Your reaction to last week’s Climate solutions and other delusions was unexpected. Strangely heartening for such a bleak topic, filled with camaraderie and mutual support. Also, occasionally, chisel-cold, and even spooky.

I should admit to a lot of trepidation about pressing send on last week’s newsletter. Our situation is tough enough without spending a Sunday morning pondering what it could possibly mean to talk about “solutions” for an irreversible condition. But I’d just spent two weeks on silent retreat, confronted with the raw facts of our precarious human lives and one thing you realize is that we’re not in charge, no one is, not even of our own minds. Unbidden, even unwelcome, that solutions-delusions conundrum emerged and would not be denied.

But, it didn’t have to be published. And I imagined an inbox with dismissive replies like “Don’t be such a downer — gotta stay positive, bro.” Or more trenchant ones: “Back off, people like you are causing depression and despair.” Perhaps more tactical concerns: “Stop undermining momentum — you’re setting back progress, quashing hope.”

I shouldn’t have been so worried.

“I feel seen,” replied Kathryn Harrison, one of Canada’s foremost experts on climate policy and public opinion. A professor of political science at UBC, she is frequently sought out by the media on carbon taxes and other techy subjects and advises both governments and independent institutes. Harrison has some unusual training spanning chemical engineering and political studies (MIT), and she’s worked at various points both for the public service and as an engineer in the oil industry.

“Oddly, it made me feel better, “ Harrison wrote after reading Delusions. “Sometimes it's like we're not allowed to speak the truth because it might make things worse, and you start to question if you're the only one.”

Not only are we not alone, here’s the spooky part — my own son responded with the same line: “Felt very seen by that newsletter,” he texted last week. It felt spooky to me, anyway. Forrest was a student of Harrison’s at UBC (one of the best profs around, by his account).

“Didn’t really know why the solutions craze pissed me off so much,” Forrest said.

Reader Roy is pretty ticked off as well. His opening had me braced for a shellacking: “I was upset reading your recent piece Climate Solutions and Other Delusions, Roy wrote, but then flipped the script mid-sentence: “...Because it was brilliant and HAD to be written — which is a damn shame.”

Many more people will admit eco-anxiety to pollsters, or their therapists, than are willing to give it voice among family and friends, writes Chris Hatch @zerocarbon #climate #cdnpoli #climateaction

Roy is a former mechanical engineer who’s repurposed his skills to organize his local community for energy transition and suing Big Oil. “We have been trying to give people some hope, and explaining atmospheric chemistry seems to be too complex but we must try harder,” he writes. “It is time to start whacking the hornet’s nest.”

Chin up, Roy urges: “We are all in this together!”

It’s not just helpful encouragement. That notion of togetherness is crucial in facing our climate predicament. Most of us feel like lonely sentinels, most of the time — a feeling that seems entirely warranted anytime you take a trip to the mall. But all that retail therapy is covering widespread worry. Many more people will admit eco-anxiety to pollsters, or their therapists, than are willing to give it voice among family and friends.

That’s a major reason we need to articulate “climate solutions” more meaningfully — with more clarity about their role and context.

“I’m so sick of all the ‘bright-siding’ climate solutions,” responded Barry from B.C. “We need the solutions but the way they’re presented just leads to ‘hopium’ or makes people think we’ve got climate handled and they don’t need to do anything.”

Isolation, lack of agency and complacency — not a great combo.

Another note from academia arrived from an expert on the role of narratives and images in advancing climate action. Barbara Leckie is a professor at Carleton University’s Department of English and the academic director for Re.Climate, a centre on climate communication and engagement. Leckie’s most recent book comes with the tantalizing title Climate Change, Interrupted: Representation and the Remaking of Time (although her most titillating title has got to be Culture and Adultery: The Novel, the Newspaper, and the Law).

“Thank you so much for your recent article on climate solutions,” writes Leckie. "It captures this issue of the solutions language so well.”

We find ourselves teetering on a strange divide between solutions narratives — on the one side, those that obscure the daunting scale and irreversibility of climate change and, on the other side, stories that encourage progress and nourish that most nettlesome and mercurial of climate dynamics: hope.

