Is Climate Optimism Toxic or Helpful?

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What is climate optimism? Which is the best approach to climate change: denialism, doomism, or optimism?

When thinking about the future of Earth, some people brush off any concerns (denialism) while others feel terrified and helpless (doomism). There’s another approach—climate optimism—but its advocates say we must choose the right kind of optimism to prevent the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.

Continue reading to learn about climate optimism and it’s effects.

What Is Climate Optimism?

If you ask people about climate change, some respond with a hand-waving optimism, asserting that a warming planet and rising seas are at best just a minor threat, or at worst a problem for someone else to contend with. Others slip into a hand-wringing pessimism, fearing that we’ve doomed ourselves (and all the other living things on our planet) to a fate so terrible that nothing can be done to change it. 

So, who’s right? Neither, according to proponents of climate optimism.

Isn’t Pessimism Rational?

Is it rational to feel pessimistic about the future that awaits us? The picture painted by climate scientists can make it sound like the world is ending. According to the American Meteorological Society, scientists agree that climate change contributes to extreme weather and natural disasters. In addition to citing undeniable evidence that Earth is warming at an unprecedented rate, scientists report that the crisis is unequivocally caused by human activity. They say that the effects are already hurting people and ecosystems everywhere, and things are going to get worse. Scientists also say we still have time to avert the worst consequences—though many people still feel anxious or even hopeless about the future of the planet. 

If it seems reasonable to feel cynical about our ecological future, it’s also understandable to feel pessimistic, or at least perplexed, by the political reality. Americans are divided along partisan lines on the question of whether climate change is even a serious problem. Republicans increasingly favor ignoring climate change, and a plurality don’t believe that climate change will affect their communities. Conversely, Democrats cite climate change as a major threat and a major priority. This disagreement illustrates why Congress has taken so little action to address the causes or mitigate the effects of climate change. 

The Case for Optimism

Even if pessimism seems warranted by the scientific or political realities of the situation, climate optimists argue that we shouldn’t succumb to a sense of doom. One reason is pragmatic and rooted in psychology: Despair sabotages effort. Experts explain that despair and fear can impede us from acting. (As can the denialism implicit in efforts to stall climate legislation.) If we choose pessimism, we’ll feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. We might even feel hopeless. But if instead we view the climate crisis as a call to action—one that we can meet with active optimism—we can understand the gravity of the situation without succumbing to pessimism’s tendency to hinder, rather motivate, effort.

Climate optimists have empirical reasons for hope. They note that collective efforts have made progress toward slowing the warming of the planet. In 2015, experts expected Earth to get warmer by about four degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by the year 2100. We’re now on track for the planet to warm three degrees Celsius in that period, and if various countries meet the goals they’ve committed to, the planet will warm by only two degrees. This doesn’t make the problem go away: The consensus at the time of the Paris Agreement was that we should keep warming below 1.5 degrees to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change. But it demonstrates that we can likely avoid the very worst outcomes by taking action. 

Why Optimism Alone Isn’t Enough

If pessimism sabotages action, optimism sounds like a much more practical choice. But environmentalist and data scientist Hannah Ritchie explains that optimism alone isn’t enough to ensure that we save ourselves from the worst-case scenario. She contends that instead, we need to pair optimism with the recognition that the world is changeable, but it will only improve if we work to improve it.

University of Pennsylvania climate scientist Michael Mann explains in The New Climate War that he feels hopeful about our ability to avert the worst effects of climate change. He’s optimistic because every effort can make a difference. Mann explains, “Every ton of carbon that we don’t burn makes our future better.” We have to recognize that investing in the future is not only worthwhile but is also worthy of effort. 

The changes experts say we need to make are immense, and difficult. Though people can meaningfully reduce their individual carbon footprints, scientists say that it’s more critical to make systemic changes at the level of governments and industries. In this way, optimism must be informed by what’s possible, as pointed out by critics who worry that excessively optimistic predictions based on unrealistic climate models might offer “false comfort” and put vulnerable people at risk. Nonetheless, some environmentalists such as Bill McKibben argue that the only cure for our fear and anxiety about the future of our planet is activism and the solidarity found among others committed to taking action. 

Is Climate Optimism Toxic or Helpful?

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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