Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Climate Despair? It’s Just a Phase.

How to confront existential threat, and remain positive.

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.”

The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells’ new book about climate breakdown, gives fair warning before pummelling the reader with horrifying tales of destruction and suffering. If your climate-related news diet is made up of sober journalism about IPCC reports and one-off ‘natural’ disasters, then it reads like news from another planet. And yet this is a book rooted in the scientific consensus, here and now. There are plenty of forecasts but many of the mudslides, wildfires, typhoons, forced migrations and premature deaths Wallace-Wells describes are not predictions. They are history.

“We need to be shocked out of our collective stupor”. Golfers play on despite the nearby wildfire, Oregon, 2017.

Some write this kind of thing off as ‘climate porn’, but the problem is not that The Uninhabitable Earth is extreme, it is that so-called moderation is unscientific and irresponsible. We are on course for a 3–5 degrees centigrade rise in temperatures this century. Alarm is the rational informed response, and those of us not feeling it need to be shocked out of our collective stupor. We need to stop hoping that increased efficiency, tweaks to taxation or virtuous purchasing decisions will save us. We need to act: collectively, decisively, immediately. But to do so we have to face the realities of climate breakdown — its urgency, its complexity, its unpredictability — and these are exactly the things that are likely to paralyse us into doing nothing, or nothing like enough.

Al Gore said that “Despair is just another form of denial”, and though Wallace-Wells retains some hope himself, his terrifying book seems more likely to create despair than anything else. Yet, as he recognises, climate breakdown brings political, economic and technological challenges of unprecedented scope, and that means we need a mass of citizens primed for the fight of their lives. So how do we face up to this existential threat, and not only evade the clutches of despair, but remain positive?

Solitaire Townsend believes in the power of optimism. As co-founder of Futerra, she advises powerful people and companies how to make things better. She wrote a sort of self-help manual for the rest of us: The Happy Hero: How to Change Your Life By Changing the World. Townsend says that “Belief in the future is like a magic charm or superpower against all the worry and fear the world throws at you”. Positivity helps you to cope with life’s travails — this much is standard self-help advice. But her conclusions are fundamentally different from those of her navel-gazing peers. Townsend argues that positivity is “the only mindset that can change the world for the better”. She means that an optimistic outlook on the future is what motivates us to look beyond narrowly-defined self-interest, contribute to our communities, and inspire our peers. After all, there is a reason why Dr. Martin Luther King did not say, “I have a nightmare”. Regardless of the drip-feed of bad news about the environment, we need to create a world of ‘climate optimists’ if we are going to avert the worst of our overheated futures.

This idea goes against the grain of environmental communications. Campaigners have always been better at pointing out problems than offering attractive alternatives. “You can’t fly.” “You can’t build that there.” “Don’t make/buy/use/say that.” It is easy to forget that humans practice abstinence and restraint as precursors to transcendence, whether we are saving souls or counting calories. If we are going to accept sacrifices in our lives, we need something to look forward to. We have enough dystopias; we need a vision of the promised land.

It is tempting to think of optimism and pessimism as fixed outlooks, reflections of our natural inclinations. But what if they are temporary states that reflect our stage in a longer process? The Positive Change Cycle illustrates one way of thinking about how people respond to the challenge of making improvements in their lives, such as losing weight or learning a language. We can use it to think about our response to information about climate breakdown.

The Positive Change Cycle

We begin by being overconfident due to our partial knowledge and biases. I suspect most of the population is currently found here, blithely unaware of the threat or unwilling to countenance that the bill for our unstoppable fossil-fuelled progress is about to come due. (This is also where you’ll find the techno-optimists, who think ‘scientists’ will develop a technological moon-shot to save us, while ignoring what the scientists are actually saying). Then, as we acquire information and understand the scale of the challenge, the line plunges downwards. I believe this is the reason so many people avoid engaging with climate change at all, the reason we don’t talk about it with our friends. Why learn about it if it’s just going to make you depressed? The answer, in part, is that this period may only be temporary. Slowly, surely, bolstered by knowledge, necessity and determination, we can clamber up into the energising light of ‘informed optimism’. This is the firm ground we need to be on: cool-headed, constructive and effective.

