Finding Hope in Avoiding the Worst: Climate Philosophy?

One in an ongoing series of blogs about responding to the challenges of climate change. Previous blogs are available at https://medium.com/me/stories/public.

Climate change is a complex and often contentious subject. Among the most hotly debated issues is a question about human behavior rather than science: is it better to scare people or give them hope to motivate action? A recent article in Nature summarized the issue: pessimistic messaging of the sort typical of Greta Thunberg (“I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I do.”) may foster paralysis rather than action, while optimistic messaging around singular solutions like the carbon tax proposed by climate scientist James Hansen “might not spark the affective engagement” needed. Each has their strong advocates, with David Wallace Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth a classic statement of pessimism, and Cristiana Figueres, co-founder of Global Optimism, and author of the book The Future We Choose, a leading advocate for optimism.

Reflecting on this dichotomy after several decades working on the issue, I see a role for both perspectives — each in its time and place. It turns out that pessimists, sometimes pilloried for being doomsayers, often provide more accurate assessments of the risks of climate change. This is a valuable corrective to the culture of science, which tends to avoid emphasizing possible but uncertain dangers, so as not to be labeled a “fear monger,” and foster attacks from economic interests. A further challenge has been an appreciation that what we don’t know can hurt us. Given the complexities of climate change the discovery of unpleasant surprises is constant; the sea ice is melting and wildfires are spreading faster than predicted, while hurricanes are increasing in intensity higher than model forecasts. Many climate scientists also remain more comfortable predicting risks decades hence, which reduce the influence of short-term climate variability but minimize the need for urgency. As a recent comment in the journal Nature by Timothy Lenton and several co-authors noted, “The climate-modelling community has not grappled enough with the rapid changes that policymakers care most about, preferring to focus on longer-term trends and equilibria.”

To appreciate the grim future we must take a brief look at paleoclimatology, the study of the earth in past climates. In a recent Atlantic article, science writer Peter Brannen, himself an optimist, describes the hothouse atmosphere of the future based on current trends in a recent Atlantic article. He notes that to find a comparable atmosphere, one has to go back 50 million years to a time when the Antarctic ice sheet vanishes and the polar continent gives way to Chilean pine trees and marsupials.

“We have no modern analogue for a swampy rainforest teeming with reptiles that nevertheless endures months of Arctic twilight and polar night. . . .it’s difficult to imagine how uncomfortable this planet would be for Ice Age creatures like ourselves. In fact, much of the planet would be rendered off-limits to us, far too hot and humid for human physiology.”

And as the author notes, past climates are a poor analogue since they evolved over centuries, while the rate of change now is unprecedented.

Yet my experience leads me to be optimistic about the prospects for an effective response to climate change. For starters, a belief that solutions are possible is essential to marshal the resources and commitment required for such a consequential and long-term fight. Climate scientist Michael Mann observes that climate deniers have shifted to promoting despair because it leads to inaction. As Tom Bowman notes in his book What If Solving the Climate Crisis is Simple, “accepting a discouraging outlook leaves people feeling powerless and vulnerable” and ultimately “makes people lose hope.” The understanding that solutions are not only available and feasible, but consistent with efforts to promote a fairer and more equitable society is the basis for the political support needed to act.

Despite the grim news, there is a basis for optimism. I offer the following 10 reasons why optimism is not only warranted but essential for all of us:

1: There is enough time and we have the knowledge to avoid disaster. As Brannen notes, “the inertia of the Earth’s climate system is such that we still have time to rapidly reverse course, heading off an encore of [past climates].” The trick is to identify those actions that can be implemented quickly and also can be fast-acting, unlike reductions in CO2 emissions, which will take decades to slow global warming. Fortunately. . .

