What I Say When People Tell Me That They Feel Hopeless About Climate Change

Scientists like me study carbon emissions, deforestation, ocean acidification, desertification, sea-level rise, glacial melting, landscape degradation, groundwater salination, invasive species, global warming and more.  There is very little good news to share.  Today’s environmental problems are easily big enough to eclipse our inadequate solutions.  When people tell me that climate change makes them feel hopeless, I breathe deep, and then I respond.  I don’t answer them because I have a good response, but because we all deserve at least a bad response.  Here is what I say.

What I Say When People Tell Me That They Feel Hopeless About Climate Change

First of all, I remind them that we are strong and lucky.  That our planet is also home to one billion people who live wretchedly on less than one thousand calories a day.  The fact that we are of the group with food, shelter and clean water obligates us not to give up on the world that we have compromised.  Knowledge is responsibility.

I remind them that every Age is conscripted to struggle with its own impending Armageddon.  That during centuries past, men and women railed helpless against overwhelming natural forces that poisoned the wells, spoiled the crops and robbed them of their babies.  We may discount their science as superstition but it was based on state-of-the-art observations.  Genetically we are no smarter than they were, and we may be laboring in similar darkness.  I note that the succeeding centuries did bring unfathomable solutions to even the most intransigent of these ancient plagues.  And though these solutions came far too late for many, they were not too late for all.

I stress that it matters what we teach the next generation.  That we should mourn the marring of our childhood sleep with nightmares about the threat of nuclear war.  We risk our own paralysis via the message that we have hated the Earth and so the Earth hates us.  As far as we know, this is still our species’ eternal home, and we must not alienate our children from it.

If these are my colleagues, I tell them that complaining about something is not the same as doing something about it, and that scaring people is not the same as informing them.  Then I remind myself to take my own advice.

I reassure them that my address book is full of people who care about these issues.  That the smartest people I know are dedicating their lives to gathering the data that will tell us more.  That on this very day, scores of people got to the lab early and will stay late, trying to quantify the exact magnitude of the problem.  That we are walking the fields and counting what is there and what is not.  That the ecologists who first noticed these problems could not have imagined the computers or instruments that we now use every day.  That scientists are watching and working and not just worrying.  That Science is really just as it has always been — overworked and underfunded and absolutely unwavering in its refusal to ever stop trying to figure it all out.

When people tell me that they feel hopeless about climate change, I look them in the eye, steady my voice and state that I believe all will be okay, even though we both know damn well that it may not.  Then I put my head down and I go back to work.

Next month my student graduates with a thesis project focused on crops, carbon dioxide and global hunger, which is what got me thinking.  It’s my first big foray out of rather esoteric plant biochemistry and into socially-relevant climate change research.  I also love science, and believe that it embodies all of our best hopes for tomorrow.