Drawdown: the most ambitious ‘how-to’ guide of all time.

When you get there, you’ll find Project Drawdown, an organisation committed to research and promotion of the path to drawdown — the moment when greenhouse gas concentrations start to decline. Their work is collected in a book called Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. This unlikely New York Times Best Seller is the combined work of dozens of scientists and experts and it proposes — with full costings — the top 80 changes we can make now to stay within our planetary boundaries, from family planning to green roofs to energy storage. Paul Hawken’s introduction is the very model of informed optimism:

“In conducting our research we found a plan, a blueprint that already exists in the world in the form of humanity’s collective wisdom, made manifest in applied, hands-on practices and technologies that are commonly available, economically viable and scientifically valid. Individual farmers, communities, cities, companies, and governments have shown that they care about this planet, its people and its places. Engaged citizens the world over are doing something extraordinary.”

In other words: we can do this.

Putting Project Drawdown into action would require vast amounts of political will, societal buy-in, capital and labour. Pessimists have plenty to say about this, but optimists draw strength from historical precedents. 
For example, green campaigners love to refer to the way states retooled their economies for World War II. Yet war is only the interim phase; it’s the prospect of peace beyond that mobilises societies. We’re back to the need for a promised land. Naomi Klein sets out the challenge in her stinging call-to-arms This Changes Everything:

“The task is to articulate not just any alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis…because in the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakeable belief in the rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilisation and barbarism.”

That quote, with its mixture of fury, ambition and hope, has much in common with the language of Extinction Rebellion, the activist group shaking up climate campaigning in the UK. Extinction Rebellion argue that “mass civil disobedience is the only way we will see vital and inspiring change on the scale that is needed”. But they are not just trying to stop something. They are fighting for a “compassionate, inclusive, sustainable, equitable and connected” society, arguing for concrete policies such as a Citizen’s Assembly, and doing so with the urgency they believe the impending crisis demands.

Extinction Rebellion launching in LA, via ActivateNow

Regardless of the detail of Extinction Rebellion’s manifesto, it may be that participating in activism is intrinsically empowering. As such, simply by taking part people can bolster their optimism and determination, moving along the change curve as they do so. Naila Kabeer, Professor of Gender and International Development at the LSE, has studied the transformative effect of taking part: “From a state of powerlessness that manifests itself in a feeling of ‘I cannot’”, she writes, “activism contains an element of collective self-confidence that results in a feeling of ‘we can’”. That is exactly the feeling that we need.

There are signs, too, that optimistic visions are beginning to take hold of the public imagination. Just look at the conversations around the Green New Deal in the USA. As its opponents feverishly object, the Green New Deal is not merely a plan to reduce carbon emissions or ‘conserve’ the natural world. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the bills’ other sponsors recognise that the transition to a green economy will create winners and losers, and they focus on social justice. Their plan would overhaul education, offer universal healthcare insurance, a minimum wage and much more. Whether it happens or not, its core proposals are supported by four out of five American voters and, incredibly, three out of five Republicans. That support will be hugely diminished in the adversarial arena of party politics, but polls suggest the Republicans’ traditional tactic of denying climate change is running out of road. A recent survey showed 73% of Americans said they understood global warming was occurring: an increase of ten percentage points on just three years ago. Maybe it’s the optimist in me, but the conversation is shifting, and, mixed in with all the frustration and anger, are the green shoots of hope.

As Greta Thunberg recently told the UN, “You can’t just sit around waiting for hope to come”. You need to understand exactly how bad it is, and let it feed your determination. You need to become an informed optimist. And what then? David Wallace-Wells thinks “The most important thing anybody can do is vote. If people are mobilised, we can relatively quickly usher in…a much stronger commitment to a more aggressive climate policy.” I suspect that voting will not be nearly enough, but it is a key part of the mix. The crucial thing is that we don’t run away from the challenge: we act, and we keep acting. Then maybe it won’t end up being worse, much worse than we think.