Climate scientists reflect on hope and action

Presenters from the Climate Disruption in the Upper Columbia Basin series reflect on finding hope in the face of climate crisis.

Looking towards Hat Peak summer 2021. Photo taken by Hailey Ross

Below is an essay born out of season 6 of the CREDtalks (Columbia Region Ecological Discussions), hosted by the Columbia Mountains Institute of Applied Ecology based right here in Revelstoke. The webinar series focused on the theme of Climate Disruption in the Upper Columbia Basin, presenting eight scientists addressing projected impacts, potential for adaptation, and what we can do with ecosystems that may in fact contribute to mitigation. While this series was designed for a professional audience of applied ecologists and resource managers, the webinars proved to have broad appeal and provide what some have described as essential viewing for everyone in the Upper Columbia Basin. The talks were recorded and are available for free via links on the event webpage.

At the end of the season, project coordinator Hailey Ross posed a question to the speakers asking them: How or where do you find hope? What inspires you to take action, to keep going?

Her original vision was to share a bulleted list of resources and sources of inspiration with registrants, but what came about was an engaging email exchange with a diversity of responses. A collection of thoughts that was nuanced, inspiring, gritty, human. The responses were not polished, not peer-reviewed, but Hailey saw value in them and wanted to see them shared. So, with speaker permission and the support of writer Donna Macdonald, these emails (or segments of them) have been strung together into an essay, and you can read it below.

Knocking on Doors: reflections on hope and action

It’s not easy being a scientist these days. The voices screaming “fake science,” “you’re in the pocket of Big Corporations” and “it’s all a conspiracy” must make any scientist despair at the waning rationality on display.

Then, much more seriously, there’s the reality of science that increasingly must focus on the climate crisis before us. Whether in earth sciences, health sciences or social sciences, the urgency of our situation is revealed. Not often do we excitedly look to scientists for new discoveries about the wonders of our world and its creatures. More often, if they’re being honest, scientists are warning us about imminent and actual loss and damage to our world.

So scientists tell us about their work and their research, give us facts and graphs and models, tell us stories, remind us this is human-caused and can be corrected if only….  And then we call them names. Dr. Gloom and, worse, Dr. Doom are favourites. But as well as analysts, researchers and modelers, teachers, thinkers and speakers, scientists are also human beings.

It’s a fair question: how do they keep on doing what they do? Are they just cold-blooded scientists?

During the 2022 CREDtalks (Columbia Region Ecological Discussions) that question came up. Would the presentations on climate disruption just make listeners feel deeply discouraged and in despair? Can the scientists help us deal with those feelings and be motivated to action? How do they manage? Or don’t they? Is knocking on bathroom doors during overlong showers as important as pounding on politicians’ doors?

Below six of the eight scientists who presented during the CRED talks respond to the questions: “How or where do you find hope? What inspires you to take action, to keep going?”  Their responses are spontaneous and personal reflections, honest, moving and helpful.

Janice Brahney, an Associate Professor in Watershed Sciences, at Utah State University, starts us off with her thoughts on whose action is really important.

I think being honest while not overwhelming people into inaction is important. I’m not really in favor of putting the responsibility on individual action. Not only does this support industry falsification of the root cause of many issues, I think it can lead to inaction since you can’t possibly live your life in a way that is not a trade-off to some environmental resource.

Instead, I think we should be pressuring our politicians for policy-based changes. Perhaps there are arguments against this approach as well, but it’s where I am currently in my own mental processing of the issues at hand.

Mel Reasoner has been a climate scientist for more than 20 years, in Europe and Canada. He expresses his personal challenges and reflects on the tragic irony of where he’s finding hope these days.

I’ve been chewing on this for the last several days. Twice I’ve almost hit send and found myself unable to push the button. One attempted response was an utterly bleak and lengthy pessimistic rant and the other was a bunch of fluffy platitudes.

An honest response is I find it increasingly difficult to be optimistic about the world we are leaving for our kids and that breaks my heart.

What gives me hope? In my view, there has been a glimmer of hope recently, but it’s not a very happy scenario. At the recent summit in Versailles, European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen told reporters that “[W]e will rethink European defense with strong capabilities. We will rethink energy. We have to get rid of the dependence on Russian fossil fuels and for that we need massive investment in renewables.” In other words, the threat of World War III from an aggressive maniacal dictator of a petro-state just might finally motivate western politicians to take meaningful steps toward an energy transition. Sadly, expert advice from the scientific community over decades was unable to achieve this.

As you might surmise from the above, I have been struggling with this on a personal level. The next email I will write today will be to decline a request to give a climate change presentation. This is really starting to get to me and I need to take a break.

Sorry for such a negative response.

