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How Hope Can Change the World
Climate

How Hope Can Change the World

With the pressure on for leaders following Glasgow’s conference and negative rhetoric massing, why is hope more critical than ever to the fight against climate change?
By Alice Treasure
18th Nov 2021

“We must use this opportunity to create a more equal world, and our motivation should not be fear, but hope.” – David Attenborough

Amidst a tide of worrying reports about climate change, it’s easy to throw up our hands in despair. The problem is too big, too complex and too overwhelming to feel positive about. Being hopeful can seem naive or even ignorant, and many individuals – activists and politicians included – have become cynical about climate action. 

But in his opening speech at the start of COP26, David Attenborough instilled one important message above all else: hope is our ally. 

With much of the rhetoric surrounding COP26 focusing on the limitations of the conference and the looming disaster of a climate crisis, is hope the superpower needed by leaders to change the narrative and impact our planet’s future? 

The difference between hope and optimism

“Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïveté.” – Maria Popova

Hope and optimism are often used interchangeably, but psychologists have found that the two mindsets have fundamental differences.

One study revealed that when success was likely, participants labelled their mindset as optimistic. When success was less likely though still possible, they said that they felt hope – “in particular when they were highly invested in the outcome.” These words are not conceptually interchangeable. Optimism is reserved for those confident of a positive outcome; hope is what we feel when we know there is work to do. 

Above all, there is one key distinction between them: action. Optimists believe that a positive outcome is inevitable regardless of any action (or more worryingly inaction) that they take – risky business when it comes to the desperate need for climate action. According to studies, developing this kind of optimism bias can curb action and lead to poor business decisions, unrealistic views of the future and an overconfidence in what can be achieved

Optimism is reserved for those confident of a positive outcome; hope is what we feel when we know there is work to do.

Hope, however, is different. It thrives in the uncertainty between a tangible problem and an unknown future, leaving room for possibility. Far from painting our actions as irrelevant, hope empowers us to take control of our future. A study exploring the effects of hope and despair on behaviour towards the climate crisis found that hope has a positive impact on behaviour, while despair negatively impacted individuals’ behaviour towards climate action. Another found that “hope focuses more directly on the personal attainment of specific goals,” while optimism was linked more broadly to the expectation of “future outcomes in general.”

According to Rebecca Solnit, hope is “an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.” Even Greta Thunberg, who declared COP26 ‘a failure’, said: “There is not a point where everything is lost. We know that change is possible…if we felt like there wasn’t any hope, we wouldn’t be activists.” 

Hopeful people don’t simply believe things will work out in the right way, they believe that their actions have the power to create the future they want. And it is an essential trait for our leaders to display in this historic decade. 

Hope is essential for climate leadership

“Paradoxically, systemic change is a deeply personal endeavour.” – Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac

Leaders who are taking a stand on climate change, whether in government or business, are going to come under fierce criticism. In order for them to stay firm in their resolve, it is essential that they are personally invested and personally hopeful.

Barack Obama, who famously won the 2009 US Presidential election running on the platform of hope, is a great example of a leader whose personal hopefulness flows out into his politics. Throughout his political career he spoke of his personal journey to becoming the first Black President as requiring hope: “Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope.” 

Speaking at COP26 earlier this month, Obama exhorted the crowd to make room for anger to co-exist side-by-side with hope: “Channel that anger, harness that frustration, keep pushing harder and harder for more, because that’s what is required to meet this challenge.” 

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The political sphere is not the only global arena that relies on hope. As more and more corporations transition to purposeful business, corporate responsibility for climate change has come to the forefront of global discussions. 

Individuals with hopeful mindsets have been found to be 28% more likely to be successful at work, while a collective sense of hope has been linked to a higher rate of action. Another study found a direct correlation between hope and business success: high-hope leaders enjoyed “more profitable work units and had better satisfaction and retention rates among their subordinates” compared to low-hope leaders. 

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s response to the pandemic exemplifies a hopeful mindset. He accepted the uncertainty of the situation and applied his energy to actions that he and his employees had control over. In other words, rather than appearing helpless or overwhelmed by a tide of uncertainty, he positioned himself as a fixed point for both shareholders and employees – and reaped the rewards of a 44% jump in profits

28%
Individuals with a hopeful mindset are 28% more likely to be successful at work.

