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Thoughts on Climate Optimism

By: Dr. Eleanor Pierel,
Climate Policy Fellow to the NOAA Senior Advisor for Climate,
2022 Knauss Fellow


Upon entering the Knauss Fellowship, I was not sure where I would fall on the optimism scale by the end. You see, as the Climate Policy Fellow, my days revolve around climate change policy and action from the local to international scale. Yet, many of the conversations, meetings and trips throughout my fellowship had a theme of optimism and motivation in the face of climate change. This got me thinking. Why do hundreds of thousands of people wake up every morning and go to work on the climate crisis and the monumental (sometimes seemingly insurmountable) challenge of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius? 


As I spoke with people in Alaska for the opening of the Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatory, and in Switzerland for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 57th meeting, and in general across communities, governments and nations, what I kept hearing is this: we all keep fighting because we have something to fight for, and that is enough to keep us moving.


It is important to remember that not everyone is fighting for the same reason. Some of us are working for our families. Some of us are working because a place we love will be impacted by climate change. Some of us are not directly working on climate change yet we still find ways to act because we feel its impacts in sectors like public health or food security. We all have our reasons, and they are as diverse as the people working on the problem. That is our superpower.


As I write this, I am in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt, where more than 60,000 people gathered to participate in the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 27th Conference of the Parties. The people who attend are vibrant and excited, and each person here represents a whole host of other motivated and engaged people working to create a better, healthier world. I know this experience will send me home with replenished motivation and I imagine I am not alone. We may have different angles or opinions but we are all bonded by the fact that when faced with the choice to work on climate change or something else, we chose climate.


This lesson is probably the most critical that I have taken away from my time with NOAA’s Senior Advisor for Climate and Vice Chair of the IPCC, Ko Barrett. It does not matter if you define yourself as an optimist, realist, pessimist, or you aren’t really sure how you feel. If you are working on climate change, even in the smallest of ways, we share a common goal and we can find a path forward. 


Some days, we move forward. Some days, we go backward. Some days, we should probably all just go for a walk or spend time doing something else that we love and come back to the work refreshed. And you know what? That’s ok. If we all burn out by forgetting to grant ourselves time and space from the tremendous burden on our collective shoulders, who will be left to support the Earth?


Having a small window into the world of domestic and international climate policy this year could have sent me in either direction on the optimism scale. Now, I can safely say I am a cautious optimist. Although we are facing difficult days that will leave us all with even more difficult decisions, I believe that there are pathways towards the actions necessary to decrease emissions, increase preparedness and adaptation, and support technological and social innovations to keep moving forward and create a climate-ready world.


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