What If We Were Optimistic about Climate Change?
Some data, some charts, many memes.
At the peak of lockdown last year, between raiding supermarkets for toilet paper and watching videos of Italians clapping on balconies, the world fell in love with one hope-giving tweet:
Just a short break in frenzied human activity is enough for Mother Nature to reclaim her rightful place. Imagine what this means for climate change! It was used both as a silver lining of the pandemic, and proof of how easy it will be to avert large-scale climate disaster (all we need is to curb our industrial output by about 80%).
A couple of things wrong with that:
The video was fake. The dolphins were actually in Sardinia, which is not unusual
COVID did not materially impact climate change indicators beyond the first two months of lockdown
In fact, COVID hasn’t done much at all to slow our descent to the (sometimes literal) fires of hell/Greta Thurnberg’s worst nightmares.
Yes. Here’s where we are today:
CO2 Levels are breaking records
CO2 levels hit a new record of 417 parts per million which basically means there’s a lot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The last time this reading was above 400 was a million years ago (literally), when temperature was 2-4 degrees warmer and sea levels were 100 meters higher than today.
This metric is essential because CO2 in the atmosphere makes it harder for heat to escape, which would be fine if our planet was my grandma’s tomato garden but we’ve got other stuff here too.
If we keep tracking to the worst-case scenario, we’ll be at 800 ppm by 2100 which means there’s no ice on the planet, and it’s probably some Waterworld shit.
It’s freaking HOT, and getting hotter
2020 was 1.2 degrees hotter than the average year in the 19th century. We had the largest wildfires ever recorded in California and Colorado. We had the “black summer” of fires in Eastern Australia. And this year isn’t looking much better. Just ask Portland or Greece.
The data, too, is pretty unequivocal on this. It’s getting consistently hotter:
We are losing ice
Siberia (yes that Siberia) experienced 100 degree heat in June. The arctic freeze was delayed by almost 2 months. Multi-year ice, which is thicker and more reflective now makes up only 2% of all ice, vs. 30% in 1979.
Why does this matter? Because the more ice we have, the better we are able to reflect sun rays into outer space, like lots of little space lasers. The less of it, the more the sun’s heat gets absorbed by our oceans, accelerating warming.
Oh also permafrost is melting, releasing lots of locked up CO2 (and potentially snow monsters) to hang out in the atmosphere.
Those are the facts.
Things we are pretty sure are true and happening. But yo, Damn Optimist, this isn’t making me feel too optimistic, you might yell at your monitor/cat. What gives?
My best read on the situation is as follows: things today are looking pretty bad according to a variety of indicators. We need to collectively enact some drastic measures to avert our climate disaster, requiring more global cooperation than we’ve ever imagined. And even if we do make those changes, we aren’t guaranteed to avoid some dire outcomes within our own lifetimes.
But, being an ardent believer in what humans are capable of in the face of scary charts, I wondered if there was another side to this story. And indeed, a quick online search returned millions of pages on climate change breakthroughs and reasons for climate optimism.
So I could use memes and dad jokes to narrate the optimistic case for climate change, as I originally intended.
OR, I could recognize that there’s simply too much data out there (and we are too unreliable at predicting anything) to decide with finality how things will play out. Instead, I could look at why, given we can choose to structure the facts of the case into one narrative or another, we would choose to be optimistic or pessimistic about climate change.
The narratives we collectively adopt about climate change dictate our actions, which will ultimately decide our fate as a civilization. So they’re kind of important.
This exploration also links to a broader set of questions. Not just is it right to be optimistic about climate change, but when is it right to be optimistic at all? Is there a framework? How bad do things have to get for us to lose hope and immerse ourselves in despaired bacchanalias as our planet hurtles towards its inevitable demise?
Let’s start by looking at the two frames.
Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think. That’s the subtitle of New York Mag’s July 2017 cover story titled The Uninhabitable Earth, and is a perfect example of climate pessimism.
There’s some scary shit in there. Prehistoric ice will melt, unleashing diseases that will make COVID look like child’s play. Thick, hot air will create a “death smog”that will choke millions of people. The world will be in a state of perpetual war as crop failure and droughts will drive us to fight over increasingly scarce resources.
As author David Wallace-Wells puts it: “no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough.” Reading the news with an open mind is truly frightening because it paints terrible scenarios that are totally within the realm of possibility.
But there are good reasons to emphasize the potential havoc that lack of drastic change will wreak.
Why Choose Pessimism?
Pessimism is just... appropriate
In case you yawn-scrolled through that list at the top, there’s plenty of reason for pessimism: average temperatures are the highest they’ve ever been, we are releasing more CO2 than ever, we are losing ice at frightening speed and… forest fires. So many forest fires.
