Image credit: Agathe Bernard
It is not naive to be an optimist about climate change. On the contrary, it is the only responsible attitude.
So says Elaine Kelsey, climate change communications researcher, educator and author.
Kelsey holds a PhD in Environmental Policy and works on communications projects that influence engagement in environmental efforts. She is also an adjunct faculty member at the University of Victoria School of Environmental Studies, author of children’s books, and author of Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think Is Critical To Sending the Environmental Crisis for adults.
CNBC spoke to Kelsey, 60, by phone for a series about managing and responding productively to climate change concern.
Below are excerpts from Kelsey’s conversation with CNBC. They have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Focus on evidence-based solutions
What we’re seeing around the world is a real increase in people’s anxiety about climate change, their desire to do something about it, and their deep feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that nothing can be done.
This becomes an important issue, in my opinion, to share.
I would argue that we are inadvertently feeding this sense of helplessness and despair by mounting alarms about these honest, important, and urgent global issues because most of the news we hear about the environment is about identifying the problem, not oriented towards solutions.
We get rid of the feeling that nothing has happened and that it is too late.
I am also a children’s book writer. And so I often find myself with very young children talking about these issues. And I began to realize that we put things like ratings on movies or on scenes of violence in movies and say, “That’s not appropriate for a young child.”
However, there is apparently nothing wrong with walking into the classroom and telling the child that the Earth has been destroyed, or showing the doomsday clock with climate change predictions. We just weren’t sensitive enough about the emotional landscape of young children.
This bleak and torturous narrative is fueled by the real issues we face and the fact that we only hear about problems almost always.
One part we can really change, that needs to change, is that we also need to talk about evidence-based solutions. This is why it’s exciting for me to see the birth of fields like solutions journalism (which looks for solutions as precisely as they fit in specific settings and which parts of them can be moved, amplified or detailed) as they search for problems.
This is the direction we must go.
We need to make solutions more accessible so that people are aware of the changes that are actually happening and the things they care about so that they don’t feel alone in their concerns. We need to get rid of this inaccurate message that nothing positive is actually happening, and that there are no good results, because it is not true.
To be hopeless is to be uninformed. In fact, we’re collectively uninformed because we’re so mired in this bleak narrative that we don’t hear much about anything productive going on. Then we interpret it as the truth.
Eileen Kelsey sleeps outside on her roof in Victoria, British Columbia. “I do it because the changes of the seasons really support me,” she said. “I see nature really everywhere even though I live in a small town square.”
Credit: Agathe Bernard
So, for example, we know that right now, more than 110 countries have set net carbon emissions targets by 2050. That’s more than 70% of the world’s economy. This is an important thing to note.
Now, do we need to get there faster? Absolutely. Do we need to hold them accountable for these kinds of promises? Absolutely. But knowing this is the case is different from thinking that no country should do anything.
Optimism does not lead to complacency
What we know from the psychological literature is fear and shame that push us to shut down and give up.
Many people fear that if you talk about hope, then in reality you will generate complacency during a time when you need urgent action.
But the psychological literature shows us that the opposite is true.
When you think other people care about the things you do — and you have a sense of pride that some things are moving in the direction they should move and determination, stick to it, and empathy and empathy for others that you care about — you’re more likely to stay and do the hard work.
Whereas when you think something is hopeless, and you have this hope gap, or climate doom, as Michael Mann calls it, you feel helpless, you tend to feel isolated, and you tend to feel apathy, which means you weaken, lose your agency and give up.
So it’s actually the opposite of what we intuitively think about.
Yet we know that. We know if 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 a good enough job – how motivating? it’s not like that. Whereas when we’re in a work environment, and someone frankly says, “Okay, that’s what we did, here’s where we’re at, and here’s where we’re trying to get to,” you’re more likely to do the hard work to get where we are. This is the point I am trying to make.
I am by no means trying to say that we do not have urgent problems. We definitely do. But this despairless novel takes us in the exact opposite direction of what we ought to be going.
Embracing the ‘Amal Bank’ story
If you look at these big stories people talk about, like Noblebright – we’re looking for a brilliant superhero to save us. Or the dystopian narrative of everything devastating, as much of the climate change imagination has been taken.
Now, there was this real upside to Punk’s hope. Hope punk appears in movies, appears in books, appears in other areas and this idea is that we live the right way we know we should live, regardless of whether the situation is hopeless or not. We work the ways we believe in.
I would argue that a lot of people are trying to make Greta Thunberg a noble character. I don’t think she’s trying to do that. But they raise it — or Jane Goodall, like that one guy who would do it all. And a lot of environmental communication has been about finding the hero, telling people about that hero, and hoping that they become heroes.
Well, I hope punk is another story that’s really going up. And what it says is that we all do our best and are stronger together and collectively live the right ways we know we should, regardless of whether it works or not. It is that we operate from that morality. And I think it’s very attractive to people who have a concern about social justice and climate change, because social justice is about equality and empathy and recognition of all of our individual self-values, you know, and I think that hopeful punk story really appeals to those values.
Climate agony, Michael Mann says, is now the new climate denial.
Because when we were able to deny climate, which isn’t common anymore – there was a real rise in the number of people accepting climate change. But when there’s climate denial, you can say, well, we don’t have to do anything, because it’s not happening.
Climate doom is just as effective at creating inaction. Because if you say it’s really too late, there’s no need for any political action. It is a political choice to be an optimist. And I think it’s a very important political choice. He must be well informed.
And the point I’m trying to make is that it’s hard to be well informed, because we have such an unbalanced tendency towards focusing only on problems.
That’s something that I think the Solutions Journalism Network, which is really getting stronger, and other media efforts like Climate Matters which is a large group of news outlets that focus on climate, these kinds of initiatives are really important, because we need to hear a more amazing story about the things that work.
Kelsey sleeps abroad in Victoria, British Columbia. It rains in winter. “So I’m covered enough that I’m clear of the rain,” she said, “but I can hear the rain all around me, and I love it. I just love it.”
Image source: Agathe Bernard
How to help someone stuck in climate decrepitude
The first thing I do is I really try to listen to them.
Because I think creating safe spaces for people to really express their feelings is an essential part of all of this. We are not open to new ideas when we feel overwhelmed by our feelings. Part of the reason I got involved in creating the Existential Toolkit for Climate Justice Educators is to bring in all this psychological and other literature on how to create this kind of safe spaces in a more public world. And so first, I listen.
I really try to listen deeply to what this person feels and values, because those feelings show that he really cares about these issues. So even if their feelings are anger, it’s because they care. So try to listen and create that safe space.
And second, try to hear which issues they feel very desperate about, and then bring some current, timestamped content to that.
So I tell them to really be aware in the way of media literacy that you often only hear about these issues. Tackle the topic you are most interested in, add “recent solutions”, “positive developments” or these other keywords, or go to the solutions journalism network, where you can easily search their articles, you can filter them by area of interest, search About things moving in the direction you want them to go.
And when you really start looking at it, you start to find a lot more things than you could possibly imagine. So it is actively looking for evidence-based solutions, rather than assuming that the headlines of desperation are the only truth.