Optimism Is a Political Act

The news about climate change hasn’t been good recently. Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement in June 2017,[i] an iceberg the size of Delaware broke off of Antarctica in July,[ii] and a recent article in New York Magazine paints the picture of an uninhabitable planet plagued by famine, war, and economic collapse where half of the human population dies from climate change at the end of the century.[iii] Within two weeks, this article became the most read article in the magazine’s history.

Such reading is enough to depress the most optimistic environmental activist, but I wasn’t depressed; I was too busy getting inspired at the Citizens’ Climate Conference and Lobby Day in Washington DC. The organization has grown hugely since I got involved last year. Membership doubled to 60,000 since the November election, donations increased by millions of dollars, and the House Climate Solutions Caucus, made up of members of the House of Representatives working to evaluate climate policy solutions, grew from 18 members in November to 52 (as of this writing), half of which are Republicans.[iv]

This year’s conference was attended by about 1300 people, more than ever in its ten year history. I also noticed more diversity than last year: more young people, more women, even a few Asians like myself! We have to do better at diversity, but young or old, we all resonated with founder Marshall Saunders when he said, “Optimism is a political act. Those who benefit from the status quo are perfectly happy for us to think nothing is going to get any better. It is optimism to look at the magnitude of the problems in front of us and belief that we can solve them.” Three presentations will stay with me for being especially inspiring: Climate Opinion by the Numbers, Our Children’s Trust, and Ten Reasons to Feel Hopeful about Climate Change.

Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, presented the keynote on climate opinion by the numbers. The Yale Program studies what Americans think about climate change, and for the past ten years they have published their findings in an annual report called “Global Warming’s Six Americas.” According to the report, Americans can be divided into six categories based on beliefs about climate change: the alarmed, the concerned, the cautious, the disengaged, the skeptical, and the deniers. The latest study on climate change opinion shows that 70% of Americans believe that global warming is real, 55% believe it’s human caused, 15% understand the scientific consensus on global warming, and 18% say they are alarmed by it. While these may not seem like encouraging numbers, Dr. Leiserowitz disagrees. He points out that while the NRA gun lobby has huge sway over gun laws in the U.S., the organization only has four million members; no more than 2% of the population. If 18 percent of Americans are alarmed about climate change and want to do something about it, that’s 40 million people! If the NRA with four million members can have such sway over Congress, then think of what 40 million organized and vocal citizens could do.

“Changing the discourse on climate is essential,” said Dr. Leiserowitz, “if we can shift the political climate, we will win more frequently and with more impact.” He discussed that while climate change is a complicated issue, we really only need to communicate these five key facts:

  1. Scientists agree…
  2. It’s real…
  3. It’s us…
  4. It’s bad…
  5. There’s hope…

At the end of the day, it really is as simple as 1-5! You could even say it in an elevator ride to the 9th floor!

So why do people concerned about climate change not try to persuade Congress do something about it? The Yale project studied that too. They observed that the reason people say they haven’t done civic engagement on climate change are, in order of importance:

  1. Nobody has asked me to
  2. I am not an activist
  3. It wouldn’t make a difference
  4. I don’t know who to contact
  5. I wouldn’t know what to say

It turns out that the top reason why people don’t take political action on climate change is because nobody ever asked them to! “It’s that stupid!” said Dr. Leiserowitz. Dr. Leiserowitz also showed how Republicans have been the fastest growing segment of the population to become more concerned about climate change in the last few years, and that Latinos are very concerned about climate change but least empowered to be politically active about it. These findings lead to the conclusion that there is huge potential in mobilizing citizens in climate change. To create change, you don’t need a majority; you need a small group of determined and vocal citizens to tip the scale, and that group definitely exists in America.[v]


The second outstanding presentation was Lou Helmuth, deputy director of Our Children’s Trust. This small nonprofit organization is representing 21 youths age nine to twenty-one in a lawsuit against President Trump and the US government on climate change. Their complaint is that even though the US government has known about the threats of climate change for over fifty years, it deliberately allowed global warming to progress to the point where it is threatening the life, liberty, and property of today’s children. They argue that the actions of the US government violates the idea of public trust, enshrined since the time of Roman law, that government has an obligation to preserve essential natural resources such as the air, water, and soil for future generations. They also argue that the US government has violated the Constitution’s 5th amendment, which states that Americans cannot be deprived of their rights to life, liberty and property without due process of law, and that all citizens are guaranteed equal protection under the law. The science of climate change demonstrates very strongly that climate change endangers life, liberty, and property. In addition, these threats will be much worse for today’s children and future generations than for previous generations, therefore climate change is a form of discrimination towards young Americans who did nothing to deserve this burden.

