Fighting Climate Change Isn’t About “Hope.” It’s About Courage.

Our blueprint should come from global health efforts, because it’s life and death that is on the line.

Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Oct. 2, 2015, in Cheltenham, England.
David Levenson/Getty Images

This piece has been published as part of Slate’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Earlier this month—in fact, one day after the other—two seemingly unrelated articles came out that were linked only by their diametrically opposed answers to the same question: What if we started trying to save humanity, even if we’re not sure it will work?

The first, a New Yorker think piece on climate change from Jonathan Franzen, promoted the inaccurate and scientifically unfounded narrative that there is no way to prevent apocalypse. “All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable,” Franzen writes. “Once you accept that we’ve lost it, other kinds of action take on greater meaning.” The second was a Lancet commission on malaria eradication that advocated for increasing resource mobilization to create a healthier and more equitable world, while also acknowledging that this was a radically ambitious goal.

Both pieces understand the limitations of hope. But only the Lancet commission looks past the idea of hope to respond to its challenge with practical, purposeful resolve. Doing so in each circumstance, though, is essential. Like nonintervention on malaria, inaction on climate change will have profound consequences for health and health equity. That’s why finding a way to make a difference—and doing so globally, immediately, and equitably—is not an unrealistic fantasy: It is a necessary choice we must make, no matter our prediction on whether it will “work.”

It’s true that the world is already seeing the effects of climate change and that they will continue to intensify. But it’s also true that 2030 is not a hard deadline to prevent the worst of climate change. Climate impacts are a spectrum and continued work toward carbon emissions reduction and adaptation will consistently keep society on the lowest possible end of that spectrum—which is undoubtedly better than the higher end, even if it’s not perfect.

Like creating a world free of malaria, staying low on the climate spectrum does not actually have much to do with hope. As NASA climate scientist Kate Marvel wrote for the On Being Project, we are facing a future where a positive outcome is not guaranteed. Constructively confronting this reality requires not hope but courage. Basing action on hope makes it vulnerable to collective hopelessness and inaction. Basing action on resolve, however, creates an opening for scientific creativity and political will to flourish.

Courage is especially critical when hopelessness has disparate and unjust impacts, as the Lancet commission on malaria recognizes. Reducing the prevalence of the disease, rather than attempting to eradicate it, is a flawed strategy specifically because that would be most likely to benefit the people who are easiest to reach and who already have more resources. Even though not all scientists agree that the global health community should aim for eradication now, they do not diminish eradication as the ideal. Eradication challenges health leaders to value every life equally and to determine that there is no such thing as “good enough” if some people are still getting sick and dying of a preventable disease.

Of course, equity via eradication is hardly a new concept in global health. Smallpox was eradicated 40 years ago, and the push to eradicate polio continues to make progress on its last-mile goals. Smallpox had existed for at least 3,000 years before scientists and health advocates decided to eradicate it—something that had never been done before and has not been accomplished since. Without the ambitious thinking that allowed for eradication, the world would have continued to settle for preventable child deaths and unnecessary disease. Similarly, people and nations on the frontlines of climate change deserve continued global efforts to mitigate the damage rather than acceptance of it and all of the injustice that comes with it. No one is too poor, lives in a nation too small, or has any other characteristic that makes them less deserving of international climate action.

Climate change is not only a political, social justice, environmental, economic, infrastructure, and security issue. It is also a health issue. All aspects of people’s health are predicted to suffer under climate change, from flooding-induced infectious diseases to the already-documented mental health impacts. As doctors, health activists, and medical associations increasingly recognize the climate emergency and take action to educate others and advocate for political change to fight it, they are applying their expertise and values to the environment. Nowhere is this clearer than the 70-plus-organization-strong Climate, Health, and Equity Policy Action Agenda, which joins the climate and health agendas while bringing equitable solutions to the forefront. For example, this agenda calls for a major transformation of the food system, which is, yes, extraordinarily ambitious but would also, if executed, help make people healthier, create economic independence, improve air and water quality, increase biodiversity, and reduce carbon emissions. This particular endeavor is compelling not only because of its revolutionary and holistic scope, but also because it takes into account the rural communities that will be hit hard by both climate change and economic transition. Achieving this has the potential for an enormous amount of payoff, and that’s what we should focus on, rather than the difficulty of implementation.

When we begin to center people and their health in the climate action discussion, the goal posts shift. The Franzen article is titled “What if We Stopped Pretending?” My question is: What if we really internalized that if we fail to take action, many will die unnecessarily? We don’t know what will happen if we started trying harder to make the world as good as it can be for everyone on this planet. That’s part of what constricts even our ability to hope—we don’t know how much to hope for. But instead of relying on hope to save the planet, we should take a lesson from global health and realize that action will take us a lot further. We know that trying will at least make a difference, and we know that our health depends on it. That should really be all we need to know.