2: There are multiple opportunities for reducing short-lived climate pollutants, each much more potent sources of warming than CO2. These include HFCs (widely used as refrigerants), methane (the main ingredient in natural gas), black carbon (particulates released from burning wood and diesel fuel), and tropospheric ozone. I outlined how all four can be reduced in a previous blog describing the “climate sprint” needed to complement longer term reductions in CO2.

3: The Biden Administration early focus on climate change policy and leadership is another source for hope. The President’s initial executive orders and directives are consistent with the necessary urgency including measures to reduce the short-lived climate pollutants. Recognizing that climate change will impact almost every aspect of American life, Biden has made the issue a high priority and placed climate experts in every agency. And polls show strong public support for his actions.

4: The political will to act is increasingly evident from the actors who matter the most — the United States China, and India. Eight of the 10 largest economies have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century — nine once President Joe Biden formalizes his campaign promise to do so. Besides rejoining the Paris Agreement, Biden has announced the United States will host a climate summit this April.

5: The policies necessary to achieve greenhouse gas reductions are in place or emerging rapidly including in many US states and European countries, including mandates and incentives for renewable energy and electric vehicles. Many developing countries are also adopting climate plans and policies such as national cooling action plans to slow the growth in demand from air conditioning.

6: Markets are offering consumers more climate-friendly choices, and consumers are responding. One example is the increasing popularity of plant-based alternatives to meat, a large source of methane emissions. Although slowed by COVID-19,) another is the focus on reducing single-use plastics, also a significant and growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

7: Clean technologies are evolving rapidly such that market forces are aligning with greenhouse gas reduction. Renewable energy is cheaper than new fossil fuel plants and often less expensive than the operating cost of coal burning power plants — and prices continue to decline. As recently noted by the CEO of the largest U.S. utility by market value: “There is not a regulated coal plant in this country that is economic today.”

8: Major companies are adopting more climate-sensitive strategies. They see the confluence of markets and policies and are revising their priorities accordingly. BP has announced a shift from oil and gas exploration to investments in renewable energy, and GM has announced its cars will be all-electric by 2035 while Ford will be all-electric in Europe by 2030. And much better technologies are in the works: a global cooling prize to make air conditioning five times more climate friendly attracted multiple entries including several from major manufacturers, while promising new methods for steel and cement production could dramatically reduce CO2 emissions.

9: Large investors are beginning to shift their funds in response to climate risks and opportunities. So are pension funds and other long-term asset managers. Financial regulators including the Federal Reserve are promoting consideration and disclosure of climate risks such that this trend can be expected to accelerate. In his January 2021 letter to CEOs, Black Rock (the largest equity holder with almost $9 trillion in assets under management) CEO Larry Fink stated,

From January through November 2020, investors in mutual funds and ETFs invested $288 billion globally in sustainable assets, a 96% increase over the whole of 2019. I believe that this is the beginning of a long but rapidly accelerating transition — one that will unfold over many years and reshape asset prices of every type. We know that climate risk is investment risk. But we also believe the climate transition presents a historic investment opportunity.

10: A passionate youth movement in support of climate action has emerged, inspired by Greta Thunberg. What is being called “Greta’s army” arguably is unlike any comparable organizing of youthful energy since the first Earth Day in 1970. Her passion has led other communities to appreciate the significance of climate change for future generations, e.g., Science Moms, a $10 million campaign announced in January to educate and empower mothers to do something about climate change.

The pessimists are helping us understand the seriousness of the climate crisis. However, it’s the optimists who focus on solutions — and why you can count me among them. I hope that you will join me. My next blog will focus on the actions individuals can take with the most impact on reducing emissions and addressing the climate crisis.

Alan S. Miller is co-author with Durwood Zaelke and Stephen O. Andersen of the forthcoming book Cut Super Climate Pollutants Now! He is a consultant on climate finance and policy who has worked on global environmental issues for more than 40 years, including 16 years in the World Bank Group.

Alan S. Miller has worked to protect the ozone layer and address climate change for over 40 years and has taught at 9 universities in four disciplines