Photo credit: Agathe Bernard
It is not naive to be hopeful in the face of climate change. On the contrary, it is the only responsible attitude.
That’s what Elin Kelsey, climate scientist, educator and author, says.
Kelsey holds a PhD in environmental policy and works on communication projects that impact engagement in environmental endeavors. She is also an associate faculty member of the University of Victoria School of Environmental Studies, children’s author, and author of Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think Is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis, an adult book.
CNBC spoke to Kelsey, 60, on the phone for a series on managing and productively responding to fears of climate change.
The following are excerpts from Kelsey’s conversation with CNBC. They have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Focus on evidence-based solutions
What we are seeing around the world is a real increase in people’s concern about climate change and their desire to do something about it, and their deep sense of helplessness and hopelessness that nothing can be done.
In my opinion, this will be a critical point for engagement.
I would argue that we inadvertently fuel this feeling of helplessness and hopelessness by sounding the alarm about these very honest and important and urgent global problems, as almost all of the news we hear about the environment is in problem identification rather than solution orientation are.
We have the feeling that nothing is happening and that it is too late.
I am also a children’s author. And so I often have to deal with very young children talking about these topics. And I realized that we put things like ratings on films or scenes of violence in films and say, “This is not appropriate for a young child.”
And yet, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with going into a classroom and telling a child the earth is ruined or showing them how the doomsday clock goes down with predictions of climate change. We just weren’t sensitive enough to the emotional landscape of young children.
This gritty narrative is nourished by the very real problems we face and the fact that most of the time we only hear about problems.
One part that we can really move and that needs to move is that we also need to talk about evidence-based solutions. That is why it is exciting for me to see the emergence of fields such as solution journalism (which look just as consistently for solutions, how appropriate they are in certain situations and which parts of them could be transferable or expanded or tailored) when looking at problems.
That is the direction we have to go.
We need to make solutions much more accessible so that people are aware of the changes that are actually taking place and the things that are important to them so that they don’t feel alone with their worries. We need to get rid of this vague message that nothing positive is happening and that good results are not being achieved because it is just not true.
To be hopeless means to be uninformed. In fact, we are collectively ignorant because we are being inundated with this gritty narrative to the point that we simply don’t hear much about anything productive that is happening. Then we interpret that as truth.
Elin Kelsey sleeps outside on her deck in Victoria, British Columbia. “I do this because the changing of the seasons really empowers me,” she said. “I really see nature everywhere, even though I live in a tiny courtyard in a city.”
Photo credit: Agathe Bernard
For example, we know that currently more than 110 countries have set themselves net zero CO2 emissions targets by 2050. That corresponds to more than 70% of the world economy. This is important to note.
Do we have to get there faster now? Absolutely. Do we have to hold them accountable for such promises? Absolutely. But knowing that it is is different from believing that no country is doing anything.
Optimism doesn’t lead to complacency
What we know from the psychological literature is that fear and shame lead us to switch off and give up.
Many people fear that when you talk about hope, you will breed complacency at a time when urgent action is needed.
But the psychological literature shows us that the opposite is true.
When you think others care about things that are important to you – and you take pride in the fact that some things are moving in the direction they should, and the determination, perseverance, empathy, and compassion for others who care about what you do – you’re much more likely to stay and do the hard work.
On the other hand, if you think that something is hopeless and you have this hopelessness, or this climate doom as Michael Mann calls it, then you feel helpless, you tend to feel isolated and you are prone to apathy, which means that you are disempowering yourself and you lose your agency and give up.
So it’s exactly the opposite of what we intuitively think.
And yet we know we know. We know when we’re working in a work environment where someone yells at us and tells us we’re not getting there fast enough or we’re doing well enough – how motivating is that? It is not. On the other hand, if we’re in a work environment and someone honestly says, “Okay, this is what we did, here we are, and here we are what we want to achieve,” the hard work is much more likely to get there where we’re going. That’s the point I’m trying to make.
I am not saying that we do not have urgent problems. We absolutely do. But this disempowering narrative of hopelessness leads us in exactly the opposite direction from which we need to go.
Accept the story of “Hope Point”
When you look at these big tales that people are talking about, like noblebright – we’re looking for a shining superhero to save us. Or the dystopian narrative that everything is ruined, where many fictions about climate change have been recorded.
Now there is this real hope punk. Hope punk pops up in movies and books and pops up in other fields and it’s this idea that we just live like we know we should whether the situation is hopeless or not. We work in a way that we believe in.
I would argue that a lot of people try to make Greta Thunberg a noble figure. I don’t think she’s trying. But they stop her – or Jane Goodall, like that one person who will do anything. And a lot of environmental communications used to be about finding the hero, and you tell people about that hero and hope they’ll become heroes.
Well, Hope Punk is another narrative that is really on the rise. And what it says is that we all do our best and we are stronger together and we live together the right way that we know we should, whether it works or not. We work according to this ethic. And I think it’s very appealing to people who care about social justice and climate change because social justice is about equality and compassion for others and recognizing all of our individual self-worth, and I think this hope is punk narrative really addresses these values.
Michael Mann says that climate doom is now the new climate denial.
Because when we could deny the climate, which is no longer so popular, people really accepted climate change. But if there is climate denial, you could say, well, we don’t have to do anything because it won’t happen.
Climate demise is just as effective at creating inactivity. Because if you say it is really too late, then there is really no need for political action. It is a political choice to be hopeful. And I think it’s a very important political decision. And it has to be well informed.
And I’m trying to say that being well informed is hard work because we have such a one-sided tendency to focus only on problems.
This is something I think the Solutions Journalism Network, which is really gaining traction, and other media initiatives like Climate Matters, a large conglomerate of news outlets focused on the climate, these types of initiatives are really important because we need to hear a fuller story of what things work.
Kelsey sleeps outside in Victoria, British Columbia. It rains in winter. “And I’m so covered that I’m not in the rain, but I can hear the rain pouring around me and I love it. I just love it, ”she said.
Photo credit Agathe Bernard
How to help someone stuck in the decline of the climate
The very first thing I do is really try to listen to them.
Because I think creating safe spaces for people to really express their feelings is an integral part of all of this. We are not open to new ideas when we feel overwhelmed by our feelings. One of the reasons I helped develop the Existential Toolkit for Climate Justice Educators was to bring all of this psychological and other literature on creating these types of safe spaces into a more public area. So first I’ll listen.
I really try to listen carefully to what this person is feeling and what they value because those feelings are signs that they really care about these topics. Even if their feelings are anger, it’s because they care. So try to listen and create this safe space.
Second, try to hear what topics they are most despondent about and then bring up some timely timestamped content.
So I tell you that in media literacy you should really be aware that most of the time you are only hearing about these issues. Take the topic that interests you most and google it and add “breaking news” or “positive developments” or those other keywords, or go to the Solutions Journalism Network where you can easily search and filter their articles can post problem area and look for things that are moving in the direction you want to go.
And when you actually look at that, you find a lot more things than you might have imagined. So it is actively looking for evidence-based solutions rather than assuming that the overwhelming headlines of desperation are the only truth.