Unleashing Climate Optimism

Unleashing Climate Optimism

A local business leader told me in earnest that he believes climate change is real. Maybe I should have just taken that as good news. But instead, I cringed. Climate change is real not because you believe it, but because of the weight of evidence demonstrating it. Repeated observations and measurements, from ice cores to tree rings to changes in the atmosphere, align with predictions from scientific principles and theory — some as far back as the 19th century. New data developed with modern methods reinforce past conclusions, while alternative explanations continue to be routinely disproved.

So we’ve established what’s happening, and what we’re up against. Here’s where belief matters. We must believe we can do something about it. If we don’t summon the collective optimism to course-correct the future, we never will.

A few decades ago, salmon and steelhead were practically extinct in the Bay Area, their life cycles disrupted by mindless urban expansion. After living with these magnificent creatures in Alaska, I felt a great sense of loss for the Bay Area. As Wallace Stegner argued, “something goes out of us as a people” when we drive species to extinction. My colleagues and I had no doubt that the restoration of wild creatures in our communities would return something to us and our children. In 1999, I co-authored an assessment of the feasibility of restoring these species to Alameda Creek, one of the largest local tributaries to the San Francisco Bay. Physical barriers to fish migration were present where the BART tracks crossed the creek. Since removing the BART tracks was not going to happen, we needed to build a facility that allowed the fish to bypass them. At the time, nobody knew exactly how to construct it nor how it could be funded.

But a generation later, after thousands of hours of meetings among multiple stakeholders, after detailed engineering analyses and after numerous grant and permit applications, I got to witness the product of our persistence. A state-of-the-art facility now allows salmon and steelhead to swim upstream, even as the flow of the creek varies widely due to water-supply operations. The Alameda County Water District, owner of the facility, went from a reluctant participant in discussions about restoration to an agency that integrates stewardship of the creek into its mission. A visit to the fish ladder is part of the orientation for all new employees.

An editorial at the time in a Livermore newspaper called the restoration of steelhead to Alameda Creek “a signpost that civilization can overcome its environmental mistakes,” and there are hundreds of examples that we are slowly repairing a damaged planet. We have restored elephant seals, whales, mangrove forests, eelgrass, the iconic American chestnut and major predators. We’ve protected the ozone layer, controlled acid rain, re-established wetlands as part of farms and put in place an ocean conservation treaty and the Paris Accord. These examples show that, with dedicated attention and on the scale of a generation, we can turn things around.

Ms. Christiana Figueres, the past Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the lead negotiator of the Paris Accord, has called for us all to be “stubborn optimists.” She notes that “optimism is not blind to reality (that is foolishness), and it is not oblivious to the hard facts (that is irresponsibility). Optimism is a choice; it is gritty, determined and relentless. It is the only way to increase our chance of success.”

Figueres asks, “What is the future you want? And what are you doing to make it a reality?” Kim Heacox recently reminded us of Carl Sagan’s words: “Don’t sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of the planet.”

Remember, the new reality will not appear quickly. But as we all stay committed and do our part, we can see the change occurring. Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale notes that we can model our commitment to addressing climate change after the communities in the middle ages that built cathedrals. Those who laid the foundations knew their grandchildren would finish the buildings, and their great-grandchildren would experience the spiritual majesty of these spaces.

Just like the Alameda County Water District is evolving to integrate a mission of restoration, so institutions around the planet are moving toward climate action and sustainability. While the change needs to happen much faster, we should not forget how far we’ve come. U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions peaked in 2005, sales of internal-combustion-powered vehicles have declined globally since 2017 and, in 2022, 84% of new global energy-generation capacity was renewable. Our cathedrals of sustainability are rising from the ground.

I wrote in 2019, “…our moment of reckoning has arrived. We either act with urgency and ambition, or suffer the consequences in infamy and regret. It is time to choose.” Let’s choose to be stubborn optimists, do our part and demand that those in power do theirs.