If the projections published by our civilization’s most reputable institutions are true indicators of what’s going to happen, then damn. Maybe pessimism is just realism: we should choose it because it’s, well, in line with reality.
Pessimism reminds us we are not unique
One of our biases is to believe that we are unique. Just like 90% of people think they are better than average (a mathematical impossibility), research shows that most of us believe that large-scale future threats will impact others more than us.
And while it’s true that the impacts of climate change will be unevenly distributed, no one will be unimpacted. And worse, poorer countries, those most liable to its cruelties in the short term, have the least leverage to make an impact to stem the tide.
Pessimism can spur action
But even if we believe that we’ll be impacted like everyone else, that may not be enough. Some writers argue that it may be wrong to feel hopeful because it assumes someone else will do the hard work of change. Given how daunting the task ahead of us is, pessimism might then be useful as a tool to spur us into action. As NASA climate scientist Kate Marvel put it:
Action relies on courage, not hope. You shouldn’t need the guarantee of a happy ending to do what you know to be right.
What data can the other side of the debate bring to bear here? A lot, it turns out.
People are readier to act than ever
A recent poll showed that the “state of the planet for future generations” is now a top concern across all 30 countries surveyed. 71% of people now say they worry a lot or a fair amount about climate change, jumping up from 66% just two years ago.
This makes sense. Climate change has expanded its scope, impacting more parts of the world every week. As more people get directly impacted by it, more realize the urgency to act.
And indeed, 87% of 30,000 people surveyed in 14 countries said they’re willing to take action to help the climate (just need to know how best to do it).
Financial incentives are aligning
In my piece about why I think the 2020s will be a great decade, I talked about the power of financial incentives in rapidly effectuating change on a massive scale.
This is super important. Stakeholders with the ability to make real change happen, like world leaders and major corporations, are starting to get smart to the fact that fast action will be a huge money saver. When that happens, the kind of action at the top tends to catch up with the kind of action we’ve been seeing on the grassroots level.
Crucially, fossil fuels are losing their grip on the economy. This year, for the first time in history, renewable energy is being sold for cheaper than fossil fuels. In the words of Assaad Razzouk, CEO of the Sindicatum Sustainable Resources:
Cost reductions of renewables have basically taken fossil fuel power out of the game. It’s just that some countries don’t know that yet.
Across the board, as renewables have gained market share, the cost of capital for Big Oil and Big Gas has increased. And as their market values have plummeted (Exxon is down $169 billion in market cap since 2014), it has become increasingly expensive for them to finance new projects.
Other corporate giants are beginning to oppose fossil fuels too. In fact, there’s a clear pattern emerging of corporate-driven environmental action by a combination of profit and principle. The list here is long, but to highlight a couple:
Walmart is forcing practically all of its major suppliers to go green
Kellogg’s is training half a million farmers on lower greenhouse gas emission practices
Tech giants like FB, Google, Apple are switching to only using renewables to power their energy-heavy data center
Transportation, a major driver of emissions, is going electric... fast. The price of lithium batteries has fallen 87% in the last decade while demand for electric vehicles has skyrocketed, providing strong financial incentives for manufacturers to produce them. And not just cars but also buses, trucks, scooters, mopeds — even electric planes.
These trends make thoughtful industry experts, like Azeem Azhar, optimistic that in the 2020s we’ll hit peak emissions and go down from there:
Founders I meet are bringing the same entrepreneurial skill set that brought us Facebook, Google and Amazon to the climate change problem, including those hard-to-decarbonise sectors like steel or chemicals. Governments, like the EU and the UK, have announced net zero targets to be enshrined in law. And the financial markets are under pressure to better price in carbon risks, which will increase the financing costs of climate-deleterious investments relative to clean ones.
The public sector is on FIRE (I’ll show myself out)
There’s a lot going on here. Just a couple months ago the EU adopted the most ambitious climate action plan in history (the European Green Deal) and Biden is pushing the US to match it. But local authorities aren’t waiting for the federal government to get their shit together. 100 US cities and 8 states have already committed to 100% renewable energy by 2050, with more in process.
Beyond the US, climate innovator states are emerging in places as far apart as Kenya, Scotland and Morocco. China, the biggest offender, is growing solar power faster than any other country in the world. We are seeing optimistic signs of reforestation, with countries as diverse as India and Ethiopia building forest fortresses to lock in carbon, while Western European forests have net increased by an area the size of Switzerland in just the last decade.