You’ll probably know Elizabeth Kolbert, maybe the best writer on climate and environment in the English-speaking world. Some time ago, at a public talk, she described hope as “the nervous tic” of climate storytelling. As in, the question she’s most incessantly asked (what gives you hope?) and the knee-jerk demand from every editor for a new closing paragraph with a “more hopeful” ending.

It says something profound about the inescapability of hope that even Kolbert’s own latest book emerged from the publisher titled H is for Hope, Climate Change from A to Z (there were 25 other title options among the essays in the book, including B for blah, blah, blah and D for despair).

One reader’s comment about the hopey, changey stuff cracked me open like a cold chisel. And for that, we return to the thread from my son. Out of the mouths of millennials (Gen Z, technically) came this wallop:

“People want hope. But they don’t deserve it.”

“People, especially rich westerners, want to jump from denial to optimism without a reckoning because they want hope,” Forrest elaborated. “But we haven’t earned it yet. Definitely not at the expense of the truth. It’s just so self-indulgent — we’re drowning people in the South Pacific and talking about how optimistic we are.”

An admirer of Václav Havel, the great Czech playwright turned dissident, turned president, he offered up Havel’s famous distinction: “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Elsewhere, Havel once wrote that “Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.” That question of prognostication was echoed more recently by Rebecca Solnit, and we’ve covered some of her climate writings in past newsletters. For instance, this gem: “Despair is a delusion of confidence that asserts it knows what’s coming.”

How’s that for a sentence? “It would be unreasonable to predict that we can leave the age of fossil fuels behind and do what the climate requires of us,” Solnit writes. “But it would be unwise to say that it’s impossible, and only our actions can make it possible… We see no farther than the little halo of our lanterns, but we can travel all night by that light.”

Which brings us to the last response from the brilliant readers of Canada’s National Observer that I’ll highlight this week. It’s from another reader who’s shifted careers to helping people navigate their energy needs, tackling our global task locally, watt by watt. Peter, a former software engineer, emailed from Newmarket, Ont. wryly “wondering what your colleagues think of this article? :-)” (For the record, they’ve been almost as insightful and empathetic as you all.)

“I do have a glimmer of hope, and it revolves around reflecting heat and emissions reductions,” says Peter. “We don’t have a choice, we need to do both, stop emissions and reflect. He recommends we support the ground reflecting project. “It’s still in its infancy but it has a lot of potential to mitigate heat in some of the poorest and hottest areas of the planet.”

MEER’s (Mirrors for Earth's Energy Rebalancing) solar reflectors are made from local, recycled materials, and the immediate objective is heat adaptation for people, farms and animals.

Scaled globally, the reflectors could theoretically help rebalance Earth’s current energy imbalance. At the local level, cool roofs can provide some relief from the heat in homes and favelas where people are in such danger.

Image from MEER

Switching gears to cutting carbon, Peter says “there are a lot of things going in our favour, I think the fossil fuel industry is on its last leg. Cheap electricity and storage is going to kill demand. Canada the petro-state will be over soon (but) as your article notes, it really doesn’t help much with the carbon emissions already in the atmosphere trapping heat. It just stops making it worse.”

Peter highlights one of the most flabbergasting factoids you’ll hear. Imagine, for a moment, the scale of the world’s marine shipping fleet: “Eliminating fossil fuels makes a huge difference, as Saul Griffith noted in his book Electrify, 40 per cent of all shipping cargo by weight is because of the fossil fuel industry.”

It is, in fact, one of the greatest stories rarely told: the sheer wastefulness of fossil fuels. With all due respect to the great modern playwrights and non-fiction writers, that might be the most tangible reason for hope about the energy system.

Peter couldn’t have foreseen it, but just two days after his email, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) released a paper on The incredible inefficiency of the fossil energy system.

“Almost two-thirds of all primary energy is wasted,” the authors conclude. “And 40 per cent of what we spend on energy goes up in smoke due to fossil inefficiency. Literally.”

About one-third of the total energy produced in the world gets cannibalized in the mining, refining and transporting of fossil fuels. Another third is squandered because burning fossil fuels in machines is inherently and hugely inefficient.

You might have suspected something along these lines already. Only one-quarter of the gas in our cars ends up moving them. The rest is waste heat. An electric car is the opposite — over three-quarters of the juice drives the wheels. Meanwhile, heat pumps give off three units of heat for every one unit of electricity (sounds perplexingly like magic, right?)