Janice, in a short second email, speaks to how important it is that we talk about our feelings and that we don’t feel alone.

Thank you, Mel. I kept thinking “same” as I read this. I guess I am not alone.

Colin Mahony is a research climatologist with the B.C. provincial government. He acknowledges his feelings of anxiety and alarm, and then commits to an active form of hope, while also enumerating some hopeful trends.

Hope is a fraught term these days. I think of hope as the opposite of despair, the emotion that makes people give up the fight. I feel a lot of anxiety, distress and alarm based on the facts of the climate crisis. But not despair, because there is so much work to do. Hope isn’t necessarily delusional; it is the outlook that things can be better if we take action. I’m guessing that all the speakers in this series draw on sources of hope, because otherwise we wouldn’t be out there working on this issue.

It can be entirely consistent to present the hard truths while also providing sources of hope and motivation. This is what good leaders have always done. The feedback to the CRED series was that there was a tenor of doom through the series that some of the audience found demotivating. I took that to heart and am thinking about how to take a different approach.

When I say “every action counts” I am saying this as a counterpoint to despair, to the idea that the future is doomed and we can’t do anything about it. By “every action” I don’t mean just individual actions like driving less, but all actions including transforming our politics and economy. There is a big gap between the worst case and the best case scenario, and we do have agency in that space.

    • Every action counts. The climate crisis is a continuum. With every 0.1 degree Celsius of warming, the impacts get exponentially worse. But the inverse is true as well: every bit of avoided warming reduces those impacts. The actions that each of us takes to reduce our personal and collective greenhouse gas emissions have a direct effect on improving the future.
    • Our work is meaningful. The global heating induced by our emissions will last for thousands of years. This means that our work to reduce emissions will benefit humanity (and ecosystems) for hundreds of generations. No generation has ever had as much influence on the future as we do. Each of our lives has immense meaning, even if our actions are just to reduce our personal carbon footprint.
    • We are not alone. The majority of our society is privately worried about the climate crisis. But we don’t talk about these feelings very much, for a number of reasons, and many of us feel isolated in our anxiety. Talking about and acting on climate change is impactful because it validates concern that others hold and inspires them to action as well.
    • The emissions curve is bending. Ten years ago, global greenhouse gas emissions were rising every year. The future looked very bleak. Since then, emissions have been roughly stable. There is momentum building, both in politics and economics, towards a gradual reduction in emissions. This is not nearly enough, and we need to work harder towards rapidly reducing emissions to zero. Nevertheless, the trajectory is not towards apocalypse. A two-degree world is within reach.

Martin Carver is an independent consulting hydrologist in B.C. He expresses caution about coddling people and thinks hope as a goal is over-rated. He offers a different approach.

It’s great that there are those creating a sense of hope and good cheer in the community, despite the ongoing multiple crisis levels we have created for ourselves. Many people benefit from that positive support and I encourage it.

That said, I don’t think it’s our place as scientists to soften the blow. Quite the contrary. The news we have to share is not good and we need to tell it how it is. Our audience in the CRED series is supposed to be science-literate and as such shouldn’t need to be coddled. They need to know the bad news so that they will accurately share the story with their communities, thereby provoking meaningful discussion of its implications.

On a more personal note, I am not a big fan of needing hope to be motivated to do good things. In my opinion, creating hope to address our planetary missteps is over-rated and shouldn’t be the goal. Instead, I would prefer that we find other ways to instill in each other a motivation to live on the Earth more respectfully and sustainably.

Brian Menounos is a Canada Research Chair in Glacier Change and a professor at UNBC. He thinks we can still turn the ship around but worries that the selfishness of humans will prevent the needed shifts. Ultimately the environment is resilient even if society isn’t.

Since I’m probably one of those who is often blamed with spreading doom and gloom I’ll give my two cents, and I’ll refrain from referencing Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

My people ask me how I can study what I study. I still find the science interesting and have opted to continue to tell the story to the public, not for our glaciers in the west, but rather for society as a whole to understand there is still an opportunity to turn the ship around. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but we still have some capacity to alter the trajectory we face in terms of projected sea level rise. I’m thinking the contribution from Greenland and Antarctica.

But let’s face it: People are selfish and unless people see how they will suffer (or benefit) from some action, they don’t really pay attention.

I’ve brought my own PTSD from what I study home in that I’m always on my kids to take a ten-minute shower and I start pounding on the door when they exceed it since I feel horrible about fossil fuel being used to heat the water. We are now looking into changes in our own house to make it less reliant on fossil fuels but that’s sort of like me avoiding a disposable coffee cup. It’s not going to change the current trajectory in any real way. Even if it’s a small change I still do my own part to reduce my carbon footprint. Philosophically we could argue whether this makes me simply sleep better or whether it’s an altruistic act for that Bangladeshi family.

