Hope and courage in the climate crisis

| September 27, 2021

As the risks of catastrophic climate change continue to grow, so too do the challenges of facing an increasingly hazardous future with honesty and courage, justice and compassion, meaning and purpose.

In 2012, almost 10 years ago, I had the honour of interviewing many of the world’s leading climate scientists, activists and policy makers about the actions needed to create a just and sustainable safe climate future.

In facing up to the challenge of dealing with the consequences of climate change and the need for more urgent action to ameliorate it, we can fortify ourselves with a focus on courage, justice and compassion. 

Their conclusions were clear and consistent. Greenhouse gas emissions had to begin falling rapidly by the early 2020s in order to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Everyone I spoke to agreed that the actions required to achieve this goal were technologically achievable and financially affordable.

We needed to reduce energy consumption and improve efficiency, accelerate the shift from fossil fuels to renewables, and draw down CO2 while protecting the health and wellbeing of all communities and ecosystems.

Now in 2021 and despite a rapid expansion in renewable energy and energy efficiency, the political obstacles preventing emergency speed action remain stubbornly formidable.

Greenhouse gas levels continue to rise and images of increasingly severe and frequent fires, storms and floods continue to fill our screens.

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) climate science update reminds us yet again that accelerating the transition to a just and resilient zero-carbon future clearly remains humanity’s most urgent task.

There are some promising signs that the transition to a zero-carbon economy is now well underway.

Governments in Europe, the US and China are beginning to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the speed and scale of climate action now required. Investors are beginning to shift trillions of dollars from fossil fuels to renewables.

Investors are beginning to shift trillions of dollars from fossil fuels to renewables. 

Legal actions requiring governments and business to address the full extent of climate risk are having a growing impact. And the huge health co-benefits and job creation potential of a climate-resilient, clean energy economy are now more widely understood.

The harsh reality however – as many of us are all too well aware – is that none of these actions are happening at anything like the necessary speed.

Scientific evidence about global warming trends are already locked in – that is now crystal clear. Human beings and all other species are now on a journey into an increasingly challenging harsh climate future.

This awareness – that this is going to be a very long emergency – is a source of deep distress for many people, including many of my friends and colleagues, who are passionately committed to decisive climate action.

The second tough and urgent task therefore is to address the question – what ideas and learning can help us face a harsh climate future with wisdom, hope and courage?

In framing this question, I should emphasise that the hope I’m looking for is realistic, defiant courageous hope – not wishful thinking or predatory delay disguised as naïve optimism.

Defiant and courageous hope means finding the strength to continue opening pathways to restoring a safe climate future while fully understanding the increasing difficulty of this task.

Australia must deepen its understanding of the histories of the lands on which we gather. 

I turn first to my friends and colleagues from Indigenous and First Nation communities.

We might usefully begin, they note, by deepening our understanding of the histories of the lands on which we gather – and the legacies of colonialism, resistance and dispossession which have led us to this time and place.

Climate justice is therefore one of the first propositions we should bring to the table.

For if the principle of climate justice is to be more than hollow words we will need substantive actions which fully acknowledge and address the sources and consequences of violence and injustice.

Principles and practices of care, compassion and respect will also be foundational – care and respect for country, for all the creatures with whom we share this world, and for all the human beings who will follow after us.

While acknowledging the wisdom of this opening contribution my colleagues from the world of science and technology approach the question from another direction.

We wish, they say to emphasise the power of scientific evidence analysed through rigorous research combined with the disruptive, game changing force of imagination, creativity and innovation

My activist colleagues build on this commitment to speak truth to power by highlighting stories of ethically informed collective action driving transformational change which once looked completely impossible.

Historic examples include the anti-slavery movement, the Suffragettes, and the overthrow of Apartheid. More recent examples include School Strike 4 Climate, 350.org, Beyond Zero Emissions, The Sunrise Movement and Black Lives Matter.

How do we maintain the emotional resilience to keep facing the tough truths about the future? 

These are all valuable insights. But how, I wonder do all my scientist and activist friends maintain the emotional resilience to keep facing the tough truths about the future which all the evidence tells us is increasingly likely?

Here the responses are more complicated and varied – meditation, art and music, working together in the garden, the kindness, warmth and joy of family and friends, walking the old dog along the beach, watching the horizon as the waves keep rolling in.

Awareness of the fragile impermanence of our dew drop world is also a constant reminder of our shared responsibility to keep paying attention, to keep turning up, to hold the line and to keep nurturing and sustaining relationships and practices of kindness and compassion; justice, love and care.

What insights and practices can strengthen our capacity to sustain strong and effective action and to live meaningful lives in a world of rapidly accelerating climatic and ecological risks?

Along with emergency speed and science-based collective action, we need justice, respect and care. We need visionary and courageous leadership at many levels, as well as social and technological innovation. But we also need thankfulness, kindness and compassion; beauty, creativity and imagination.

And also we need our abiding gifts – the laughter of children, the comfort of old friends, sunlight on the water, the wind in the trees, the silence of mountains, the roar of the ocean.

Professor John Wiseman’s new book Hope and courage in the climate crisis, published by Palgrave Macmillan is available online nowThis article was published by Pursuit.