The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why we still need climate optimism

Students take part in a climate protest on March 15 in London. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

On every avenue of public discourse today, there seems to stand a proverbial man with a sandwich board proclaiming, “The End Is Nigh.” The latest doomsayer is the novelist Jonathan Franzen, who in the New Yorker last week argued that we should relinquish any hope of stopping climate change and instead turn our attention and investment to preparing for catastrophe.

Franzen is not wrong to observe that the trajectory of warming, paired with lackluster action to cut emissions on the part of countries worldwide, puts the planet on a dangerous path that portends a future of deadly heat waves, crop failures and rising seas. Nor is he wrong about the need to prepare for coming climate disasters. But his suggestion that we should give up the fight to curb climate emissions is both scientifically indefensible and reckless.

It’s an addictive brand of defeatism more dangerous than denial — and perhaps even more troubling than the melting polar ice. The view that we’re already doomed to climate catastrophe is fast spreading. As Franzen acknowledges, he’s not alone. The author David Wallace-Wells’s book “The Uninhabitable Earth” comes up on nearly every climate change panel these days. And although Wallace-Wells takes a more considered view than Franzen, he seems to have prompted many of his readers to ask, “Aren’t we just screwed?”

Why haven’t we stopped climate change? We’re not wired to empathize with our descendants.

But as tempting as defeatism may be, there are practical reasons not to jump on this bandwagon. Even if it were true that we’re nearing the end of the world as we have known it, what we would need, more than ever, is optimism. Not the Pollyannaish belief that we are destined for brighter days or the naive hope that the arc of history bends toward justice, but an engaged kind of optimism — where we see the possibility of social and political change, even amid despair, and then act to make it happen.

Whatever we do about climate change counts. Scientists warn of a closing window to limit planetary warming to 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels — a target we are not on track to meet. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does not say that if we miss this target, the battle is lost, or that it’s no longer worth reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. By contrast, leading climate scientists agree that the more we can cut our emissions, the better off we’ll be in averting catastrophe — not least because we don’t know how bad climate disasters will get under various scenarios of warming. The science does not support the notion of a singular threshold, a do-or-die moment. Climate change is not a binary math problem that we can one day declare solved or unsolved. It’s an unfolding crisis that will be affected by decisions we make today, tomorrow and a decade from now. This means that for the foreseeable future, it will always be worth trying to do more to cut carbon emissions.

Climate doomsday prophecies often rest on the assumption that human nature is immutably shortsighted. Yet vast empirical evidence shows that, under the right conditions, individual people and indeed, businesses and societies, can exercise foresight and avert disaster. The research that bolsters this potential includes studies of children who can better delay gratification and “pass” the marshmallow test when in cultural groups with shared norms. It spans evidence that small behavioral cues (called “nudges”) can persuade people to spend more on clean energy and to forgo money from their monthly checks for long-term goals. Collective action to reduce emissions has been proved possible by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a coalition of northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states that has cut carbon pollution from the electricity sector by half since 2009.

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I’ve documented dozens of similar examples of individual and collective foresight in my new book, “The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age.” To say these efforts are not significant enough to entirely end global warming is beside the point, because they can lessen the humanitarian and financial damage of climate change by millions of lives and billions of dollars. And they can help us prepare for the effects.

That climate disaster has not been completely averted during the past few decades despite scientists’ warnings is, according to the defeatists, reason to assume it never will be. Skepticism today about the capacity of institutions and policymakers to address future consequences is understandable. But social and political change is often nonlinear, and does not announce itself in advance. As climate disasters affect more people around the world, the awareness of the dangers of a warming planet also grows. It’s only in the past two years that energetic youth movements against climate change have spread globally and gained significant attention, only in the past weeks that presidential candidates in the United States answered questions on live television for seven hours about climate change. It’s not just the threats of climate change that are unprecedented; it’s also the level of political mobilization and public concern.

Research suggests that when people believe they are doomed, many will more heavily favor present concerns over those of the future, a fact that Franzen also acknowledges. The tendency has been documented in the behavior of Israeli soldiers and in smokers who light up more cigarettes when reminded of their mortality. Climate doomsday prophecies therefore run the risk of encouraging people to waste more resources, destroy more landscapes and pollute the ocean with abandon.

This doesn’t mean that we should sugarcoat coming climate threats, or delude ourselves and others that everything will be fine. Cognitive studies indicate that some people maintain too rosy a picture of the future, believing that their marriages will last longer than is likely or that they’ll be the lone survivors of a hurricane. Blind hope can turn into complacency, especially if bolstered by fantasies of silver-bullet technologies to solve climate change or by suspicion that it won’t be as bad as scientists predict.

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The sane way to look at the future on a warming planet — and the best way to survive it — is therefore to see what’s coming not as an inevitability, but as a work in progress: a moldable reality affected by the choices we make today and tomorrow, and next year.

Engaged optimism of this kind has been a critical ingredient of historical progress. For “The Optimist’s Telescope,” I interviewed Harvard sociologist Marshall Ganz, who based on firsthand experience and research argues that the success of social movements, including the U.S. civil rights movement and the United Farm Workers movement, hinged on the ability of leaders and activists to picture a better future, and to do so in vivid detail — not just on their ability to resist immediate injustice. The belief that equality could be achieved in schools, on buses and on farms in the United States — if not in their own lifetimes, then in those of their children — motivated agitators for social change to persist despite frequent setbacks and losses. The New Deal, forged amid the despair of the Great Depression, was not only an urgent response to the woes of the urban jobless and the displaced Dust Bowl farmers but an act of optimism: boldly spending resources not just to alleviate immediate pain but for the sake of the radically different future that FDR and others envisioned for American society.

“Optimism is a strategy that can make the future better because it makes you want to work to make it so,” Australian evolutionary psychologist Thomas Suddendorf told me. When it comes to the warming climate, this will be true only if that optimism translates into political action, individual and collective, to hold leaders and polluting industries accountable for cutting emissions. Resigning ourselves to going to hell in a handbasket, however, is almost certain to hasten the end of the world we’ve known. The only thing more dangerous than denying climate change is accepting defeat.