On the one hand, it’s simply impossible to overstate just how dire the climate and biodiversity emergency really is, and in truth, most people either have no idea, or else are in absolute denial. So, is it already Game Over? I don’t know. Nobody knows for sure. On the other hand, all we can say is that if we give up now, the odds of a global catastrophe unfolding in the near to medium term approach 100%, as I teased out in this piece for the Business Post in early April.
HAVE CLIMATE talks become the place where hope goes to die? More than three decades ago, the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro opened with “messages of hope” from world leaders. The historic UN Framework Convention was formally signed in Rio in 1992, ostensibly signalling the launch of concerted efforts to tackle the climate crisis.
Hope has, decades later, still not translated into actions, nor have lavish political promises been matched by cuts in emissions. In fact, since 1990 more greenhouse gases have been dumped into the global atmosphere than in all of human history up to that point.
Fast forward to the recent launch of the synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, was characteristically blunt in stating that “humanity is on thin ice, and that ice is melting fast”, adding that the latest IPCC report is effectively a “survival guide for humanity”.
After the usual nods and platitudes from politicians and the lightest dusting of media coverage, this crisis disappeared from view within 24 hours of the report’s release. Are we in denial, or simply suffering from a surfeit of irrational optimism? Humans are, after all, wired for hope. Why else do people persist in buying lottery tickets despite the odds being stacked against them?
Psychologists recognise that most people have an innate optimism bias, and tend to assume that bad things will happen to others, not them. Smokers, for instance, think they are less likely to develop cancer than other smokers. People also tend to believe they are better drivers than they actually are. And of course, aren’t we all of above average intelligence?
When it comes to large-scale risks like climate breakdown, we in prosperous temperate countries like Ireland cling to the mindset that yes, it’s happening, but not here, not now, and certainly not to us. How else to explain that, in the midst of a climate emergency, Irish emissions rose sharply last year, and there was opposition to even the mildest pro-climate or biodiversity actions?
Given that the situation is rapidly spinning out of control and nobody seems to either know what to do, or cares enough to even bother trying, is it time to face reality and throw in the towel?
It’s almost exactly 20 years since I was first confronted, almost by accident, with the stark reality of the ecological crisis. For most of the time since then I’ve been trying to raise awareness in the vain hope that it would in some small way help contribute to action on the scale needed to avert disaster.
All these years later, I feel like just another climate Cassandra, with the ability to clearly see what’s coming, but cursed never to be believed. The suspicion remains that while it might still be just about possible to avoid the worst outcomes, we as a species may, in essence, have already chosen to fail.
Hope is an essential component of the human condition but when it persists in the teeth of repeated abject failure, hope can seem more like a narcotic with which we dose ourselves to dull our existential angst.
Then 16-year old activist Greta Thunberg electrified the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in 2019 when stating: “Adults keep saying: ‘we owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”
Many climate communicators disagree, arguing that focusing on the negative causes people to tune out. A report published last year by the American Psychological Association offered advice to its membership on how to address the climate crisis, including warning about the debilitating effects of excessive climate anxiety.
There is, however, a thin line between fear and despair. A paper in the elite science journal Nature in 2020 explored optimistic versus pessimistic framing of climate communications. Its findings were surprising: “The results suggest that climate change appeals with pessimistic endings could trigger higher engagement with the issue than optimistic endings.”
Fear, after all, is a powerful motivator. The Nature study added that setting out climate risks pessimistically increased “emotional arousal”, especially among what it termed political moderates and conservatives, the very groups most likely to understate climate risks.
“Optimistic endings may comfort a public suffering from apocalypse fatigue, but do not appear to increase risk perception or outcome efficacy,” it added. We are, in other words, lulled into a false sense of security by ‘hopeful’ climate messaging that is completely at odds with the reality of the unfolding crisis.
The real worry about despair is that it may morph into doomism, a belief that all is already lost. Succumbing to this view is a self-fulfilling death wish. If we believe it’s all over and give up, then yes, the remaining window for action closes permanently and our worst fears become reality.
For some, doomism is a final refuge, having exhausted all other options after years of struggle. For others it’s a handy get-out clause, allowing them to shrug wearily about how it’s all too late anyhow as they drive their SUV to the airport for their fifth flight of the year.
In this sense, doomism is just climate denialism in a cheap tuxedo, since both doomers and deniers are united in their shared commitment to do absolutely nothing about the climate emergency. In the rapid online spread of what is known as climate disaster porn, there is also the distinct whiff of bad actors at play.
“Fossil fuel interests have actually weaponised doomism, as they recognise it leads climate advocates down the path of despair, hopelessness and disengagement,” Professor Michael Mann, the US climatologist and author, said.
To be clear, those who say it’s already too late may yet be proven to be absolutely right, and any reasonable reading of the science suggests there’s a good chance they are. However, there are also still very real opportunities to ease the level of suffering and death for countless millions of people and species this century, including our own children, and all future generations.
As long as any chance remains, however faint, it’s deeply immoral to even think about giving up the fight. The stakes could hardly be higher. After all, life itself is now on the line.