Is There A Limit To Optimism When It Comes To Climate Change?

Is There A Limit To Optimism When It Comes To Climate Change?

Photo by Lance Cheung/USDA

 

‘We’re doomed’: a common refrain in casual conversation about climate change. It signals an awareness that we cannot, strictly speaking, avert climate change. It is already here. All we can hope for is to minimise climate change by keeping global average temperature changes to less than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid rending consequences to global civilisation. It is still physically possible, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in a 2018 special report – but ‘realising 1.5°C-consistent pathways would require rapid and systemic changes on unprecedented scales’.

Physical possibility aside, the observant and informed layperson can be forgiven her doubts on the question of political possibility. What should be the message from the climate scientist, the environmental activist, the conscientious politician, the ardent planner – those daunted but committed to pulling out all the stops? It is the single most important issue facing the community of climate-concerned Earthlings. We know what is happening. We know what to do. The remaining question is how to convince ourselves to do it.

We are, I believe, witnessing the emergence of two kinds of responses. One camp – let us call its members ‘the optimists’ – believes that foremost in our minds ought to be the strict possibility of surmounting the challenge ahead. Yes, it is also possible that we will fail, but why think about that? To doubt is to risk a self-fulfilling prophecy. William James captured the essence of this thought in his lecture ‘The Will to Believe’ (1896): occasionally, when faced with a salto mortale (or critical step), ‘faith creates its own verification’ where doubt would cause one to lose one’s footing.

Those in the other camp, ‘the pessimists’, argue that countenancing the possibility, perhaps the likelihood, of failure, should not be avoided. In fact, it might very well open new pathways for reflection. In the case of climate change, it might, for example, recommend a greater emphasis on adaptation alongside mitigation. But this would depend on the facts of the matter, and the route to facts leads through evidence rather than faith. Some gaps are too wide to jump, faith notwithstanding, and the only way to identify instances of such gaps is to look before leaping.

On the extreme ends of these camps there is bitter mistrust of the opposition. Some among the optimists level accusations of enervating fatalism and even cryptodenialism at the pessimists: if it is too late to succeed, why bother doing anything? On the fringes of the pessimist camp, the suspicion circulates that the optimists deliberately undersell the gravity of climate change: the optimist is a kind of climate esoteric who fears the effects of the truth on the masses.

Let us set these aside as caricatures. Both the optimists and the pessimists tend to agree on the prescription: immediate and drastic action. But the reasons offered for the prescription naturally vary with the expectations of success. The optimist has recourse especially to our self-interest when selling climate change mitigation. To present an optimistic message on climate change in the sense I mean here is to argue that each of us faces a choice. We can either carry on pigheadedly in our pursuit of short-term economic gain, degrading the ecosystems that sustain us, poisoning our air and water, and eventually facing a diminished quality of life. Or we can embrace a bright and sustainable future. Climate change mitigation, it is argued, is effectively a win-win. Proposals such as the Green New Deal (GND) are often presented as prudent investments promising returns. Meanwhile, a report by the Global Commission on Adaptation warns us that, although a trillion-dollar investment is required to avoid ‘climate apartheid’, the economic cost of doing nothing would be greater. Climate justice will save us money. Under this messaging paradigm, the specifically environmental dimension can almost drop out entirely. The point is the cost-benefit analysis. We might as well be talking about mould abatement.

This brand of green boosterism has little resonance with those who, like the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, subscribe to ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. Expect to fail, says the pessimist, try anyway. But why? The appeal of a return on investment loses its effectiveness in inverse proportion to the likelihood of success. Pessimists must make a different kind of appeal. In the absence of a realistically expected extrinsic benefit, it remains to insist on a prescribed action’s intrinsic choice-worthiness. As the US novelist Jonathan Franzen put it in a recent (and badly received) New Yorker article on the question, action to stop climate change ‘would be worth pursuing even if it had no effect at all’.

Right action for its own sake is usually associated with Immanuel Kant. He argued that human practical reason deals in imperatives or rules. Whenever we reason about what to do, we employ various prescriptions for action. If I want to get to work on time, I ought to set my alarm clock. Most of our everyday imperatives are hypothetical: they take an ‘if-then’ structure, wherein an antecedent ‘if’ underwrites the necessity of the consequent ‘then’. If I am indifferent to getting to work on time, there is no need for me to set an alarm. The rule applies to me only hypothetically. But, Kant argues, some rules apply to me – to everyone with practical reason – regardless of personal preference. These rules, of right and wrong, command categorically, not hypothetically. I stand within their ambit as such. Whether or not I am indifferent to human weal or woe, it remains the case that I ought not lie, cheat, steal and murder.

