World Environment Day: What reasons do we have to stay hopeful about our planet’s future?

Scientists, politicians and activists from across the world tell Daisy Dunne what keeps them going in the face of alarming environmental statistics

Saturday 05 June 2021 07:33 BST
<p>World Environment Day: Activists, scientists and politicians share reasons to be hopeful </p>

World Environment Day: Activists, scientists and politicians share reasons to be hopeful

Each day we are confronted with alarming news about the state of our planet.

In the last week alone, the UN warned of mounting threats to the world’s soils, new research found that warming temperatures are starving the planet’s lakes of oxygen, and a WWF report said that further global heating could spell disaster for beloved species such as snow leopards, bumblebees and emperor penguins.

Temperatures today are around 1.2C above pre-industrial levels. And – despite a recent flurry of more ambitious climate pledges from countries – the world is still not on track to meet its goal of keeping global temperatures to well below 2C by the end of the century.

But despite the very real challenges facing the natural world, there are still glimmers of hope.

That’s according to some of the world’s leading environmental scientists, activists and politicians, who shared their reasons for remaining optimistic about our planet’s future with The Independent to mark World Environment Day.

Here are their views – sent from Nigeria, the US, Sweden, the UK and the Philippines.

Michael E Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University and author of ‘The New Climate War’, US:

It is a confluence of seemingly unconnected but in fact synergistic developments that makes me cautiously optimistic about our prospects for averting catastrophic climate change: an end to the age of denial, as climate impacts become obvious to the person on the street and impossible to doubt; a youth climate movement that has galvanised public attention and re-centred the conversation on our obligations to the least culpable and most vulnerable; a pandemic that has led us to ask long-overdue questions about the sustainability of our current path; and a favourable shift in political winds, together with renewed American leadership, which has raised the stakes and led fence-sitting nations to step up to the plate in the home stretch leading up to the Cop26 climate meeting in Glasgow later this year.

That long-awaited climate action “tipping point” might finally have arrived.

Prof Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy and author of ‘Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World’, US:

I don’t find hope in the science of climate change – where nearly every time a new study comes out, it shows that climate is changing faster or to a greater extent than we thought. I don’t find hope in politics, either – where arguments over the arrangement of deck chairs continue as the Titanic tilts at an ever more dangerous angle.

I find hope in recognising that I am not alone; that the giant boulder of climate action isn’t sitting at the bottom of a very steep hill with only a few hands on it. In reality, that boulder is already at the top of the hill. It’s already rolling down the hill in the right direction. There are millions of hands on it, alongside mine. With more hands, we can make it go faster. And the more of us there are pushing it, the greater the possibility of a better future for us all. That’s what gives me hope.

Ed Miliband, shadow secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, UK:

We are in the decisive decade of the climate emergency, with the decisions we take together around the world now crucial to our goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C.

Many developing countries on the frontline of the climate crisis are already experiencing the devastating effects of climate breakdown. The climate threat is very real.

But the reason I am hopeful about our planet’s future is that this year could be a year of change, a year in which we tackle the climate threat in a way that delivers a safer, more secure world, ​now and for future generations. In November, the UK hosts the Cop26 climate summit which provides us with an opportunity to secure the agreement needed to achieve this progress.

I am also hopeful because tackling the climate emergency in a way that is fair could transform our society, creating green jobs across our country, insulating homes and bringing down energy bills, ​cleaning up the air we breathe, and supporting our manufacturing industry to get on and grow.

This is about what kind of country and planet we want our children and grandchildren to live in – my hope is that it will be fairer and greener. That’s what I’m fighting for.

Oladosu Adenike, young climate activist, Nigeria:

What gives me hope lies in the fact that solving climate change involves setting a pace for a greener and sustainable path, and that the climate justice movement has the face of young people who are taking action and demanding the governments of all nations do the same. We are coming together irrespective of where we are from, knowing that what we want to achieve is what matters the most. The future is bright but we must get there with action. Hope in these unprecedented times makes us stronger as we fight for our planet.

David Attenborough has never given up the fight for creating a safer world for all, because without hope, there is no passion to keep going. We are not ready to keep quiet about the things that matter to us all. There are more initiatives, innovations and defenders.

Alok Sharma, cabinet minister and Cop26 president-designate, UK:

I have been lucky to meet so many inspiring people around the world in my role as Cop26 president-designate. Their innovation and ingenuity is helping build a greener, brighter future.

These individuals, and the sense of everyone being “together for our planet”, give me hope. And there is reason to be hopeful. When the UK took on the Cop26 presidency, less than 30 per cent of global GDP was covered by net-zero targets. We’re now at 70 per cent. And just last month I co-chaired a meeting of G7 ministers where we took a major step towards a decarbonised power system.

