The Case for Optimism

Vertical garden on residential building in central Paris
A vertical garden grows on a residential building in central Paris. (Getty Images)

Climate change is a big problem. It’s vast, complex, and downright depressing to think about. Some argue it’s too political. Others point to the potential for technological superheroes, like giant CO2-sucking machines that will fly in to save the day. Still others believe that we have no chance, that the fight is already lost, that it’s better to just “enjoy life” and ignore the problem while the world gets hotter and hotter.

But we all need to ask ourselves, what can I really do about it? As an individual in a sea of 7.5 billion people, how can I be part of the solution?

Optimism is the only choice

As a climate scientist, dad, and member of a global society, my own take is that optimism is the only choice that will make a difference. But optimism must be followed by action, daily actions, which can have a lasting impact if cut into smaller pieces.

man by trees

Ben Houlton, director of the UC Davis John Muir Institute of the Environment. (UC Davis)

When I think about climate change, I apply a simple mantra to my daily life: “One CO2 at a time.”

Rather than downplay the impact of that molecule, I think about how a single speck of CO2 can last for 100 years on the planet. I focus on the importance of this action to helping with national security, to ensuring that the lakes, rivers and streams that I love to fish will be there for others. I think about the people in Alaska and across the globe who are suffering from climate impacts, such as rising seas and famine – and the economic damages that can be avoided.

Climate change is here, now

Climate change is not some far distant idea. It has already entered our living rooms. In California, we are witnessing in real-time the devastating impacts of only about 2 degrees F of global warming. Droughts, floods, and wildfires are becoming more personal as we watch our loved ones’ lose their homes and businesses, or we have to cancel soccer practice because of bad air. We are experiencing multi-billion dollar losses to California’s economy because of such climate disruptions.

CO2 molecule

One CO2 molecule. (Wikipedia)

With “one CO2 at a time,” I focus on values I hold dear, rather than the self-defeating voice of hopelessness. I consider that each molecule of CO2 matters, that everything on Earth is connected, including how my decisions affect others.

This helps me magnify even the smallest actions into lasting solutions and protects myself against feeling guilty or inadequate to the challenge of climate change. Each time I choose to ride my bike or walk rather than drive, turn the lights out in an empty room, eat food with a lower carbon footprint, or invest in solar power and energy efficient appliances, I’m working “One CO2 at a time,” with lasting benefits for 100s of years or more.

Daily decisions matter

Carbon footprint analysis reveals that our daily decisions really do matter, substantially. A recent study from UC Davis and UC Berkeley in California suggests that household consumption patterns are a major determinant of greenhouse gas emissions. The most important choices we make involve transportation, when and how we use our electricity, and the food we eat. Buying an electric car, switching to solar energy, and choosing to eat a low-carbon diet can have a major impact on CO2 emissions.

We also need effective policies like AB32, the Paris Climate Agreement, and strong climate leadership from business, industry, insurance and finance. These are essential to scaling up global climate solutions and creating conditions for low-carbon innovations. A new economy that prizes people’s health and planetary security while growing jobs and creating a new climate-smart workforce is the key challenge of the 21st century.

But even if we aren’t at the table negotiating treaties, devising policies, or creating the next clean energy breakthrough, we do what we can to be part of the solution. We work with these larger efforts to amplify the collective impact of CO2 reductions. We place our pocketbooks in context of the planet and push for a better world for our children and theirs.

No time like the present

The best available science tells us that the next 10 years is among the most critical times in human history. It can be remembered as the decade when we banded together, working individually and collectively to slash climate pollutants. Or, it will be evaluated through the lens of inactions, with even greater risks in the future.

To avoid the deadliest impacts of climate change this century, we must come together and work toward a carbon-free society that is resilient to climate impacts—all people from all perspectives, walks-off-life, politics and cultures. We can use our powers of choice, imagination and the spirit of cooperation to solve climate change.

So the next time that voice of guilt, doubt or hopelessness enters the mind, focus on the moment. Consider how saving even one molecule of CO2 emissions can benefit our world.

Consider how, in the end, daily decisions got us to this place, and daily actions will get us out.


Media Resources

Ben Houlton is director of the UC Davis John Muir Institute of the Environment and professor in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources. He is dedicated to creating lasting, economic solutions to environmental challenges through multi-disciplinary collaboration, and is a member of the University of California’s Global Climate Leadership Council. @BenHoulton

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