A Defense of Hope in a Changing Climate

A Defense of Hope in a Changing Climate

Climate change is not some theoretical eventuality, but a reality that is already having major impacts all over the world.

Rising sea levels are swallowing the coastlines of places like the Solomon Islands, threatening to erase entire communities and cultures.

Desertification has made it impossible for countries like Yemen to grow food, creating humanitarian crises for millions upon millions of people.

Hurricanes fueled by warmer oceans are ravaging vulnerable nations like Haiti with increasing frequency.

Pests are disrupting whole ecosystems; throughout the U.S. and Canada, southern pine beetles migrating north due to warmer winters are destroying tens of millions of acres of forest land.

Dozens of species are disappearing every day, leading many to believe that we’ve entered the sixth phase of mass extinction of life on Earth.

These are just a few of the effects of a warming planet. They are happening now. And they will get even worse.

Unless we do something about it.

Talking about what that something is, and then doing it, is imperative. Just as important is recognizing what not to do. I’ve noticed an alarming trend lately, most conspicuous in academia, to—whether intentionally or unintentionally—discourage action on climate change. Here is some of what I am hearing, and why I think it’s bullshit:

“Change is inevitable”

I’ve never been a fan of platitudes, but this one really bothers me. To take a generalized, vaguely Eastern aphorism and use it to tolerate preventable human suffering is not only ill-fitting, but irresponsible. As a rule, generalizations are usually inappropriate; in this case, we must distinguish between what we can and can’t change. While humans may not be able to alter the course of the universe, we can certainly lessen the degree of change in our climate by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases we put in the atmosphere through lifestyle change and sustainable policymaking. To claim otherwise is to justify inaction and strip ourselves of the agency we have to influence the world in which we live. Let’s not imply that human-induced global warming is something that was bound to happen, something we can only “cope” with but not change.

“There is no truth”

This idea, rooted in a postmodernist distrust of any sort of objective reality, is having an insidious effect on contemporary political discourse. Granted, it is vitally important to question what we think we know, but that doesn’t mean we’re incapable of knowing things. Too often I find people today embracing skepticism in an almost nihilistic way, dismissing the possibility of reaching an agreed upon conclusion, and blithely accepting a state of unresolvable conflict. From this emerges a politics of false equivalence, where a climate change denier is given as much credence as a climatologist, despite the fact that 97% of experts in the field agree that climate change is human caused. By putting all all those who purport to tell the truth on equal footing, we lock ourselves into condoning endless disagreement, at the expense of making progress.  

I refuse to believe that everything is unknowable. The truth is not that vague. In the context of climate change, our planet is warming, humans are causing it, and we need to take action to avoid as many of its consequences as possible. Knowing this, and saying it, is okay. Identifying a right and a wrong is not naive. It’s easy, perhaps lazy, to renounce the idea of truth and live in perpetual nebulousness. Instead, why not challenge ourselves to hold convictions, to argue that they’re right, and to fight for them?

“Stop imposing your values on others”

I want to be careful with this one, because it makes an important point. Similar to postmodern ideas about truth, this phrase asserts that there is no singular right way of living. To a certain extent, I agree. The Western world has been sanctimonious in its diagnosis of traditionalist societies as poor and underdeveloped, and heavy-handed in administering its cures of industrialization and globalization. If a country prefers to remain an agrarian society, it should have every right to do so without interference from “the first world.”

That being said, it seems this principle has been taken too far, to the point where making any sort of value judgment is immediately written off as ethnocentric and imperious. But is it wrong to assume that something as fundamental as control over one’s life and health is a good? And if not, what are we prepared to accept? Are institutions such as racial caste, female genital mutilation, the stoning of homosexuals permitted as legitimate customs? I hope not.

Some values transcend relativistic notions of the good. Chief among these is the value of a livable planet. Every society, no matter how it chooses to live, requires land, food, water, and shelter to survive. Without these necessities, the cultures we wish to honor will be quite literally swept away. For this reason, it is not overbearing to assert that all the world’s people will benefit from addressing climate change, and therefore urge other countries to do so, and assist them in the process.

“The problem is too difficult to solve”

Overcoming climate change is often depicted as an undertaking that exceeds our capacity as human beings. The thing is, we already possess the means to solve it. We can implement carbon taxes, like the one in British Columbia that reduced emissions by 13% in four years.  We can shift our energy systems over to renewables, following countries like Costa Rica, which ran on 100% renewable energy sources for 76 days straight this summer. We can reduce our energy and resource consumption through innovations such as smart grids, LED lighting, energy efficient appliances, and so on.

