“I had to find even some slight glimmer, some ‘conditional’ optimism, after spending the morning in a climate change funk. I know it may be a long long shot, but I need to have hope in my life,” wrote a friend of mine the other day. We had been chatting online about how runaway global warming might play out in the distant future, say 30 generations from now, and Doug told me to get a better handle on all this, I should read a very good essay titled “Conditional Optimism” by a celebrated climate activist in North America.
He also steered me to another very good essay about humanity’s future if we don’t solve the climate change problem within the next 100 or 200 years. I read it with eyes wide open, just as I read Dr Vox’s piece on “conditional optimisim,” but I found Morgan Phillip’s piece from London about the A-word — adaptation versus mitigation — more to my liking. You can read both essays and then decide for yourself which one is the best fit for your way of thinking.
“Whatever happens and however we get there, full decarbonisation must be the ultimate goal,” Phillips, says. “Whether this can be achieved in 30 years or 130 years, it will eventually lead us to a time (anything between 100 and 1,000 years in the future) when levels of CO2 in the atmosphere return to pre-industrial levels. At this point, with no need for negative emissions technologies or geoengineering, global cooling will commence. Water will turn back to ice at the north and south poles and restore some sort of equilibrium to planet Earth. The longer we rely on fossil fuels, the more we delay, then the deeper and more prolonged the suffering.”
According to Phillips, we are dealing with a simple equation: ‘Dangerous’ climate change is coming but ‘catastrophic’ warming is still avoidable, and we have to do everything we can to prevent it.
Phillips says that things look, in the end, depressing.
”The trajectory we are on is to a world that is 3 degrees Centrigrade warmer than today and controlled by an all-powerful planetary sovereign. With this realization in mind we can find ourselves staring into the abyss. The emotional strain climate change is having among climate scientists and the general public is already getting global media coverage. The realization that the window for climate change mitigation has closed is spreading through the environmental sector and soon the wider population. It is a moment in time that we, as a movement, need to be prepared for,” he writes.
Martin Luther King said ‘’I have a dream’’, not ‘’I have a nightmare’’, and it was no accident, says Phillips, adding: “We feel a need to give people hope and we believe it to be effective; but it is not easy to do and does not guarantee victory.”
To prolong the creditability of hopeful messages about behavior change and technology we may need to reframe them as ways to prevent ‘‘catastrophic’’ rather than ‘’dangerous’’ climate change. But we cannot assume that this will be enough. There is evidence to suggest that hope may not be the powerful force we assume it is.
In 2017, two academics examined the role of optimism in climate change communications and their findings can be summarized as seen below, according to Phillips.
Emotional distress is strongly correlated with mitigation motivation; hope is not.
Optimistic messages about carbon emissions reduce climate change risk perceptions.
Less risk leads to less distress, which in turn lowers mitigation motivation.
Pessimistic climate change messages avoid complacency without eroding efficacy.
This, alas, is ”the hope conundrum.”
As well as finding something optimistic to say about climate change, we should perhaps be asking if hopeful messages are effective messages? If they aren’t, how else should we sign off when we talk to people about climate change? Especially if simply leaving people feeling reassured is problematic.
In a widely circulated oped essay, climate scientist Kate Marvel concluded that what we should be giving people is ”courage,” not ”hope.”
“We are all fated to live lives shot through with sadness, and are not worth less for it. Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending,” she wrote.
Given the proximity of a substantially warmer world in the coming decades and centuries, can we afford to stay distracted by the false promises of messengers of hope, born-to-fail annual U.N. climate conferernces and behavior change by the wealthy classes of the world? Or, Phillips asks, should we instead focus more fervently on ”adaptation”?
After I read his very good and insightful article, I wrote to him by email: “Sir, I have a different vision and it takes courage for me to spell it out here. I will add more later. I have seen the future and this is my Jeremiad. We have 30 more generations to prepare, generation after generation, for the ultimate end of humankind on Earth in 500 to 1000 years. Perhaps not for 3,000 or 5,000 years. But ‘The End’ — or whatever one wants to call it — is coming. We did it to ourselves. All the Kate Marvel and Katharine Hayhoe and Eric Holthaus hope in the world won’t undo it. So I am suggesting to readers here, and to you Morgan as well, that we start thinking about how we can help future generations to learn to lie down and die en masse with grace and dignity as the final centuries, decades, years and days come. Our artists and writers and poets and film makers need to write guides and books and poems and novels and movies for them.”