Presence of Mind

Understanding environmental and other social problems.

Earth Day Pessimism and Earth Day Optimism: Part One

Cultivating Your “Realistic Optimism” to Reduce Climate Change Impacts

This week brings us Earth Day, a day when we should renew our commitment to environmental sustainability and develop personal plans of action to reduce our own environmental impacts.  But if you read my last blog on the environment, you know a pessimistic storm has been brewing in my head. Continued bad news about the climate change and the many psychological and political barriers to reducing greenhouse gases challenge my hopefulness about our future. I’m trying to snap out of my pessimism and have hope, for if we feel hopeless the likelihood of disaster only increases since we won’t see any point in action.

My pessimism wasn’t helped by a Gallup poll released on March 12th. Climate change was ranked second to the last of fifteen worries about national problems (51% of those surveyed said they worried about it only a little or not at all).* Meanwhile, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which includes 12,000 scientific references) provides evidence of shrinking glaciers, species migration, dwindling crop yields, rise in vector-borne diseases, and an increase in extreme weather events. As IPCC Chairperson Rajendra K. Pachauri said about the report: “In view of the impacts and those that we have projected for the future, we know that nobody on the planet will be untouched by climate change.” The IPCC report is also clear that human activities, in particular, carbon-based fuel use and deforestation, are major culprits in climate change.

 Ironically, the “wrong” kind of hope and optimism is part of the problem. As suggested by environmental psychologist Robert Gifford, “optimism bias” is a psychological barrier to individuals’ responses to climate change. Some research finds that when people acknowledge environmental risks they often assume that they personally will be relatively unaffected and so are unmotivated to engage in preventative or preparatory actions.

 Most psychologists agree that hope and optimism promote the positive illusions that can promote good mental health. But we also acknowledge that optimism has a downside. In the case of climate change, unrealistic or blind optimism can prevent needed action as people optimistically assume that technological and political solutions will save the day. Given the magnitude of the problem, and given that people feel powerless to do much about it, it’s unsurprising that we might rely on positive illusions to reduce our anxiety about humanity’s future.

So we need “optimistic realism.” We need to heed warnings about what will likely happen if we don’t act and we need to temper the unrealistic optimism that may lead us to assume that engineers, politicians, and the free market will solve this problem. But we also need enough optimism and hope to fuel the belief that our personal actions can effectively reduce the impacts of climate change. After all, there is some chance that if we change our practices now we can arrest the pace of climate change and reduce its undesirable consequences.

It’s still possible to avoid the worst-case scenario. The IPCC says that we can probably keep global mean temperature increases to two degrees Celsius (after which point sustainable development may be almost impossible and climate change outcomes devastating), if we lower our global greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 70 percent (compared with 2010 levels) by mid-century, and to near-zero by the end of this century. The Union for Concerned Scientists’ book “Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living” suggests that a low-carbon future is possible if we all take steps in our personal lives and push for change around us.

In the teaser for the new Showtime climate change documentary series “Years of Living Dangerously” someone says, “You don’t want to be on the side that says ‘I had a chance to do something and I didn’t.’” This is really something we should all think about. Adults, young and old, will have some explaining to do to their children and grandchildren if we don’t take action while we can.  As Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) said “We cannot play a waiting game where we bet on future technological miracles to emerge and save the day - and why would we?” Part Two of "Earth Day Pessimism and Earth Day Optimism" talks about what you personally can do to inspire hope and action. 

 

* This is the glass half empty.  Looking at it as half full, almost 50% of the poll participants said they worried about climate change either a “great deal” or a “fair amount,” almost as many that worried about it little or never. These people may be significant change agents as they help change the attitudes and behaviors of those around them. 

 

References

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC March 2014). http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=47569&Cr=climate%20change&Cr1=#.U0sG3164mlI Retrieved on April 12, 2014.

Gallup (March 2014). http://www.gallup.com/poll/167843/climate-change-not-top-worry.aspx  Retrieved on April 12, 2014.

Gifford, R. (2011). The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation. American Psychologist, 66, 290-302. http://psychologyforasafeclimate.org/resources/The%20dragons%20of%20inaction%20Robert%20Gifford.pdf Retrieved on April 15, 2014

Kruger, J., & Burrus, J. (2004). Egocentrism and focalism in unrealistic optimism (and pessimism). Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 332-340.

Peterson, C. (2000). The future of optimism. American Psychologist, 55, 44-55.

Snyder, C.R. (2000). The past and possible futures of hope. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19, 11-28.

Union of Concerned Scientists (2012).  Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living.  Washington, DC: Island Press. 

 

 

Shawn Meghan Burn, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo.

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