Leaders have a responsibility to remain stubbornly hopeful in the face of great adversity, and to shift the story of our fight against climate change from one of powerlessness and despair to one of empowerment and possibility.

In his 2021 annual letter to CEOs, Founder and Chief Executive of BlackRock Larry Fink emphasised the importance of swift change, action and perseverance in the face of the climate crisis: “[Companies] are embracing the demands of greater transparency, greater accountability to stakeholders, and better preparation for climate change. I am encouraged by what I have seen from businesses.”

The 2021 letter ends in recognition of the difficulties presented by the climate crisis, but retains the personal conviction that we can do something about it: “We face a great challenge ahead. The companies that embrace this challenge…will build a brighter and more prosperous future for the world.”

When a leader’s personal hope for the planet is evident, their countries and companies will be inspired to follow. The next decade will be a decisive chapter in humanity’s story, and it will be shaped by the way our leaders think about the future. 

Helplessness: the enemy of hope

“Hope is only a beginning; it’s not a substitution for action, only a basis for it.” – Rebecca Solnit

And yet many people aren’t hopeful. Particularly around COP26, there has been a rallying cry that many of the promises have been made before and failed to make a difference. Take deforestation, for example. At the beginning of COP26 world leaders announced that they would eliminate deforestation by 2030. But this exact same promise was made in 2014, and since then deforestation has actually accelerated. 

Climate promises without action can lead to people falling prey to the enemy of hope: helplessness. Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, and Senior Advisor Tom Rivett-Carnac, discuss the cycle of falling into a hopeless mindset in The Future We Choose: “This learned [helplessness] is not only untrue, it’s become fundamentally irresponsible. If you want to help address climate change, you have to teach yourself a different response.” 

A tidal wave of repetitive and constant bad things breeds despair – an emotion that Solnit explains as premature: “It’s a form of impatience as well as certainty.” If hope flourishes in the unknown possibilities of the future, it withers away in the certainty of an unchanging cycle of events. 

The next decade will be a decisive chapter in humanity’s story, and it will be shaped by the way our leaders think about the future. 

Vicious cycles also apply to corporations who have historically contributed to climate change. Tom Rivett-Carnac argues that a narrative of criticism and punishment for past wrongdoings is not productive: “If that’s the price of the debate, [corporations] are just not going to join…this isn’t about punishment, this is about coming together for the common good.” 

McKinsey recently highlighted the importance of working with high-carbon companies. Carbon needs to be cut, and abandoning high-emission corporations will not help the cause. We must move towards a narrative built on hope and inclusivity that involves all parties in the discussion. If we don’t, we are only slowing down the transition to a green planet and wasting the limited time we have left to solve the crisis. 

The future we hope for

“Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?” – Barack Obama

COP has been happening annually for a quarter of a century, and yet this year’s COP is the first time business showed up in droves to engage with the conversation. For the first time in a COP meeting, coal was specifically named in the agreement to phase down its use. A global climate deal was signed – a feat that was recognised as a landmark achievement only six years ago. Hope can be found when we look for it. 


The Grantham Institute, a think-tank dedicated to climate change research, emphasised that collective narratives “will be the most effective mechanism” in fighting climate change and “should engage as many relevant stakeholders as possible.”

Hopeful people don’t simply believe things will work out in the right way, they believe that their actions have the power to create the future they want.

If we focus on the incredible achievements of humanity in the past, the story of our collective identity can change. As historian Howard Zinn puts it: “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.”

Leaders have a responsibility to remain stubbornly hopeful in the face of great adversity, and to shift the story of our fight against climate change from one of powerlessness and despair to one of empowerment and possibility. 

“At this point in history we have a responsibility to do what is necessary. And for most of us that will involve some deliberate reprogramming of our minds,” say Figueres and Rivett-Carnac. Looking ahead at this crucial decade, paved with challenges, adversity and the unknown, David Attenborough is right: hope will be our greatest ally.