In thinking about climate change, positivity is a big plus |

In thinking about climate change, positivity is a big plus

Aspen Ideas Fest conversation emphasizes the value of "climate optimism"

Gadi Schwartz, Alaina Wood and Thomas Doherty sit onstage for a "Climate Change and You" conversation during the Aspen Ideas Festival at the Aspen Institute on Monday, June 27, 2022.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

Our water supply is running out and drying up. Bark beetles are munching away at the trees in the mountains. Fires pose a threat; so do floods. 

In a real-life version of the “doom scroll” — that dreaded habit of seeing bad news online, then seeing more and more and more of it — audience members at a Monday afternoon Aspen Ideas Festival conversation about climate change and mental health didn’t have a hard time coming up with headlines about the planet’s dire straits. 

“If we don’t do anything in the next 30 years, we’re not going to be able to fix it because it’s already too late,” someone suggested. 

That’s one way to think about it, anyway. Cue the TikTok from sustainability scientist and climate communicator Alaina Wood.

A new train runs on biofuel; a solar-powered motorhome can go 450 miles on a sunny day; putting solar panels over canals in California could save billions of gallons of water and produce power, too, she reports. There’s a 100% recyclable ketchup bottle; researchers are 3D printing coral skeletons using terra cotta; eating fewer animal products helps reduce carbon emissions; researchers found an easier and cheaper way to remove arsenic from water. 

Sixty seconds later, things are looking a little more hopeful on the pale blue dot.

Wood is a strong believer in climate optimism — the idea that positive thinking might be a healthier and more effective way of thinking about and acting on climate change than the notion that we’re all doomed. Climate anxiety psychologist Thomas Doherty is a proponent of it, too; he joined Wood and moderator Gadi Schwartz from NBC News in the “Climate Change and You” session during Ideas Fest at the Aspen Institute. 

So, Schwartz wondered aloud, how do you get into that headspace? 

“Climate change is really scary,” Wood said. “But we shouldn’t let that fear paralyze us into not doing things, so I decided, well, I don’t hear anything about solutions, and I’m a scientist, and I think that’s really sad. … We can fix this. We’ve got the solutions. And if we’re in a better headspace, we’re more likely to take action.”

From the psychologist’s perspective, Doherty said that positive mindset is something we can each replicate in our own ways as individuals. Coping with the reality of climate change is a separate process from finding the solutions to a climate crisis, he said, and navigating that reality might mean that we sometimes feel guilty, or anxious, or afraid. 

Those emotions can be healthy, and they too can serve a purpose in their own way. 

“We are wired to look for threats — I mean, that’s how humans have survived,” Doherty said. “So we do tend to see threats in the environment and disregard positive things, so that is a natural tendency. But when you take that natural tendency, I think it’s actually the issue is the information. … Hopelessness is a perceptual problem.”

The key, according to Doherty, is to balance that out so fatalism doesn’t get in the way of hope or change. 

“We should be able to feel all of our emotions … that at some points might include guilt, but it also includes appreciation of beauty, it includes inspiration, it includes mindfulness, it includes being present,” Doherty said. “So I think the key and coping is making sure that we don’t get stuck.”

Wood described the sentiment that it’s “too late” to do anything to address climate change as “climate doom.” She considers it a form of “misinformation.” 

“I understand: Climate change is absolutely terrifying, and if you feel like it’s too late, but it’s not, and spreading climate doom is actually pretty harmful,” both in terms of mental health and “climate inaction,” Wood said. 

Thinking about our relationship to the natural world — and sharing that identity on a generational level — can help people see the future through a more hopeful and actionable lens, Wood and Doherty suggested.

“It’s almost like a family tree,” Wood said. “And it can be cyclical, but hopefully, if people take time to address their feelings and learn how to cope, they can move past the cycle of guilt, grief, cynicism, into action.”

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