This constitutional lawsuit, called Juliana v. U.S., was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon in 2015. Other plaintiffs in the case include world-renowned climate scientist Dr. James E. Hansen, and Earth Guardians. The fossil fuel industry and the Trump administration tried to have the case dismissed, and US District Court Judge Ann Aiken denied their motion to dismiss with the issuance of a historic November 10, 2016 opinion and order. “Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ wrote judge Ann Aiken, “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” When the defendants sought an interlocutory appeal of that order, Judge Aiken denied the Trump administration’s motions on June 8, 2017. The case is now set to go to trial before Judge Aiken at the US District Court of Oregon in Eugene on February 5, 2018. “President Trump can withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, but he cannot withdraw from this lawsuit,” Helmuth said, “and let me remind you that at trial, alternative facts are perjury.”[vi]

The young plaintiffs have a strong case, as they can demonstrate that climate change impinges on their constitutional rights, and that the actions of the US government are deliberately causing climate change. If they win, they would very likely go to the Supreme Court where their case would be as groundbreaking as Brown vs. The Board of Education, or Obergefell v. Hodges that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States. If they win, the US government would be obligated to take actions to bring down the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to 350 ppm, the level at which scientists agree is safe for the climate.


The third hopeful presentation was by Andrew Jones, cofounder of the Climate Interactive. Drew came onto the monthly conference call after the conference, where he delivered a powerful talk on why he feels hopeful about climate change. First, cities and states are taking action. After President Trump announced his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, over 200 cities and states vowed to uphold the agreement.[vii] “We did some math, and over half the US population lives in one of those cities and states,” said Andrew Jones. Second, the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus started by CCL has grown from 18 members since the November election to 52 members (as of August 2017), and it’s adding members every week, demonstrating bipartisan support for climate solutions. Third, renewables are taking off, and China has reduced its production and consumption of coal. Fourth, carbon pricing is also taking off, and there are more than 40 national and 24 subnational jurisdictions that have a price on carbon. Recently the Climate Leadership Council, led by James Baker, George Schultz, Ted Halstead and other Republicans have also introduced a carbon fee and dividend proposal. This shows that this idea is getting real traction in our government.

The most hopeful perhaps, is the long view of social change and how it happens. Throughout history, social justice movements have built very slowly until change starts to happen very fast. If you look at the abolition movement, it was started in the 1700s by a small group of people, and for over a hundred years slavery remained legal. Then things changed overnight with the 13th amendment. The fight continued with the civil rights movement, and that too was very slow until it all happened in the 1960s. The same thing happened with the women’s movement, with countless women risking their lives, fortunes, and reputations to be considered human beings equal to men. They had to contend against millennia of prejudice in culture, law, and religion that said god created women to be inferior to men. They were laughed at, dismissed, tortured, put into jail or burned at the stake for hundreds of years, until they won. Now it’s unthinkable to us that women would not have the right to vote, own property, go to college or choose their own employment. LGBTQ rights have had an even more remarkable trajectory in that merely a couple of decades ago, gay marriage was illegal everywhere, and now it’s legal everywhere in the U.S. The trajectory of all social movements have this pattern. The climate movement hasn’t been around that long, and it seems like nothing is happening, but at some point, change will accelerate, and we are on the brink of winning that fight. As Gandhi said, “First they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.”

tracking the pace of social change

People often ask me, when I tell them what I do, is it hard to be doing what you are doing right now? I tell them no, I have never felt better. I think it is because I am so involved that I do not fall into cynicism and despair. I see and hear about the changes and positive actions that are taking place all over the world. I see truth and goodness breaking through intractable barriers. I witness the passion and determination of activists who will not give up no matter how bad things get. What’s true for climate change is true for any meaningful endeavor: “It’s not going to be easy—it’s going to be worth it.”

[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/01/climate/trump-paris-climate-agreement.html

[ii] http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/07/delaware-sized-iceberg-splits-antarctica

[iii] http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html

[iv] https://citizensclimatelobby.org/climate-solutions-caucus/

[v] https://citizensclimatelobby.org/ccl-conference-keynote-leiserowitz/

[vi] https://citizensclimatelobby.org/childrens-trust-takes-trump-court-climate-change/

[vii] http://www.businessinsider.com/us-states-uphold-paris-agreement-2017-6


2 thoughts on “Optimism Is a Political Act

  1. Nice work Clara. It’s good to remember all the good things that happened at the conference. I look forward to reading more of your posts/

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