There is some hope for GHG reduction primarily driven by active youth, successful carbon taxes and climate literacy, but until people are less selfish – why can’t I drive my Bronco and get cheap gas? who cares about a family in Bangladesh? — I’m afraid we won’t see much movement. Economically, the climate crisis will cost many countries a lot of money and this is what we see at COP and IPCC meetings: countries that will be hurt substantially lobbying to invoke changes now.

Other signs of optimism. Look at how much team effort was accomplished with COVID. People were willing to sacrifice their own liberties for the protection of people they didn’t know. That gave me hope. Then Ottawa happened and it reminded me how selfish some people are.

If you want a good rule book on how to address the climate crisis look to the behavior of people during the Pandemic and study those countries/provinces that effected real change. Also learn from those leaders/countries that did a horrible job. The parallels between COVID and the climate crisis are surreal. We probably need to implement a team of sociologists and psychologists to work with each country on GHG reduction policies and ways to make convincing cases to citizens.

That might be even more important than hiring additional scientists. We don’t need more science. We do need people to be less selfish and more mindful of other people and how their own actions affect people who have much much less.

Final point: the federal government has not done a great job showing how to transition us away from fossil fuels. Unless you start investing and showing people how they could benefit, I’m pessimistic.

Earth is pretty resilient to rapid environmental changes even if civilizations aren’t.

Greg Utzig is a conservation ecologist working on climate change impacts in B.C. He reflects on the places and people who feed his commitment to act, even knowing the outcome may not be the desired option.

I’ve thought about this question for a while, and frankly I’m not sure I have an answer. In the end, I don’t feel like hope is an important issue for me. I am probably driven to “action” by being in nature — those moments of contemplation in a luscious green old growth forest, in a kayak skimming over Kootenay Lake or walking on a ridge-top in the Purcell Mountains, seeing the endless waves of mountains out to the horizon.

Having spent many decades describing forests, soils and landforms throughout the Kootenays, the thought of needlessly disrupting these ecosystems through our carelessness compels me to fight this madness. Change through succession and evolution is one thing – abrupt regime change and extinction is something completely different.

I also find it important to make the distinction between “hope” and “optimism,” which I think people often confuse. I believe hope is a feeling that a desirable outcome is possible, and is therefore worth striving for. However, that does not mean that the desired outcome is likely, or more than barely possible. Optimism is firmly believing, with relative certainty, that the desired outcome will be achieved, and I don’t see that in the case of climate disruption.

The CREDtalks have made it clear we have already passed the possibility for a desirable outcome. However, a less catastrophic outcome is certainly possible, and we even know what is necessary to achieve it – so there is room for hope, as small as it may be.

When I think about hope and optimism I always remember comments by Vaclav Havel, the Czech poet and president, who stated, “Hope is a feeling that life and work have meaning. You either have it or you don’t, regardless of the state of the world that surrounds you…. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” This is pretty close to my own thoughts on why I continue to work on climate disruption issues: it makes sense.

But maybe the question is backwards. Does hope inspire action or does action inspire hope? Some argue that you have to earn hope – that real hope is only possible if you are taking actions that will help achieve the desired outcome. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written: “When you understand that there is no guarantee your struggle will prevail … your hope has to be more firmly rooted. Hope has to be earned, it can’t just be spouted naively.” I feel that those who promote feel-good individual actions as the answer to climate disruption fall into this trap, trying to build false hopes with no roots in reality.

With regard to whether the CRED series of talks are too negative or could lead to despair, I would look to other comments by Ta-Nehisi Coates. “You really can’t let people’s need for hope get in the way of the telling the truth…. ‘Hope’ struck me an overrated force in human history. ‘Fear’ did not.”

When I asked a friend whether people in Ukraine were fighting out of hope or fear, her response was, “How about rage?” Maybe this is what we need to get real action on climate disruption. As Greta Thunberg said, “I want you to act as if the house was on fire — because it is!”

The science part isn’t what’s depressing. It’s the reality of human society that’s depressing. Especially these days with first the pandemic wars, and now a real war. Time is running out.

These highly-educated and deeply-engaged scientists have shared their feelings and thoughts, but can’t offer us easy answers. We must have information and we must have a commitment to act, whether that comes from love of the Earth and its creatures or from ‘hope,’ the belief that change is possible, even if it might not be enough.

We each find our way through these challenges. Some of us pound on bathroom doors, some on computer keyboards, some on legislators’ doors.  We can (and must) all find a place and a way to act.

Essay written by Donna Macdonald. Donna is a writer living gratefully in Nelson on the unceded territory of the Ktunaxa and Sinixt First Nations. She served almost 20 years on Nelson City Council and is the author of Surviving City Hall.