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In Defense of Climate Optimism

For decades, the response to the threat of global warming has been divided roughly into two categories: those who believe anthropogenic global warming is a serious problem, and those climate “skeptics” who don’t. But the reaction to the UN’s recently released Special Report on the subject, known as SR15, highlights the fact that global-warming believers themselves are deeply split on how to act in the face of what is arguably humanity’s most pressing challenge, dividing themselves between optimists, pessimists and, as described below, full-blown fatalists.

Commenting on the SR15 authors’ conclusion that humankind has just two decades to avoid a global cataclysm, Emily Atkin of The New Republic argued that there is now “no logical reason to be optimistic about the planet’s survival.” In a column for New York magazine, David Wallace-Wells proclaimed a new era of “climate genocide.” Guardian columnist David Sirota declared that we are facing “the end of the world” in 2040. As a graduate student in climate science, I regard such apocalyptic predictions as deeply counterproductive. We have reached the point where pessimism is blurring into outright fatalism, a trend that may well stifle needed momentum toward climate action.

Such fatalism should be distinguished from mere pessimism. Dr. Michael Mann, Penn State climatologist and producer of the famous “Hockey Stick” graph, for instance, is openly skeptical of our ability to avoid the 1.5°C warming threshold stipulated in the original 2015 Paris Agreement—but also sensibly suggests that we can still agitate for productive action by “focusing on achievable targets.” Full-on apocalypticists, on the other hand, constantly emphasize the worst possible scenarios (sometimes oversimplifying the science in the process). A good example is Wallace-Wells’ 2017 dystopian New York magazine feature “The Uninhabitable Earth,” whose headline warns readers of “famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us.” Many readers can be forgiven for responding to such stories not by reducing their carbon footprint, but by driving their SUV to the mall to stock up on canned goods, iodine pills and ammunition.

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We should remember that it isn’t so much the survival of our species that is at stake, so much as the survival of our society. Civilization, as we know it, got its foothold during a particularly placid time in our planet’s climate history. Little ice ages and medieval climate anomalies notwithstanding, the Holocene epoch—spanning the last 10,000 years, give or take—has featured a prolonged and relatively stable warm period that proved a suitable backdrop for the development of agriculture, cities and all the flurry of human activity that these permit. The downside is that the societies we have built are predicated on the stability of that same climate system. You can’t move a whole coastal city (let alone a country) as the waters start to rise.

This era of stability ended roughly 150 years ago, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere rose steeply thanks to the burning of fossil fuels, and global surface temperatures followed in lockstep. Global mean temperature already has risen approximately 1°C since 1850. To find a comparably abrupt climate shift, we’d have to venture back 130,000 years, to a time just before the Earth plunged into its most recent Ice Age. To find carbon dioxide concentrations comparable to those we observe today, we’d have to go back much further—three million years, in fact.

Evidence suggests that during these warming periods in our climate’s history, sea levels were over six meters higher than those observed now, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets were substantially smaller, and temperate forests covered areas currently occupied by permafrost-laden tundra. A transformation back toward this kind of planet would be bad enough in its own right, as billions of humans would see their habitats inundated with sea water or otherwise rendered inhabitable. What’s worse is that these threatened changes are happening so quickly that they would override the internal thermodynamic feedback mechanisms that usually dampen oscillations within our climate system. In other words, there are perfectly good reasons to be pessimistic.

But climate fatalism takes pessimism too far. The central message that many ordinary people have heard since SR15 is that disaster is imminent, and there’s no realistic options for preventing it. Moreover, such hyperbolic language (“genocide,” etc.) can easily present a strawman target for climate skeptics. Even when prompted to offer a path forward, fatalists tend to offer unrealistically revolutionary solutions, such as a complete reversal of the Industrial Revolution, or the destruction of capitalism. (Naomi Klein’s 2014 book, This Changes Everything, by way of example, argues for both.)