My recent meetings with leaders in Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh have reaffirmed to me that tackling climate change is a shared challenge, and that the world is ready to take it on.

All of this gives me hope that in Glasgow this November we can grasp our best chance of safeguarding our planet for future generations.

Mikaela Loach, medical student and young climate activist, UK:

There’s a quote by Arundhati Roy that I always come back to when talking about hope. She says: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

For me, I pay attention to the times I hear this new world breathe. I feel her breathing through the success of the recent court case won by climate activists against Shell at The Hague. I hear her breathing when I’m in the community, with grassroots groups acting together. I hear her when I am listening to the stories of those on the frontlines of the climate crisis to better inform myself on what climate justice really means. I hear her when we move together against oppression. I hear her through action. Her breath is made up of all of our movements. When we all act together we can become that breath.

Baroness Natalie Bennett, Green Party peer, UK:

What gives me hope for the planet’s future is the fast-growing and broad range of people who are working together to take control into their own hands, making politics what they do rather than what is being done to them.

That ranges from the teenage climate strikers in Bristol, who I met on a 10,000-strong march through the city, to the community groups in Sheffield, who during the Covid-19 lockdown organised local food-growing to supply community kitchens. It covers the protectors I met this week in Roald Dahl Wood, who are giving up months of their time and their personal comfort to protect the glorious ancient woodland from HS2 construction damage, and the fast-growing network of Universal Basic Income Labs, which are campaigning for security for all.

Where we are now is profoundly unstable: economically, politically, environmentally, educationally. Things are not going to stay the same – and that’s great news for people and the planet.

Jacques Fallaria, young activist speaking on behalf of Youth Strike 4 Climate, Philippines:

In a country consistently being battered by typhoons that are getting stronger over time, we have seen many Filipinos, especially the younger generation, who have opened their eyes to the harsh reality of the climate crisis in the Philippines.

We firmly believe that the the power of the people will always be stronger than the people in power. We have witnessed that in national and global history, from the millions of Filipinos who peacefully gathered on a highway to oust a dictator in the 1980s to the 17,200 citizens in the Netherlands this year who won a court case against the oil giant Shell. We believe that, through collective action, we can take a step forward towards a sustainable future for the nation, the planet, and the youth.

Typhoon Vamco caused death and destruction in the Philippines in 2020

Prof Kimberly Nicholas, sustainability scientist at Lund University and author of ‘Under the Sky We Make’ and monthly newsletter We Can Fix It, Sweden:

I am encouraged that the conversation on climate action is converging on the urgent need to leave fossil fuels in the ground in order to meet the Paris Agreement goals and avoid catastrophic warming. The science has long been clear that we need to completely stop burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas if we want to stabilise the climate.

Climate activists have picked up and amplified this message. It’s encouraging to see this understanding start to reach government, businesses, and society, so that we can have the conversations we need about what a fossil-free future that works for people and nature actually looks like – and how we get there quickly and fairly.

Dr Rachel Cleetus, policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, US:

With the science and real-world evidence of climate change getting increasingly dire, it is sometimes hard to feel hopeful. What gives me hope is the people I work alongside in the broad, beautiful, diverse climate justice movement.

We already have all the technological solutions we need to cut heat-trapping emissions in half within this decade, and then push for more. Now, we are finally having the conversation about also challenging the systemic, underlying causes of climate change – the outsize power of fossil fuel companies, socioeconomic inequities, structural racism, our broken politics. It’s exciting to be pushing for a fairer, healthier, more anti-racist world that is also low-carbon and climate resilient. The hope I feel is of the stubborn, steely variety. The future belongs to children all over the world and we adults cannot stop fighting for it to be the best possible version we can still wrest.

Mark Maslin, professor of earth system science at University College London (UCL) and author of ‘How to Save Our Planet: The Facts’, UK:

In the past 30 years, the amount of CO2 emitted through human activity has doubled. This represents a collective failure of the world’s governments to focus on the climate crisis.

But there is hope. Despite 2020 and 2021 being dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the geopolitical landscape around climate change has shifted seismically. The UK net-zero 2050 target is enshrined in law, with an interim 78 per cent cut in emissions by 2030. The EU and USA have also set 2050 net-zero targets. President Xi Jinping has announced that Chinese emissions will peak before 2030 and will be net zero by 2060.

Combined with the strident voices of millions of young people all over the world, there is now hope that the nations of the world will cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly and start the journey to a cleaner, greener, safer, healthier, and more sustainable world.

This article was updated to add responses from Prof Hayhoe and Dr Cleetus.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in