How to Be a Climate Optimist

Blueprints for a Better World

This book review was originally published in Alberta Views.

“I’m a climate optimist. There’s nothing starry-eyed or Pollyanna-like about it. It’s not a slogan or a marketing pitch.” This opening passage from Calgary author Chris Turner’s most recent book, How to Be a Climate Optimist: Blueprints for a Better World, might strike many as surprising. After all, the news is full of stories about climate-fuelled extreme weather wreaking havoc on lives and livelihoods.

The news media reality, however, is that “if it bleeds, it leads,” and the news is more likely to cover the controversy and conflict of the energy transition than the good-news stories that are cause for optimism. But they’re out there, and in this book, Turner does a brilliant job of capturing and conveying them, drawing upon his two decades on the “climate solutions beat.”

From the backstory of Germany’s Energiewende, that country’s transition to a low carbon, reliable and affordable energy supply which unleashed the potential of solar power, to the “energy transition Disneyland” of Bornholm, a Danish island that has served as a living laboratory exploring what a better, cleaner energy system looks like, to the quiet but rapid rise of China to become the world’s largest manufacturer and installer of wind turbines and solar panels, Turner captures the confluence of technological, economic and political forces that have made the clean energy transition an inevitability. The question, clearly, is not whether the transition will happen, but how quickly.

Of course, how quickly the energy transition unfolds isn’t just a function of technology or economics; it requires political will. Or as Turner puts it, “only political will?” In sections aptly titled “Political Will is Not the Easy Part,” “Climate Politics 101 (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Politics and Then Hate Politics and Then Realize I Needed Politics No Matter How I Felt about it),” and “The Highly Qualified, Necessarily Compromised Thrill of Climate Victory,” Turner draws upon both observations and experience over the past two decades, from Germany’s Bundestag to UN climate conferences, and from the grassroots of Calgary municipal politics to the pragmatic climate politics of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It is a refreshingly honest accounting of the realpolitik of climate progress.

Turning from politics to policy, Turner lays out how, by harnessing solutions from energy efficiency codes to electrifying—that is, substituting clean electricity for fossil fuels—just about everything, the next decade holds the promise of being “not a flight from danger, but a march, even a race, toward a better world.” Embedded in this, as it is throughout the book, is a central thesis drawn from Denmark’s achievements (from Copenhagen’s embrace of cycling to that country’s leadership in offshore wind power): “the best solutions arise not by stopping what you don’t want but by seeking what you do want. Not by reducing emissions or eliminating fossil fuels but by building a new kind of grid, developing better kinds of transport, assembling a much better way of living.”

Like Turner, I’ve spent the past two decades engaging at the intersection of climate change and energy transition, and like him I’m a self-described climate optimist who shares his conclusion: “The energy transition will make its greatest strides yet, and it will make the world better in all the ways I’ve observed and in many I can’t even imagine yet.” But we are in the minority—a 2021 poll found two-thirds of Canadians are pessimistic about climate change. If you’re in this camp or know somebody who is, read or gift this book—readers will be hard-pressed to come away from it without a feeling of climate optimism.

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