“Eradicate the optimist
who takes the easy view
that human values will persist
no matter what we do.
Annihilate the pessimist
whose ineffectual cry
is that the goal’s already missed
however hard we try.”
— Piet Hein
Among some climate activists, a mood of despair has set in. It has become increasingly common for young people hooked into the climate debate to declare that they refuse to bring a child into a world doomed by climate change. Now, activist Daniel Sherrell has a new book out trying to help people manage their climate anxiety. From The Cut’s book review and interview with the author:
When faced with the collapse of society, it feels increasingly pointless to accomplish all the things we are meant to do in life, including planning for a future and taking care of our mental health. Discussing, processing, and responding to these emotions often feels as insurmountable as halting carbon emissions itself.
Now, I can certainly understand why people who are paying close attention to the climate issue are feeling down. The chance of holding warming to 1.5C is now very slim indeed; effectively, this ship has sailed. Though the most extreme warming scenarios are looking much less likely (due to improved modeling), the likely scenarios have gotten worse, with warming now generally predicted to be between a very nasty 2C and an utterly catastrophic 4.4C, with the median somewhere in the range of a pretty catastrophic 3C:
What’s more, though activists are increasingly shrill and desperate, the general public still doesn’t have the necessary sense of urgency — at least, in the U.S. On Gallup’s regular poll on the most important problem facing the country, only 3-5% mention the environment, pollution, or climate change. And when a recent poll asked Americans whether they’d be willing to support various policies to limit climate change, here’s what they responded:
When two-thirds of Americans refuse to pay $10 a month to avert global environmental catastrophe, we’re in trouble. Meanwhile hurricanes are ravaging the coast, wildfires have made California a much less attractive place to live, heat domes are roasting Portland, and the Mississippi is beginning to flood its banks more.
So yeah, I’m not going to tell young climate activists that things are going well. The planet is in a very tough spot. But what I am going to tell young climate activists is that despite their pessimism of the intellect, they should embrace optimism of the will. Not only does despair ultimately not help anything, but it’s increasingly unwarranted — yes, things are tough right now, but recent developments mean that the climate has more of a fighting chance than it has in recent memory. And the reason is that unlike the discouraged climate activists, can-do types in science, business and government have been rolling up their sleeves and fighting the good fight.
The fightback against climate doom has begun
Activists are understandably leery of the idea that new technologies will come along to save the planet just in the nick of time. After all, the incentives are in no way aligned for such a deus ex machina — given the fundamental externality of carbon emissions, there’s no reason why scientists and engineers should care enough about the climate to spend their lives inventing stuff to fix it.