Contrast this view with consequentialism. The consequentialist thinks that right and wrong are a matter of the consequences of actions, not their particular character. Though Kantians and consequentialists often agree on particular prescriptions, they offer different reasons. Where a consequentialist argues that justice is worth pursuing only insofar as it produces good outcomes, a Kantian thinks that justice is valuable in itself, and that we stand under obligations of justice even when they are futile. But consequentialists think that an ethical command is just another kind of hypothetical imperative.

The most interesting difference – perhaps the source of much of the mutual mistrust – between the optimists and the pessimists is that the former tend to be consequentialists and the latter tend to be Kantians about the need for climate action. How many among the optimists would be willing to argue that we must pour effort into mitigation even if it almost certainly won’t be enough to prevent catastrophic impacts? What if it turned out that the GND would ultimately cost economic growth in the long term? What if climate apartheid is financially and politically expedient for rich countries? Here I come down on the side of the Kantian pessimist, who has a ready response: what’s wrong with rapacious extractive capitalism, with climate apartheid, with doing nothing, is not, primarily, the long-term implications for GDP. It is a question of justice.

Suppose the baleful trends continue, that is, that our windows for action continue to shrink, if the scale of change required continues to grow unfeasibly large as we continue to wantonly pump CO2 into the atmosphere. Should we expect a shift from climate consequentialism to climate Kantianism? Will climate consequentialists start tacking on that small but significant qualifier, ‘even if it’s hopeless’, to their recommendations? The disagreements between consequentialists and Kantians extend beyond their metaethical intuitions to their pragmatic ones. The consequentialist harbours a suspicion about the efficacy of specifically moral exhortation. This suspicion is the wellspring of a popular criticism of Kant’s ethics, namely, that it rests on the Pollyannaish assumption that we mortals have a capacity for disinterested moral action.

Kant takes the concern seriously. The theme of moral motivation recurs across his writings, but he comes to the opposite conclusion from his critics. Many, he thinks, will rise to the occasion when their moral obligations are presented to them starkly and without appeal to their self-interest. ‘No idea,’ he argues in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), ‘so elevates the human mind and animates it even to inspiration as that of a pure moral disposition, revering duty above all else, struggling with the countless ills of life and even with its most seductive allurements and yet overcoming them.’

Perhaps at the moment we still have the luxury of being strategic about our messaging. It is not yet clear that the worst will come to pass, and that we cannot, where plausible and effective, emphasise the potential upsides of mitigation. Besides that, different messaging strategies might be more or less effective on different people. But if the pessimist one day becomes too persuasive to ignore, it behooves us to have one more card to play in our pockets. Moral exhortation, the Kantian argues, is an insurance policy against fatalism. It is our reason for doing the right thing even in the face of doom, when all other reasons fail. But let us hope they do not.Aeon counter – do not remove

About The Author

Fiacha Heneghan is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Related Books

Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future

by Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann
1786634295How climate change will affect our political theory—for better and worse. Despite the science and the summits, leading capitalist states have not achieved anything close to an adequate level of carbon mitigation. There is now simply no way to prevent the planet breaching the threshold of two degrees Celsius set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. What are the likely political and economic outcomes of this? Where is the overheating world heading? Available On Amazon

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis

by Jared Diamond
0316409138Adding a psychological dimension to the in-depth history, geography, biology, and anthropology that mark all of Diamond's books, Upheaval reveals factors influencing how both whole nations and individual people can respond to big challenges. The result is a book epic in scope, but also his most personal book yet. Available On Amazon

Global Commons, Domestic Decisions: The Comparative Politics of Climate Change

by Kathryn Harrison et al
0262514311Comparative case studies and analyses of the influence of domestic politics on countries' climate change policies and Kyoto ratification decisions. Climate change represents a “tragedy of the commons” on a global scale, requiring the cooperation of nations that do not necessarily put the Earth's well-being above their own national interests. And yet international efforts to address global warming have met with some success; the Kyoto Protocol, in which industrialized countries committed to reducing their collective emissions, took effect in 2005 (although without the participation of the United States). Available On Amazon

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook-icontwitter-iconrss-icon