Many of the non-specialists I discuss these issues with have become jaded, thanks to previous doomsday predictions that failed to materialize—including Paul Ehrlich’s 1960s-era claim that a “population bomb” would unleash a planetary wave of resource shortages and mass starvation. As Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker observed in his recent book Enlightenment Now, “either humanity has miraculously escaped from certain death again and again, [or] there is a flaw in the thinking that predicts apocalyptic resource shortages.” That recurring flaw, Pinker goes on to argue, is the implicit assumption that the acquisition of new knowledge and development of new technology will fail to mitigate or prevent the next apocalypse.

Of course, the earth’s climate system is too complicated to fix with any one major policy shift or technological initiative. And even the most ambitious efforts at geoengineering would, if implemented, have to be performed in concert with a large-scale campaign to de-carbonize the planet’s energy infrastructure. But that doesn’t mean that these ideas don’t hold promise. And in the blithe dismissal of such engineering strategies by Klein, Wallace-Wells, and other apocalypticists, one may reasonably read a cynical, almost Luddite-like disdain for humanity’s capacity to innovate in the face of dire consequences. Technology will not be our redeemer, they argue, but the vessel which ferries us to oblivion.

The mere climate pessimist is distinguished from the fatalist by his or her belief that the exercise of political courage can help us prevent the worst effects of global warmings before our planet is engulfed in horrors of Biblical proportion. Even so, a pessimist approach usually takes, as a baseline, the assumption that the fight against climate change will be a hard slog that causes substantial economic and lifestyle hardship. My own view is that even this more measured form of glass-half-empty thinking may dampen popular enthusiasm for needed change, which is why I adhere to the school of climate advocacy that might be called climate optimism. While my glass-half-full approach is far less fashionable, I would argue that my faith in our ability to triumph over the current crisis is supported by the available evidence.

According to the Yale Climate Opinions Map: 70% of Americans believe climate change is real and should be met with some form of action.  A full 85% support funding research in the area of renewable energy. Over three quarters support regulating carbon emissions. Almost 70% support a carbon tax. Around the same number believe that environmental protection should take priority over economic growth—though this does not foreclose the possibility that both could be achieved simultaneously. By way of example, a report by the Carbon Utilization Research Council explains how investment in carbon capture technologies, coupled with federal incentives for businesses in the form of tax credits, could add $190-billion to the U.S. economy and almost 800,000 over the course of 20 years.

Turning to renewables, a report by Lazard Asset Management shows an 86% decrease in the cost of utility-scale solar plants since 2009. At the current pace of innovation in solar cell efficiency and battery storage capacity—as well as other advances documented in regard to wind, geothermal and hydroelectric power—most or all newly installed major clean-energy infrastructure will be cheaper than fossil fuel power sources by 2020.

Notwithstanding Donald Trump’s rejection of the Paris Agreement, the world is making progress in reducing carbon emissions—in part due to mobilization on the part of governors, premiers, mayors, business leaders and the general public. In the United States, in particular, the most recent annualized data shows a 2.6% reduction in carbon intensity (a measure of the quantity of carbon required per unit of economic output). This is short of the requisite 6.2% rate required to avoid internationally agreed upon benchmarks—but is certainly a step in the right direction.

Remember that in the 1980s, the world was seized with anxiety over the fate of the Ozone Layer—an atmospheric region that absorbs ultraviolet solar radiation. But thanks to the restrictions placed on ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) implemented in the 1989 Montreal Protocol, the ozone crisis is over, and the hole in the Ozone Layer continues to close to this day. The fight against global warming (and the attendant process of climate change) is not nearly so simple. Carbon-based fuel is more fundamental to the functioning of industrial civilization than CFCs ever were. But climate optimists such as myself believe, at root, that the same spirit of international mobilization will assert itself. Progress can happen, simply because it has.

Steven Pinker puts the optimist’s guiding adage eloquently and succinctly: “The key idea is that environmental problems, like other problems, are solvable, given the right knowledge.” Ultimately, the manner by which we frame the current crisis either can inspire resignation and cynicism—or a spirit of optimism and scientific discovery. If we choose the second course, the goals established in the Paris Agreement are surely within our reach.


Ryan Glaubke is a graduate student of paleoceanography and paleoclimatology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @OcnOgrphr