It’s easy to be a pessimist.
I was exposed to this expect-the-worst mentality watching the Boston Red Sox with my grandfather while growing up. (This was, of course, before the baseball team started winning World Series championships on a somewhat regular basis.)
The Sox would load the bases with nobody out, and Grampa would mutter things such as, “oh, he’ll strike out” or “get ready for a double play.” Or some no-name relief pitcher would give up the lead in the late innings, and he’d shut off the TV, saying, “this one’s over,” despite the fact that the game was still close and there was time to mount a comeback.
My grandfather’s pessimism was valid. He was a diehard fan who had lived through nearly 70 years of disappointing, heart-wrenching, title-less seasons before the Red Sox finally won a championship. (My negativity, on the other hand, isn’t. Boston has racked up 4 World Series titles since 2004, when I was 11.)
Pessimism when watching your favorite sports team is harmless because little is at stake. (Honestly, part of the fun in watching is giving your beloved home team a hard time.) But it’s more troubling when consequential matters earn the same sense of doom. Whether in response to the nature of our national political discourse, or the perceived direction of the country, gloom is often the easiest first instinct. I’ll admit that, in many cases, it’s my first instinct too.
I’m not alone. Overall, humans appear to be hardwired to home in on the negative. Using MRI brain scans, a team at the University of Nebraska found last year that “a negative response is easier and faster than a positive one.”
Perhaps it’s natural to expect the worst and then be pleasantly surprised when reality exceeds your expectations. Or maybe we do this fearing that acting too optimistically makes us appear naive or clueless.
With Earth Day at hand, it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the current state of our environment. As I wrote on this day two years ago, we have an administration that is intent on rolling back many of our country’s cornerstone environmental protections. That statement still holds true today — even in the face of increased urgency to address environmental degradation.
Late last year, leading national and international scientists published two reports predicting devastating climate consequences if we don’t act quickly to slash carbon emissions. That hasn’t yet stopped the Environmental Protection Agency from trying to scale back the Clean Power Plan or Clean Car Rules, among many other rollbacks.
Even though many environmental problems — such as air and water pollution — have improved since the first Earth Day in 1970, my colleague Mark Morgenstein rightly points out that other problems, such as the rise of plastic waste, are getting worse.
For those reasons and more, many people I know believe that the environment is beyond repair. With our human penchant for gravitating to negativity, they just throw their hands in the air, focus in on the darkest scenarios, and give up based on the evidence.
Looking for reasons for optimism is difficult, but that’s what we need to do. Before you roll your eyes, hear me out.
Climate change is finally in the national spotlight where it belongs. In the 2018 midterms, numerous candidates campaigned on their environmental bona fides. In many cases, they defeated opponents with poor records on this issue. That’s progress.
Because of that election, the House of Representatives is making global warming a bigger priority. While the Green New Deal proposal has flaws, it brings more attention and urgency to the issue. Moreover, its stance on transitioning as rapidly as possible to 100 percent renewable energy is exactly the vision we need to combat climate change. The House is also set to pass H.R. 9, a bill that would recommit the United States to the Paris Agreement.
When it comes to presidential election politics, more candidates than ever are campaigning on climate action. One hopeful, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, has made stifling climate change his top priority. His position makes sense as voters’ evolving attitudes and priorities align with his sensibilities. In a recent Iowa poll, 80 percent of respondents said that candidates should spend “a lot” of time talking about climate, and it’s now one of the top issues among Democratic voters. As a result, a repeat of the 2016 general election debates, which featured an astonishing zero questions about climate change, is impossible to imagine.
While the conversation around climate change is heating up at the federal level — which is certainly important — states and local communities are going one step further and taking tangible action.
Since President Donald Trump announced his plan to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, 23 governors have joined the bipartisan U.S. Climate Alliance, which pledges to keep the goals of the Paris pact. In the last two years, California, New Mexico and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico passed laws committing their electricity grids to 100 percent clean, renewable energy. Several other states are considering legislation to do the same.
On top of that, according to Environment America Research & Policy Center’s Shining Cities report, solar energy capacity more than doubled in a whopping 45 of America’s largest 57 cities over the last six years.
So things may not be as bleak as they seem. States, cities, towns, college campuses and individuals are stepping up across the country. It’s important to keep reminding ourselves of that fact and resolve to keep going. Yes, we need to be clear-eyed about the reality of the challenges we face. Climate change is not a new issue, and we have witnessed decades of attempts and failures at doing something about it.
But we must avoid succumbing to defeatism and commit ourselves to action. With ever-intensifying hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and other extreme weather events, the stakes are too high not to do so.
In that same University of Nebraska study mentioned above, researchers found that people can learn to override their initial negative reaction and arrive at a more positive place by reframing their thinking and considering other factors. Call me crazy, but I think we can do that.
After all, despite decades of watching the supposedly-cursed Red Sox get so close and fail, my grandfather kept watching. He may have complained about what he was seeing, but he kept proactively supporting his beloved ballclub. In 2004, his faith was rewarded with a World Series trophy. This Earth Day, and every day, here’s to the belief that with a little more optimism, we can hit climate change out of the park.