How To Be A Climate Optimist

04/20/2017 04:39 pm ET

When you think about the future, do things look more like Star Trek or Mad Max to you?

Think hard; your answer is important. Because your optimism or pessimism may prove more than just a personality quirk, especially when it comes to climate change.

A little optimism is a powerful thing
A little optimism is a powerful thing

In 1928, renowned sociologist William Thomas wrote, ‘If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.’ Even today this theory is the bedrock of modern sociology, more commonly called ‘self-fulfilling prophesies.’ And they affect us deeply. It seems that human beings have an uncanny habit of making true what we believe. Whether that’s a belief in economic crashes, our own career trajectories or global climate meltdowns.

George Soros calls it ‘reflexivity’ and claims his mastery of self-fulling prophecies “has enabled me to explain and predict events better than most others.” It works quite simply. If we believe the worst will happen then we are subconsciously demotivated to prevent it. Whereas, if we hope for the best, then we’ll work, invest, convince others and, in preparing for victory, we’ll create it.

Which is why I’m a climate optimist. Despite years of genuinely frightening science and disappointing politics to the contrary.

And last week, I discovered that I’m not alone.

Climate Optimism

A new campaign has launched, designed to help us prophesise a better future. Mission 2020 is the brainchild of former UN climate change chief Christiana Figueres. And she knows a few things about overturning doom-laden expectations, having managed to midwife a global climate agreement during COP21 that few believed possible. Her new Mission 2020 sets out six big bets for climate action, which are all designed to be necessary, desirable and achievable.

On renewables, the Mission 2020 prophesy is that “renewables outcompete fossil fuels as new electricity sources worldwide.” On transport, it predicts that “zero emission transport is the preferred form of all new mobility.”

Our deadline to make these prophesies come true: 2020.

Which isn’t a far-fetched possibility. In 2016, renewables supplied more than half the global electricity demand growth. As of the first quarter of 2017, electric car company Telsa has surpassed GM and Ford to become America's most valuable car company. And there is even good news on carbon: global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions were flat for a third straight year in 2016 even as the global economy grew. As the Mission 2020 folks say, “with radical collaboration and relentless optimism, we will make the 2020 climate turning point a reality.”

Imagining Better

This positive self-fulfilling prophesy needs a few more adherants. To become one, it helps to remember this won’t be the first time radical technological change has gone exponential. Remember it took only 66 years between Wright Brothers’ first air flight to Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the moon. There are signs things are speeding up for our carbon revolution. Today Siemens is working on electric flight, and IKEA is using plastic made out of carbon ‘drawn down’ from the atmosphere.

Professor Johan Rockström has built a scientific model of this prophesy. He’s proposed a ‘carbon law’ similar to Moore’s law that computing power will double every few years. Rockström’s model demands that we slice down half our carbon every decade. Intriguingly, he merges those cuts with projections of agriculture transforming from a carbon emitter to a carbon sink, and with a radical growth in negative emissions technology.

By his estimates, we could have climate change under control by 2100.

Make it happen

Excitingly, these ‘must do, want to, can do’ messages seem to be motivating businesses much more than the traditional ‘climate doom’ narrative.

H&M has just committed to becoming climate positive not only by cutting their own carbon but also by removing carbon from the atmosphere through restoring natural carbon sinks and investing in products made of carbon. This won’t just balance their carbon budget but scrub out more carbon than their entire supply chain emits.

Carpet tile company Interface is being even bolder. This unlikely but well-respected change-maker has launched Climate Take Back. Their breakthrough insight? That if humanity has changed the climate for worse, then we must be capable of changing it back.

They even have a plan for those who want to build ‘a climate fit for life’:

1. Live Zero – Do business in ways that gives back whatever is taken from the Earth.

2. Love Carbon – Stop seeing carbon as the enemy and start using it as a resource.

3. Let Nature Cool – Support our biosphere’s ability to regulate the climate.

4. Lead Industrial Re-revolution – Transform industry into a force for climate progress.

This will mean factories that act as forests, products made of carbon emissions and everything powered by renewables. That’s going to take a lot of work. And create a lot of opportunities. As Richard Branson puts it, "climate change is the greatest entrepreneurial opportunity of a lifetime."

Do you still have ‘yes, but…’ running through your mind? Yes, but, what about runaway climate effects if polar ice melts? Or yes, but what about President Trump and political disengagement?

I agree that our job is not nearly done yet.

But we must imagine that a better future is possible. Because our pessimism too often leads to inertia rather than action – and that’s what’s fuelling the self-fulfilling prophesy of unavoidable climate chaos.

In 2006, research group ESRC reviewed 129 different studies of how people change their behaviour for the better. They found that the least effective behavioural motivator was fear or regret. Which is why leaders like Christiana Figueres call themselves ‘stubborn optimists who will never give up.’

I’m hoping more people decide to join us. Because a time is coming when children will learn about climate change only in their history books.

That’s why I’m betting on Star Trek over Mad Max.

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