 Get The Latest By Email

{emailcloak=off}

LATEST VIDEOS

Methane Emissions Hit Record Breaking Levels
Methane Emissions Hit Record Breaking Levels
by Josie Garthwaite
Global emissions of methane have reached the highest levels on record, research shows.
kelp forrest 7 12
How The Forests Of The World’s Oceans Contribute To Alleviating The Climate Crisis
by Emma Bryce
Researchers are looking to kelp for help storing carbon dioxide far beneath the surface of the sea.
Tiny Plankton Drive Processes In The Ocean That Capture Twice As Much Carbon As Scientists Thought
Tiny Plankton Drive Processes In The Ocean That Capture Twice As Much Carbon As Scientists Thought
by Ken Buesseler
The ocean plays a major role in the global carbon cycle. The driving force comes from tiny plankton that produce…
Climate Change Threatens Drinking Water Quality Across The Great Lakes
Climate Change Threatens Drinking Water Quality Across The Great Lakes
by Gabriel Filippelli and Joseph D. Ortiz
“Do Not Drink/Do Not Boil” is not what anyone wants to hear about their city’s tap water. But the combined effects of…
Talking About Energy Change Could Break The Climate impasse
Talking About Energy Change Could Break The Climate Impasse
by InnerSelf Staff
Everyone has energy stories, whether they’re about a relative working on an oil rig, a parent teaching a child to turn…
Crops Could Face Double Trouble From Insects And A Warming Climate
Crops Could Face Double Trouble From Insects And A Warming Climate
by Gregg Howe and Nathan Havko
For millennia, insects and the plants they feed on have been engaged in a co-evolutionary battle: to eat or not be…
To Reach Zero Emissions Government Must Address Hurdles Putting People Off Electric Cars
To Reach Zero Emissions Government Must Address Hurdles Putting People Off Electric Cars
by Swapnesh Masrani
Ambitious targets have been set by the UK and Scottish governments to become net-zero carbon economies by 2050 and 2045…
Spring Is Arriving Earlier Across The US, And That's Not Always Good News
Spring Is Arriving Earlier Across The US, And That's Not Always Good News
by Theresa Crimmins
Across much of the United States, a warming climate has advanced the arrival of spring. This year is no exception.

LATEST ARTICLES

Two-thirds Of Glacier Ice In The Himalayas Could Be Lost By 2100
Two-thirds Of Glacier Ice In The Himalayas Could Be Lost By 2100
by Ann Rowan
In the world of glaciology, the year 2007 would go down in history. It was the year a seemingly small error in a major…
Rising Temps Could Kill Millions A Year By Century’s End
Rising Temps Could Kill Millions A Year By Century’s End
by Edward Lempinen
By the end of this century, tens of millions of people could die each year worldwide as a result of temperatures rising…
New Zealand Wants To Build A 100% Renewable Electricity Grid, But Massive Infrastructure Is Not The Best Option
New Zealand Wants To Build A 100% Renewable Electricity Grid, But Massive Infrastructure Is Not The Best Option
by Janet Stephenson
A proposed multibillion-dollar project to build a pumped hydro storage plant could make New Zealand’s electricity grid…
Wind Farms Built On Carbon-rich Peat Bogs Lose Their Ability To Fight Climate Change
Wind Farms Built On Carbon-rich Peat Bogs Lose Their Ability To Fight Climate Change
by Guaduneth Chico et al
Wind power in the UK now accounts for nearly 30% of all electricity production. Land-based wind turbines now produce…
Climate Denial Hasn't Gone Away – Here's How To Spot Arguments For Delaying Climate Action
Climate Denial Hasn't Gone Away – Here's How To Spot Arguments For Delaying Climate Action
by Stuart Capstick
In new research, we have identified what we call 12 “discourses of delay”. These are ways of speaking and writing about…
Routine Gas Flaring Is Wasteful, Polluting And Undermeasured
Routine Gas Flaring Is Wasteful, Polluting And Undermeasured
by Gunnar W. Schade
If you’ve driven through an area where companies extract oil and gas from shale formations, you’ve probably seen flames…
Flight Shaming: How To Spread The Campaign That Made Swedes Give Up Flying For Good
Flight Shaming: How To Spread The Campaign That Made Swedes Give Up Flying For Good
by Avit K Bhowmik
Europe’s major airlines are likely to see their turnover drop by 50% in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,…
Will The Climate Warm As Much As Feared By Some?
Will The Climate Warm As Much As Feared By Some?
by Steven Sherwood et al
We know the climate changes as greenhouse gas concentrations rise, but the exact amount of expected warming remains…