Hope, Fear, & The Climate Crisis

Shelby Parks
4 min readDec 18, 2021

What if I told you that we need hope and fear to save humanity from our own demise?

Ancient Chinese philosophy teaches us the concept of dualism through Yin and Yang. It is the idea that opposite or contrary forces can be complementary and interdependent in the natural world — the truth that all of us, all species, and the world around us are interconnected.

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

This concept presents itself in the study of positive psychology. At the root of this idea is the Polar Model of hope and fear — that hope and fear are two perspectives of the same emotion, designed to work together to make something happen or to avoid something altogether.

So, if all things are inseparable and exist as contradictory opposites then just as the Yin and Yang symbol illustrates, each has a side and at its core is the element of the other. If this is true then when it comes to fear and hope, a balance between the two poles must be reached in order to ignite action in humanity to mitigate the climate crisis.

Yet, some who live in the modern world may hold the idea that technology can save us. Their hope is overpowering.

Others live in a state of climate anxiety, also known as eco-distress or eco-anxiety, suffering from a chronic fear of environmental doom. Their fear is debilitating.

If we know that emotions have the power to elicit behavior change, the question remains: how can we balance fear in hope in the climate narrative to elicit action?

A Tool of Hope

It is easy to come across facts and information from credible scientists whose words and predictions are increasingly grave about the state of the world). In general, an air of pessimism about the future resides in conversations, highlighting the importance of a realistic understanding and education around climate change and more importantly, what can be done.

While inaction and despair are common reactions to this information, another option emerges — resilience and the creativity of individuals and communities.

Dr. Seligman’s work on positive psychology suggests that the relationship between mental health, hope and optimism provides support for the growth and transformation that is capable in this climate crisis.

Understanding that emotions are motivating functions that encourage behaviors, then the relevance of fear, anger and hope are emotions that are particularly relevant to the study of climate change.

Dr. Seligman’s PERMA™ theory of well-being provides a gateway to attempt to answer these questions around ecological resilience.

According to the first pillar of PERMA, which is positive emotion, humans have the ability to increase positive emotions, and most relevantly in this case, our positive emotion about the future through hope and optimism.

Hope is an essential mechanism to encourage climate activism and ultimately a motivator for public engagement. According to Dr. Seligman’s research on positive emotions, he found that hope and optimism is a trainable skill and works against helplessness. Thus, in the face of a global adversity that is climate change, building a sense of hope is possible.

Photo by Ronan Furuta on Unsplash

But, what is hope?

It is believed that hope and optimism are part of humans’ cognitive, emotional, and motivational perspectives and beliefs systems towards the future, showing a belief that future good events will outweigh the bad events.

Research has indicated that hope is positively related to climate policy support and activism. Yet, hope tends to be rarely focused on in the discussion around climate change. Instead, the media tends to emphasize the dramatic and threatening consequences rather than focusing on actions that can mitigate climate change. As a result, this information may give rise to a feeling of hopelessness.

If this is true, then would it be possible to change this overarching feeling of hopelessness into hope by communicating to the public about potential solutions rather than damaging impacts?

In a study that focused on climate change news imagery and text, and its influence on audience emotions and support for climate mitigation policies, researchers emphasized either the causes and impacts of climate change or actions that can be taken to address climate change. The study narrowed in on the emotions of hope, fear, and anger, and on the support for climate mitigation policies. The results support the important role that hope plays as a motivator for public engagement with climate change, such as climate activism.

Interestingly, the findings also suggest that there is a risk in emphasizing climate solutions. While offering solutions does increase a sense of hope, it also reduces fear which in turn is important for policy support, especially among those who identify as conservatives. Thus, the study suggests that fear is important for climate policy support and should be balanced with hope as part of a climate communication strategy.

If all this is true then I leave you with this: climate communication is a key piece to the climate crisis in which a delicate dance between fear and hope is essential to ignite action in humanity.

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Shelby Parks

Harmonizing people’s relationship with themselves & the natural world through storytelling.