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Is profound climate change pessimism desirable?


I think the answer to that question is clearly “no,” and it follows that such pessimism should be avoided, both on the intellectual merits, and especially as a matter of political rhetoric. By profound climate change pessimism I mean a certain set of assumptions — which is what they are — about the future:

(1) Collective political action will fail to ameliorate climate change significantly.

(2) Green energy technology adoption will be stifled by the economic interests of Big Oil and its flunkies throughout the world.

(3) Climate change will end up featuring three to four degrees of warming centigrade above the pre-industrial baseline (This range is currently considered more towards the realistic worst-case scenario by most climate scientists, as many previous best and worst-case scenarios become less plausible with the passage of time, and with improved modeling).

(4) That level of warming will cause massive economic and political dislocation for several generations, probably starting by the middle of this century at the latest.

Now none of these assumptions are by themselves implausible. But I want to make a few observations.

First, even if you assume that all this comes to pass, it all falls very far short of the apocalyptic language that a lot of people on the left are now using in regard to climate change. Talk about the extinction of the human race, or indeed anything even remotely like that is, as far as I can tell, pretty much unconnected to any realistic analysis of the situation.

Even somewhat less extreme rhetoric about how the human race is going to be reduced to pre-industrial economic conditions seems largely if not entirely without basis, given current best projections.

So just from a purely scientific perspective, a lot of the rhetoric that comes out of the climate pessimism movement seems unwarranted. Yes it would be terrible if climate change causes hundreds of millions of deaths, destabilizes and destroys many societies, brings about global warfare and all the evils that come with it, and so on. It could very well do that, which is another way of saying that it could be a global disaster on par with what happened between, say, 1914 and 1945. This isn’t to minimize the almost indescribable horrors of that era — far from it. But what puzzles me is that hardly anybody as far as I know says things like “I don’t want to bring children into a world like that.” Because a world “like that” isn’t a hypothetical — it was the actual world in which many people still alive today grew up.

Further, encouraging a depth of pessimism about climate change that’s difficult to distinguish from outright nihilism is a terrible strategy for pursuing any effective political action. If the world of the future is the world of Children of Men, what’s the point of trying to do anything about it? And again, this seems to me wrong both as a purely scientific matter, and as a matter of practical political ethics.

What I’m saying is that climate despair is neither warranted scientifically nor defensible politically. Which leaves me wondering why so many people seem prone to indulging in it.

The most obvious answer, I suppose, is that people hope that the most extreme claims about worst case scenarios, even if poorly supported by the current evidence, will spur people to action. But few things are better established than that despair doesn’t spur action: it leads to paralysis. Despair should be avoided as a matter of rhetoric, even when it might seem well warranted by the situation. But in this context it does not, I don’t think, seem well warranted at all. Which makes it doubly undesirable.

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