The war in Ukraine, energy crisis, the spiralling cost of living, looming global recession and global climate events. How can we stay in touch
with hope, asks Linda Aspey

As we move into 2023, I’ve been reflecting on how in the previous year, the pace and scale of change was overwhelming in some ways, underwhelming in others.

Never before has a country had so many prime ministers in so few months as we’ve had in the UK. Putin’s war on Ukraine along with decades-long inept energy policies and implementation across Europe triggered an energy crisis such that many have never experienced.

The cost of living continued to spiral, and a global recession loomed. Global climate events yet again displaced millions of people, with a third of Pakistan being underwater at one point… the list goes on. Overwhelming. On the underwhelming side, while for some, COP27 [The United Nations Climate Change Conference] may have felt like a victory, for others such as myself with different interests, our hearts fall heavily on the disappointed side. While there was agreement to establish a ‘loss and damage’ fund to support victims of climate disasters, no agreement was reached on the details1.

It took 27 COPs to agree to talk about how those who’ve done the most damage just need to play fair with those who’ve done the least to cause it. That particular can has yet again been kicked down the road, this time until March 2023, with the aim that a committee will take it to COP28 in November when, I suspect, it’ll be kicked further into never-never land. Even if firm agreements are reached then, it’ll probably be 2024 before any payments reach victims, which is of little solace to the countries struggling to survive today, let alone adapt for the future.

I don’t want to dismiss the efforts of those who tried their best, or those who did get some wins, such as the Breakthrough Agenda for Agriculture2, a significant implementation win, with 13 countries endorsing a move to climate-resilient, smart agriculture by 2030. But on balance, COP27 wasn’t the landmark event it was promised to be, and that scientists and climate leaders called for.


Is there any point?

Last year, I attended COP26 in Glasgow with XR as a protestor, hardly noticing the heavy rain as we marched because of the outpouring of love from my fellow protestors. I’d also been invited by pioneering climate action coach and manager of the Climate Reality Project in Indonesia, Amanda Katili Niode3 – to the Indonesian Pavilion to speak about coaching. People seemed engaged and inspired by the ideas, which was encouraging and I felt that Amanda really was making a difference.

This year I was invited to COP27 by a client but having made a personal pledge some years ago not to fly again unless for a family emergency, I declined. I also had little hope that my presence would make a real difference. And as the conference progressed, although others may have done good work there, I felt increasingly glad I’d declined.

As I read about the protracted debates over the wording of each line in the draft documentation – for example, watering down the use of “phasing down” fossil fuels from “phasing out”, I found myself feeling despondent. Why were people there if not to deal with the key issues that scientists and vulnerable people are begging for action on?

As one participant, Sunita Narain, director-general of the Centre for Science and Environment, an environment research organisation in New Delhi, put it: “The negotiations that are happening are completely devoid of reality.” She feared that the core purpose of the meeting – for world leaders to commit to stronger action and to hold them accountable – was being lost.
“I have never seen anything like this. We’ve reduced the whole thing into a grand spectacle,” she said4.


How do leaders cope?

I’ve been wondering about how these events impact the leaders who attend and who put in the pre-work, burning the midnight oil to get research papers, policy drafts, speeches and more ready for those few days. By ‘leader’ I mean everyone acting on climate change – the politicians, charity and NGO leaders, scientists and activists who give their passion and drive to secure much-needed agreements on action on climate change. What must it be like, year after year, to know that progress, if any, will be hard won, painfully small and often not fully implemented?

It must take an emotional toll, as we saw when COP26 ended, with the then COP president Alok Sharma fighting back tears in the closing conference note, which resonated with many people.

Did leaders like Sunita Narain have or crave any ‘duvet days’ during COP27, or since, when getting out of bed and into work felt pointless? How did these leaders cope with the greenwashing, the skirting around the issues, the falsities, the lobbying?

Did they feel compelled to protect their families from their darkest fears? Did they have people – friends, mentors, coaches – they could talk them through with? I hope so.

I’d love to be a fly on the wall in these life-or-death meetings. What could we, and our clients, learn from them about leadership? Do they stay polite, interested and engaged when faced with resistance or wilful blindness? What qualities do climate leaders need to do this work?

I’ve seen how the activists I offer emotional support to keep going when politicians don’t punish the polluters but those calling them out. How they stay calm when the (understandably frustrated) general public hurl abuse at them. I’ve seen them released from custody and go straight back onto the streets even when the rushed UK’s Police Crime and Sentencing Bill means they’re at even greater risk of imprisonment than ever before – just for making a noise (and many lesser acts of protest).

