, and Eden-Monaro MP Kristy McBain, under whose mayorship the Bega Valley Shire Council voted in favour of a climate emergency declaration.

It’s something in which Abramowitz also takes solace, citing the example of the NSW branch of the Young Liberals calling for an urgent change to the government’s climate policy.

Abramowitz also believes the practical benefits of strong climate policy that speak to conservative quarters – like economic gains – will eventually sell the transition. “It offers employment and stability, and contradicts the negative stereotypes of climate action requiring a drop in living standards,” he says.

The conservative honeypot of fiscal pragmatism is a source of hope for Dr Gupta, too. “The incredible decrease in the cost of renewables – and more recently the cost of storage technologies – means we are moving to a time where there is no economic sense to burn fossil fuels,” he says.

As a result, Dr Gupta believes “we will mitigate despite the ‘best’ efforts of our leaders,” though he warns the lethargy with which the two major parties are moving means things will probably get worse before they start getting better.

Which, granted, is dispiriting. But it’s precisely in that space of uncertainty where hope really finds its power, because uncertainty is opportunity. It’s possibility. It’s an invitation to imagine a better future, because nothing is foregone. Solnit again: “To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” 

And, as Dr Gupta reminds us, “We know exactly what the problem is and how to solve it.” In a world of wrecks, that’s grounds for hope if ever there was one.

Joana Partyka is the Australian Greens’ National Communications Officer.

Hero image: Julian Meehan via Flickr.

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