The Futurian
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The Futurian

Why I Am a Climate Optimist

THE FUTURIAN #3

Superstorm Sandy over the Eastern United States, on the morning of Tuesday, October 30, 2012.

We’re in a climate crisis. A “code red” for humanity. The recent IPCC Working Group report is state-of-the-art synthesis of climate science and an assessment of where the climate of our planet may be headed. And it’s dire: Even in the best-case scenario — with a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions — additional warming and cascading impacts are locked in. Continuing our present course without significant reductions will result in increasingly catastrophic impacts. Humanity seems to be racing toward an “Uninhabitable Earth,” as David Wallace-Wells put it.

And yet I’m a climate optimist.

Well, sort of. I’m more of a climate possibilist. A rosy long-term climate future isn’t the most likely scenario. But I firmly believe a positive climate future is a real possibility. I’ve arrived at this view by intentionally paying attention to positive signals of change.

Our brains evolved to focus our attention on potential dangers in our environment. Being hyper-aware of threats, like the possibility of being eaten by a top predator, may be a good evolutionary strategy. But it gives us a skewed perspective on what’s possible in the long run. “Negativity bias” is the strong inclination to pay attention and give much more weight to things that are going wrong or could go wrong. It causes us to miss positive trends and developments that may be staring us in the face.

Overcoming negativity bias and its powerful grip on our thinking is hard. An approach futurists use is to practice “horizon scanning.” Horizon scanning is a structured process that involves searching diverse information sources to identify and explore the meaning of emerging developments, issues, and trends that could help shape the future. Futurists are always looking for “weak signals” of change — early and provocative glimpses into possible and very different futures.

My horizon scanning database includes scores of signals that could be the seeds of a positive climate future. I also collect negative climate signals. The key is to consider both.

Here are a few examples of positive climate signals. None of these is the solution the climate crisis, but all could be part of the transition to a better climate future:

Clean, renewable energy capacity is growing by leaps and bounds. For example, a recent report from the International Energy Agency found that global capacity for solar and wind will double over the next five years and will exceed both gas and coal capacity by 2024.

The cost of renewable energy has passed its economic tipping point. The stunning growth of solar and wind capacity has been driven by a precipitous drop in the cost of renewables due to rapid advances in technology and economies of scale. It’s now cheaper to invest in wind and solar than to build new coal or natural gas plants.

Divestment from fossil fuels is growing. More and more organizations are cutting ties to fossil fuels: The Vatican has urged Catholics and the private sector to divest from fossil fuel industries; the University of Oxford, the University of Michigan, and others are divesting; some institutional investors are eliminating carbon from their portfolios; the list goes on.

A wide range of carbon capture and storage technologies are being developed. To avoid exceeding the 1.5° — 2° C target of the Paris Agreement, we need to both drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and remove significant carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Many innovative carbon capture methods are under development, from high-tech to nature-based approaches.

Battery breakthroughs are burgeoning. Cheaper and more efficient batteries are needed to power the future, from grid-scale storage for intermittent renewable energy to batteries that will extend the range and lower the price of electric vehicles. An array of potentially game-changing battery innovations is being developed through massive R&D investments: Nano-diamond self-charging batteries, graphene aluminum ion batteries, molten salt grid-scale batteries, and many more.

Global reforestation efforts are being launched. Large-scale reforestation, afforestation, and forest restoration campaigns are a vital and hopeful nature-based climate solution. These efforts include urban reforestation programs, massive national tree-planting efforts, and ambitious global campaigns to plant a trillion trees.

Attitudes toward climate are changing. Shifting attitudes are needed to spur climate action. Public concern about climate change and its impacts has been growing for years in countries around the world. The largest global opinion poll on climate attitudes to date found that almost two thirds of respondents from 50 countries now view climate change as a global emergency. In America, the percentage of people who view climate as “extremely personally important” has doubled since 2006, and 82 percent of the population wants the federal government to act. The growing number of multi-billion-dollar weather and climate disasters could produce a seismic shift in attitudes that would enable rapid progress on addressing the climate crisis.

The youth climate movement is inspiring. One of the most promising signals of a positive climate future is the growing youth climate movement. Across the globe, children and teenagers have grabbed the world’s attention by walking out of class, marching, and demanding action. For example, six young people from Portugal filed a legal case with the European Court of Human Rights claiming that 33 countries have violated their right to life through inaction on the climate crisis. An article in the journal Nature stated, “Communications experts say these young climate activists are using their moral authority as children, and their social-media savvy, to surf a rising tide of adult concern.”

The list of positive climate signals goes on: Technological innovations to decarbonize steel and concrete production, two major contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions; learning and applying traditional ecological knowledge from Indigenous peoples; restoring degraded soil to absorb greenhouse gases; genetic modification of plants to remove more carbon dioxide. And many more.

What do these and many other positive climate signals mean? They’re signs of hope. Collectively they suggest that, despite ominous climate trends, our choices and actions today can help create a sustainable future.

Futurists often assert that “the future is open,” by which they mean it’s not fixed. We have opportunities and freedom to influence the future in a positive direction. Our inaction in the face of accelerating climate change is often characterized as a failure of imagination, an inability to envision a transformed and sustainable world. Overcoming our natural inclination to focus on negative signals and see the seeds of a transformed world is a first step.

© David Bengston 2021

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David Bengston

David Bengston

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David Bengston is an environmental futurist with the Strategic Foresight Group, Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service.