Electric “power generation drives the largest loss by far,” RMI found. “126 exajoules (EJ) per year, worth about $540 billion. Thermal losses of coal and gas power plants make up the majority of this energy waste: about 60 EJ per year from coal and 30 EJ per year from gas power generation.”

Today’s energy system is so wasteful that we’re burning off US$4.5 trillion, almost 5 per cent of the whole world’s GDP, before energy creates any value.

And that means switching to renewables is a much smaller task than it seems. We don’t have to replace all the fossil energy we currently produce, not even close. A world running on clean energy would use much less energy overall and still get all the same services.

“We have seen this before,” says RMI. “Fossil fuel technologies themselves rose to prominence a century ago through competing on efficiency, pushing out less efficient technology and fuels along the way.”

“It is happening again. Both more efficient end-use and new clean supply technologies — solar, wind, heat pumps, electric vehicles, and many more — all undercut fossil fuels where they are at their weakest: rampant inefficiency.”

Chris Hatch writes Canada's National Observer's celebrated Sunday newsletter, Zero Carbon. Chris is the former Executive Director of Rainforest Action Network as well as the former executive editor at Canada's National Observer. He is now a columnist.

Keep reading

Thomas Homer Dixon wrote a fairly recent book called 'Commanding Hope: the Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril.' As the title implies, it's an exploration of the human need for hope in the context of climate change.

Years earlier Homer Dixon wrote 'The Upside of Down' which explored the collapse of various civilizations and the rebuilding of some into better forms. He described the power of resilience, to build to last. And he also touched on hope, seemingly a key ingredient to the ability to carry on in the face of catastrophe and rebuild.

Long term planning and adaptation are now top of the list in climate action, right behind stopping the combustion of fossil fuels. Planetary heating is on a centuries-long trajectory. On these points a near absolute majority of scientists would, in my opinion, agree.

There may be disagreement on whether warming is unstoppable or if there is room left in the ability of the oceans, forests and soils to absorb more carbon because their carbon budgets are not quite tapped out yet. Dr. Michael Mann is in the latter camp.

Overall, it's important to look ahead and keep moving forward on climate action, even when the future looks overwhelmingly full of reactionary change. Looking at the problem face on allows people to define the challenges they need to act on, and to counter the narratives (usually with self interest underpinning them) to not act, not plan ahead, not replace the terribly inefficient shibboleths that current power civilization.

Radically changing society may be the only way to fully adapt, but that does not mean we need to succumb to inaction brought on by doomerism, or to a call for blasting apart society in one big revolution.

Intelligent planning and policy can do most of the work by reprioritizing funding and knowledge into pulling in one direction while rejecting the decreasing numbers of rowers pulling in the opposite direction. Collapse will occur if we let it. Likewise, a strategic plan can be introduced to eliminate carbon, electrify everything and rebuild with resiliency in planned, deliberate steps.

Homer Dixon suggested that ecosystem restoration become a "Global Immortality Project" -- see "Mini-Forests can reverse societal decline" (

All these "climate hope" articles ring so false that I fear the writers have been coopted by the extraction industry. I've been waiting for 50 years for some government any government state the problem: We are taking fossil carbon out of the ground and it is getting into the atmosphere and driving climate change and we have to stop doing that - PERIOD. In the 70's and 80's Sagan warned us (and lead me to crisis of conscience still raging today) and nothing happened. In the 90's Gore won an Oscar - nothing. Now in the 21st century you can literally point to real-world affects and still nothing is being done. It's bullshit all the way down. The only truth left is the Keeling Curve. It can't be spun or explained away. Up=bad, Flat=good but down is better (albeit not realistic). So until I hear "CO2 levels did not increase over last year" no hope from me.

But you say we are making headway with windmills, solar, electric cars, etc. That's nice, but global warming is not caused by a lack of windmills, a lack of electric transportation, a surfeit of batteries or not enough trees. Nature is not going to save our asses anymore than it saved cyanobacteria when it took over the world and wrecked it for everyone including itself. We have to fix this. But we are too afraid to even admit the problem - like an addict. So we are going leave our mess for gen alpha and beyond to clean up while living (roasting?) in it. Greta Thurnberg's admonition that "WE WILL NEVER EVER FORGIVE YOU!" is very understandable given our lack of action.

...and still the Keeling Curve heads to Venus