Practicing Hope amid Climate Upheaval

The leaf colors in our yard resemble a wine tasting, with shades from chardonnay to merlot. Amid this autumnal collage, incongruous pink and white cherry blossoms have emerged in response to the warm fall.

Flowers ordinarily bring joy and solace, but these blooms evoke solastalgia, a sense of loss from environmental change. “Just at the moment when we need it most, the inherent joy of noticing has been compromised, marred with mourning and with mirrors,” writes Daniel Sherrell in his new book, “Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World.” Each unseasonable bloom carries “a trace of every plane journey we’ve taken, every vote we’ve cast, every year that’s been wasted to gridlock.”

Sherrell, at age 30, has tracked those squandered years through more than a decade of climate organizing. His poignant book is an extended meditation on how to envision the future without succumbing – more than momentarily – to guilt, depression or fatalism.

Warmth is addressed to a child Sherrell may never have, given his ambivalence about bringing new life onto a planet with a prognosis so poor the U.N. recently declared a “code red for humanity.” But the very act of writing helps Sherrell break through what he calls the “bubble of numbness that otherwise shrouds everything all the time.”

Young activists, he writes, “tread the liminal ground between denial and resignation, not always buoyed by hope so much as the terror of what giving up would force us to admit to ourselves.”

Bludgeoned by proliferating climate catastrophes, many of us now traverse this same terrain, woozy with anxiety. What we do with that fear may shape just how disruptive the changes will be.

Getting to true ‘hope’

Hope is not a “state of the world” or “prognostication,” Czech statesman and poet Václav Havel once observed, but an “orientation of the spirit” and the heart that “transcends the world that is immediately experienced.” Hope involves “an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed,” he added. It offers “us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do …”

Havel’s words echoed through my head as I read Katharine Hayhoe’s new book, “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.” Researchers who track increasingly dire climate indicators, she writes, feel “like physicians who have identified a disease that is affecting every member of the human race, including themselves, and no one wants to listen to them.”

Scientists typically “err on the side of the least drama,” Hayhoe adds, so things will likely be even worse than projected. “Hope often starts in a very dark place,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s going to take a lot of work to end up in a better place, and it’s not guaranteed that we’re going to get there. But hope follows from action.”

Hayhoe, being a bold, articulate, evangelical woman, is a lightning rod for partisan vitriol. Yet with compassion and localized data, she frequently succeeds in diffusing the science denial and distrust that in her view stems from “tribalism, complacency and fear.” People need to grasp how “global weirding” threatens what they value, she writes. “True hope must begin by recognizing the risk, and understanding what’s at stake.”

Asked to address a Rotary Club near her home in west Texas, Hayhoe saw the club’s core principles, known as the Four-Way Test, in the building entry. Foregoing the buffet lunch, she hastily rescripted her presentation to demonstrate how climate action reinforces those principles.

As she spoke, Hayhoe watched the folded arms of conservative business owners give way to nodding heads. With characteristic humor, she recounts what a local banker told her after the talk: “ ‘I never thought too much of this whole global warming thing,’ he confessed – which is a polite Texan way of saying he’d thought it was a load of crap – ‘but it passed the Four-Way Test.’”

Cultivating ‘breadth of care’

Hayhoe and Sherrell both underscore how critical environmental justice is in addressing the climate crisis, emphasizing that a seemingly minor difference in further planetary warming will translate to vastly more human misery and death, particularly in the poorest countries that did little to create the climate crisis.

What’s required is not a one-time shift in outlook, Sherrell writes, so much as an ongoing “practice of stretching our attention far beyond its habituated scope” until those “we’ve been conditioned to neglect … take up residence in our heads.” That may be “the chief ethical and political challenge” before us, he adds, “to finally match our obvious and increasing interdependence with an appropriate breadth of care.”

An encompassing care must be codified at the U.N.’s upcoming climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. With carbon dioxide emissions still rising despite the 2015 Paris Agreement, this meeting must move beyond the hollow sloganeering of politicians that Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg recently called “words that sound great but so far have not led to action.”

Living with wild uncertainty

The backdrop for the talks in Glasgow are higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels than have occurred not only in all human history, but in more than 4 million years. Even if humans succeed in drastically cutting emissions (and that remains a huge “if”), the prospects for our species and countless others are – quite literally – up in the air. Sherrell comes to see “there will be no credit roll, or curtain call, or finalizing conclusion to this slow-motion emergency. The nature of the problem is to just continue, chaotic and inconclusive, sloughing off all the stories we want to tell ourselves.”

Yet there are a “swath of possible outcomes” that stretch out like a fan, Sherrell adds, “most of them scary, maybe, but none of them entirely predictable. In this indeterminacy, there is potential, which means there is still room for movement.”

Neuroscience, psychology, philosophy and religion all affirm that “we need to know that we can fix it,” Hayhoe writes, so we can move toward future improvements rather than “freeze in response to fear and anxiety.” What’s vital, she notes, is to share our “sense of efficacy with others,” and to “use our voices to advocate for change within our spheres of influence.”

There is deep wisdom in both these books, and their authors are inspiring. Hayhoe and Sherrell write candidly from the heart of lived experience – standing close to the fearsome truth of a burning planet. They model the love and bravery this challenge demands, having learned, in Hayhoe’s words, that “courage is an essential ingredient of rational, constructive hope.”

© Marina Schauffler, 2021. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request