Addressing Climate Change (and Other Human Problems) Through a Hopeful Lens

Given that there is scientific consensus that human-induced climate change is happening and that its effects on humanity will be severe, why haven’t we been able to galvanize society to address this extreme threat? Even more basically, why have so many Americans continued to deny the severity of (or the existence of) climate change? To address these shortcomings, those leading the efforts to address climate change should create and advance a positive vision for the future, that is, a clear, optimistic picture of what the world could look like if we rose to the challenge of addressing climate change.

In James Kouzes and Barry Posner’s classic work, The Leadership Challenge, they declare that to make change happen, leaders must “inspire a shared vision.” To embolden others to act on that vision, it must be positive, exciting, and hopeful. How many climate change articles have left you feeling positive, excited, and hopeful?

I’m not arguing that we should be Pollyannaish about the dire consequences that would result if we don’t seriously address climate change. But the facts and warnings alone aren’t moving the needle. Climate change leaders need to create a vision that shows that if we address climate change, life will be better. And not merely better than life would be if we ignore the problem, but also better than life is today. Consider the approach of Elon Musk (of SolarCity and Tesla Motors). He has created a vision in which individual households become creators—not mere consumers—of energy. Instead of homeowners paying for electricity and gas, he wants you to imagine you and your neighbors creating that energy through “solar roofs that look better than a normal roof … last longer, have better insulation and an installed cost that is less than a normal roof plus the cost of electricity.”

A hopeful vision gives constituents something to work towards, rather than a scary future that is easier to ignore or deny. As Kouzes and Posner state, “You have to paint a compelling picture of the future, one that enables constituents to experience viscerally what it would be like to actually live and work in an exciting and uplifting future.”

In addition to engaging new people, creating a positive vision encourages ideas and actions. Researchers have found that people who experience positive emotions show a better ability to view a problem from multiple angles. Additionally, people in a positive mindset consider a wider array of ideas and actions than is typical. Wouldn’t enhanced idea creation be useful to confronting a complex problem like climate change? Indeed, wouldn’t that be useful to any organization planning for an uncertain future?