They take it quietly and often respond with humbling clear conviction. “This is the right thing to do” they say. I don’t experience it as a hubristic kind of right, rather one borne of a deep love, a deep drive to protect and a hope that their efforts aren’t futile. And they embrace stories of success with such joy, even if they don’t achieve all they set out to5. I don’t think it’s naive optimism.

A coaching client who works in climate adaptation in developing countries and who knows more than many how bad the problems are that the world is facing, puts it like this: “To me it means the courage to go for something – to take a risk. I can’t know if I’ll succeed – I might even at times think I won’t – but I’m doing it anyway. It doesn’t feel right to do otherwise”.


Looking for the light and the hope

I, too, find seeking out the good news stories is just as important as being informed about the failures. I’ve certainly found myself ‘doom scrolling’ at times. But when I look up and outwards, I’ve seen things to celebrate. Yes, some of it will be greenwashing but not all. Here’s just a couple of examples:

Brazil’s new president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva pledged to end deforestation in the Amazon, which according to analysts could cut deforestation in the Amazon by 89% over the next decade6. He still has to reverse damaging policies introduced by his predecessors but his public declaration carries great weight and with it, hope. And the US, the biggest historic emitter, has finally passed major climate change legislation, which could “propel the country to a 43% cut in emissions by 2030 compared with 2005 levels”7.

Internationally, nationally and locally, there are lots of reasons for hope. “Active Hope” is a term coined by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, in connection to our relationship with the world (Macy & Johnstone, 2012). Macy says: “Active Hope is not wishful thinking. Active Hope is not waiting to be rescued . . .. by some saviour. Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act8.”

And as Charles Eistenstein wrote in 2013: “My point in illuminating them [these ‘pinpricks of light’] is that we treat these positive developments as harbingers of the future and stand firmly in the energy of their possibility. They are not distractions from despair’s version of reality; they are heralds of a more beautiful world9.

I spent much of the past year co-editing a book of essays from therapists, psychologists and coaches (Aspey, Jackson & Parker, due 2023). Each contributor offers a different take on hope, including holding on to it as well as letting go of it completely, in order to do the real work of grieving, from which our broken hearts can repair, with a greater capacity for continuing10.

I’m struck by what António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations says below his Twitter handle: “We will never, ever give up making this world better for everyone, everywhere.”

Hope also offers us a way to invite our clients to talk about climate change that doesn’t ignore its reality but immediately accesses what they value and don’t want to lose, while opening up a possibility mindset. I encourage you to try it.

And what about you? As we start a new year, what makes you hopeful?


References and further information

  • Economics Observatory: www.economicsobservatory.com/
    1. S Stephenson, Is the UK on track to meet its climate commitments?, in Economics Observatory, 13 Oct, 2021: https://bit.ly/3GsZoyx
    2. COP27 – five key takeaways from the UN climate talks, in Economist Impact, 18 Nov 2022: https://bit.ly/3PY5nhU
    3. Amanda Katili Niode: https://bit.ly/3Cb0VGN
    4. Masood, E, Tollefson, J, and Irwin, A. COP27 climate talks: what succeeded, what failed and what’s next, in Nature, 29 Nov, 2022: https://bit.ly/3Go3rMs
    5. C Elton, UK government announces funds to insulate homes. Is it proof that civil resistance works?, in Euronews, 22 Nov, 2022: https://bit.ly/3YTFlAr
    6. R Frost, Brazil: Lula pledges to end deforestation in the Amazon after election victory, in Euronews, 31 Oct, 2022: https://bit.ly/3VxIlQ6
    7. A Morton, Reasons for (cautious) optimism: the good news on the climate crisis, in The Guardian, 11 Sept, 2022: https://bit.ly/3VvazLo
    8. J Macey and C Johnstone, Active Hope: How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy. New World Library, 2012
    9. C Eisenstein, 2013: Hope or Despair?, in Essays: https://bit.ly/3hSJnbL
    10. L Aspey, C Jackson and D Parker (Eds), Holding the Hope: reviving psychological and spiritual agency in the face of climate change, PCCS Books, due March 2023


  • Linda Aspey is a coach, facilitator, supervisor, therapist and speaker working with individuals, teams and groups to meet a future that is highly likely to be even more challenging than the present.