The cynics counter that while we may have the ability to fight climate change, we lack the leadership. I disagree; nearly half of all Americans identify as environmentalists, and this number would likely be higher if it weren’t for the recent politicization of the term. We just need to make our voices heard. If all of us begin participating in the democratic process—voting, attending town hall meetings, boycotting unsustainable companies, protesting, running for local office—we could pressure our governments, from local to national, into taking sustainability more seriously. It doesn’t take a team of rocket scientists to solve climate change; only an engaged citizenry.

“Individual actions don’t matter”

There has been a bizarre attempt to minimize the importance of individual choices as of late. This needs to be pushed back against. While macro-level policies are needed to address climate change, they are not enough in themselves to solve the problem. We need to alter not just our policies, but also our culture, so that human behavior is more sensitive to the environment on which we all depend. Going vegan, driving less, reducing wastefulness, conserving water, turning off the lights; these simple acts can go a long way, especially if enough people do them. Rather than belittle, we should applaud the trailblazers, the ones brave enough to take the first step. Furthermore, we should model ourselves after them, and carry their message wherever we go, as part of a larger effort to elevate humanity’s collective consciousness with regard to sustainable living.

“I just don’t care”

Tabling at the involvement fair for the Students for Environmental Action earlier this year, I playfully asked passersby if they “liked planet Earth.” The first response I received was a resounding no—and it wasn’t the last. This upsets me, and not just because of the effect it has on my ego. Everything, from the air we breathe, to the water we drink, to the food we eat, to the clothes we wear, to the homes in which we live comes from the Earth. Without it, all life would cease to exist. Recognizing this, one frankly can’t afford to “not care.” In fact, not caring is not an option. Climate change is jeopardizing our planet’s ability to provide us with the things we need to survive. What this means is that nothing short of life as we know it is at stake. Rather than falling into indifference, we ought to be caring like our lives depend on it—because they do.

“It’s too late”

Most troubling of all, there is the idea that our time has expired, that there’s no longer anything we can do for our planet. This is simply not true. Admittedly, we have known about climate change for decades if not a century now, and we should have taken action a long time ago. Since we didn’t, some warming, and therefore some climatic disruption, is now inevitable. But climate change is not an all or nothing scenario. Each moment, we can choose to ignore it, or we can work our way toward a better future. To quote filmmaker Josh Fox, “The world is saved and lost every day, not all at once.”

With regard to recent days, we have reason to be encouraged. The Paris Climate Agreement has been ratified by enough countries to enter into force next month, binding its member countries to their pledged emissions reduction targets that will help keep warming under 2°C. Two weeks ago in Kigali, Rwanda, 195 countries agreed to phase out potent greenhouse gases known as hydroflurocarbons, which could save up to half a degree Celsius of warming. The International Energy Agency reported that renewable energy capacity has officially surpassed that of coal. And the largest protect (not protest) in Native American history is happening in North Dakota to prevent the Dakota Access oil pipeline from threatening our water and climate.  Efforts to mitigate climate change are happening around the world, and they’re picking up speed.

This matters. With every barrel of oil we leave in the ground, with every ton of CO2 we prevent from entering the atmosphere, with every degree of warming we manage to avoid, sacred lands are protected, one-of-a-kind species are preserved, human lives are saved. Rather than giving up, the sensible thing to do is to stand up and salvage all that we can.


In a time where taking action is more important than ever, the last thing we want to do is demoralize ourselves and one another. The above sentiments, which range from disingenuous to cynical to outright ignorant, are doing just that, and therefore have no place in the discourse on climate change. I would say that they’re useless, but it’s actually worse than that; they are actively impeding our ability to combat climate change by wrongfully instilling doubt in us and abetting our inaction.

It’s time to let go of what we don’t need. So, next time we hear one of these phrases, let’s dare to speak up. Let’s say we’ve had enough of the irony and the apathy and the resignation and insist that earnestness and sincerity are traits to be celebrated rather than scoffed at. Contrary to popular belief, caring isn’t uncool.

Thankfully, I’ve begun to remember that.  

2 thoughts on “A Defense of Hope in a Changing Climate

  1. Austin Tannenbaum always amazes me with his insightful analysis and succinct prose. He is the Noam Chomsky of environmental issues. This article needs to be read and shared widely. Thank you, Austin, for so often saying what I think and feel but am unable to articulate. I am making copies of this piece and handing them out to as many people as possible. More importantly I am adopting all the individual personal and lifestyle changes he suggests.

    1. Way to act on good ideas. I admire your action and it has caused me to plan similar actions. I know I am saying act a lot, but action is what is needed. And I am also not as articulate as ART. Who Is? Great Noam Chomsky reference.

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