This scientist was paralyzed by the threat of climate change. How she found hope | CBC Radio

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It’s hard to be optimistic about the world when you see the devastating effects of climate change all around you. 

It’s even harder when you study environmental science and see, first hand, just how far behind we are in implementing the changes necessary to protect the planet. 

Hannah Ritchie, a University of Oxford data and environmental scientist, says that kind of pessimism gets in the way of progress.

What’s more, she says, a doom-and-bloom mindset ignores the fact people have made the world a better place to live in, and continue to do so every day. The data, she says, bears this out. 

Ritchie is the deputy editor and lead researcher of the online publication Our World In Data. In her new book, Not The End of the World, she calls for people to adopt an “urgent optimism” about climate change. The following is an excerpt from her conversation with As It Happens host Nil Köksal. 

As you started to write this book, you said that you printed out a picture of your younger self and put it next to your computer. Who was that Hannah?

I think that Hannah has kind of always been with me. 

I am from a generation that has always grown up with climate change. I remember as … a young kid, already being quite anxious about climate change and the kind of future world I would inherit. 

Then I went on to study environmental sciences at university, and I think from there it just got worse and worse. You know, you’re just bombarded with negative trend after negative trend.

I felt kind of helpless to do anything about it and to make the world a better place. So I think the Hannah back then was very despondent and almost kind of paralyzed by the future that we might inherit.

Instead of despair, you write that the world needs more optimism. Urgent optimism, but not blind optimism. Tell me more. 

I kind of wanted to give a slightly different message about climate and the other environmental problems. 

It’s not to dismiss these problems or say they’re not urgent, or they’re not big, or they won’t have really catastrophic consequences in the future; but more to acknowledge [that], yes, these are big problems, but there are ways that we can talk with them. And, actually, we are starting to see progress. We just need much, much more of it. 

So I kind of make the case for what I call urgent optimism in the book. Or some people would call it impatient optimism. And that’s different from this kind of blind optimism, which is kind of sitting back and saying, “Oh, I’m sure the future will be fine.”

No, the future won’t be fine if we don’t get our act together and start working on solutions. But urgent optimism is slightly different. It’s acknowledging that there’s a massive problem there, but also having this level of optimism that there’s something that we can do to tackle it. So it’s more of an active response.

Data and environmental scientist Hannah Ritchie argues for ‘urgent optimism’ about climate change in her new book, Not The End of the World. The text reads: “Eye-opening and essential.” — Bill Gates Not the End of the World How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet Hannah Ritchie Deputy Editor and Lead Researcher at Our World in Data (Hachette Book Group Canada)

You also write, though, “There has never been a better time to be alive.” I can hear people saying as they hear that or as they read that: “Really, Hannah?”

The important caveat there is that, you know, that’s not necessarily the case for everyone in the world at a given time. There’s obviously wars going on and catastrophes going on right now, and that doesn’t apply to those people. 

But I think if you take the average person in the world and look at where humanity has come, even over the last few centuries, you kind of look at almost any metric of human well-being, whether that’s child mortality, maternal mortality, life expectancy, the opportunity to go to school. You know, we’ve eradicated diseases. Right. If you’re a woman, if you’re a gay person, if you’re transgender, I think on all of these trends, the world has got much, much better over the last few centuries. 

The world is not fine as it is today. Not everyone has access to these rights. Not everyone has the same opportunities that we have. But even if you look across the world, for the average person, in most countries, the world has got significantly better.

There was a turning point that you write about right at the outset of your book. And that was seeing the work of Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician, statistician and public speaker who teaches global development.

I was an environmental scientist. I mean, you look at those trends, they’ve just got worse and worse and worse. The issue I had at the time, as I was extrapolating that and assuming that all the human well-being metrics were also getting worse and worse. 

Then I discovered the work of Hans Rosling. And what he did is he would do these amazing talks [and] read you statistics and data to show how the world has changed over the last few centuries. 

And what you see when you look at the data, and what his kind of party trick was, is that the basic [negative] assumptions that we have about the world are often wrong. Not just wrong, [but], like completely upside down. 

He would show is that on almost every measure, things have gotten much, much better.

For me, that was a key turning point from this despair that everything in the world was getting worse to this kind of realization that, OK, some stuff is getting worse, the environmental stuff is getting worse, but on many of these problems, we actually are making a lot of progress and we can find solutions. 

WATCH | Hans Rosling’s TED Talk: 


So the work isn’t done … but we’ve made some progress and that should give you hope?

We’re very, very far from done. We still have massive problems in the world and massive inequalities. So showing this data isn’t to pat ourselves in the back and say: OK, it’s fine, we can stop now.

It’s to show that progress is actually possible. And by learning those lessons from the past on how we achieve these gains, you can actually drive momentum and drive much, much more progress in the future.

Are you worried, though, that some may take your arguments that you back up with the data … to say, “See, we told you it’s not so bad.”

I think that walking the line between giving people a sense that these problems are solvable and there’s something we can do, without pushing people into complacency, I actually think that’s a very hard line to tread. 

We need to keep both perspectives in mind at the same time. Yes, they’re big problems and we’re not on track, but we’re starting to get there. And there’s much, much more that we can do.

You write that accepting defeat on climate change is an indefensibly selfish position to take. You also underline that you’re not going to debate climate science or concerns about climate change in this book, that that’s already been decided. So you want to underline that in the book and in this conversation too, I suspect? 

We’re very, very far past the position of debating, “Is climate change real? Or humans causing it?” I’m kind of setting that side and saying: Yes, it’s real and we are the driver. 

It’s more about solutions. We need to move past the “Is it happening?” to the “What do we actually do about it?”

There’s such large inequalities in the world on who climate change will impact the most. It will predominantly fall on people [with] lower incomes in poorer countries who have done the least to cause this. 

In rich countries, in particular, if we step back and say, “Oh, this is too hard, we don’t want to tackle this,” to me, that’s a selfish position to take because … the adverse impacts will most heavily fall on the poorest that haven’t really contributed to the problem.

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