Public sector actors are recognizing that decrees and legislation alone aren’t enough, so we’re starting to see financial incentives being tied to environmental factors in a meaningful way. The European Central Bank, for one, is adding climate criteria in deciding how it conducts monetary policy which means climate risks get priced in to the financial markets. It sounds kinda nerdy but the implications of this move cannot be underestimated given the outsized role the ECB plays in global finance.
Much of these changes are driven by a new paradigm: elected officials, perhaps for the first ever, find themselves accountable to citizen activists who care deeply about climate issues. Not only were environmentalists a marginal constituency even five years ago, there’s a renewed sense of urgency as millennials and Gen Zers realize and manifest their political power in increasing ways.
The modeling is wrong, lol
Everyone in the climate space talks about decoupling, which is the strategy of maintaining economic growth while reducing emissions. For that to work, we need to decarbonize our energy supply by 6% a year until 2100. We’re currently decarbonizing at 1%. So popular models just look at that 1% and say, gee, we are seriously far behind and at this rate… we’ll never catch up!
The problem is that these models assume decarbonization will grow at a linear rate… which may be the wrong way to look at it. Michael Grubb, a UCL professor, convincingly argues that we should be using logistic substitution to model decarbonization, the same principle that drives new technology adoption. This is the famous S curve of tech adoption, according to which new tech cruises along at low market penetration, prices slowly inching down and supply slowly building up. Then it hits some value threshold, at which point adoption skyrockets until it dominates the market.
Professor Grub explains that “the conclusions we draw from historical data depend entirely upon what kind of process we think we are trying to measure.” Other analyses, he says, use “the wrong mental model”. By doing so “they bring to the table the wrong form of maths and thereby an apparently mathematically objective pessimism.”
Using the logistic subs. model, it would take a while for the rate of decarbonization to reach even 5% annually (12 years or so), but after that, the rate of decline will start to accelerate up to 20% annually in its later stages, more than making up the current gap.
This model makes sense because green technologies follow the S adoption curve, and their adoption is the driver of decarbonization. We see this with solar panels, and with electric vehicles and with wind and, on the reverse side, with the decline of coal.
In fact, I think both tech and and politics have tipping points after which something that was a fringe belief becomes a foregone conclusion, like gay marriage and marijuana. So not only will climate innovation follow an S-curve, but public opinion will too, and the data suggests that we are very much at its tipping point.
Why Choose Optimism
Putting aside the realities on the ground, and the various prisms through which we can interpret them, the other interesting question is: does it make sense to be optimistic here a priori?
The annoying answer is, well, it depends.
There are really two types of optimism:
Blind optimism, like a child expecting her parents to build her a treehouse
Conditional optimism, like a child confident she can build a treehouse if given the tools
What the pessimists fear — and warn against — is Type I optimism. And rightly so. But Type II optimism is a powerful force, perhaps the single most potent ingredient in the Borscht of human innovation. The Matzoh ball in the Matzoh ball soup. I think I’m hungry.
While it’s essential to be upfront about the existential threat of climate change, presenting the problem as unsolvable can lead to a sense of inevitability and hopelessness. We are motivated more by envisioning what’s possible, and what a better future might look like, than spurred into action by fear.
This isn’t just me yapping. The data backs it up. In two separate experiments, researchers found that people who read pitches that emphasized the positive impact of climate action were 36% more likely to take action than those who read pitches that frightened them with visions of loss and destruction.
“Doomsday stories”, says Jennifer Francis, an atmospheric scientist at Rutgers, “are so depressing that people shut down and stop listening… if there’s no hope, there will be no action”. In other words, climate doomism is its own self-fulfilling prophecy, and it may be almost as dangerous as climate denialism.
But hope has to be earned
Hope, writes Rebecca Solnit in her book Hope in the Dark, is not a lottery ticket, but “an axe you break down doors with in an emergency”. You have to earn hope.
What we must avoid is scrolling for hope, armchair activism’s younger, hipper cousin. It is when we scrounge social media for signs of progress to reassure ourselves that smart people are figuring it out, which we translate to mean: we don’t have to change much about our lives.
Por que no los dos?
My friend and coach likes to remind me that two seemingly opposing things can be true at the same time. I both love an ice-cream sandwich and hate myself for eating it.
If we try hard enough and let go of our tendency to look for simple stories, we can both accept that climate change has grave consequences that are getting worse by the day and that there’s a lot we can do about it.
A lot of pessimism is caused by our tendency to underestimate how quickly people adapt to new circumstances. COVID really drove this home for me. We can’t assume our behavior under the increasing pressure of climate change will mirror our behavior in its absence. As Morgan Housel puts it:
It is too easy to assume that when faced with terrible circumstances people will only muster a normal response. But it’s never like that. Expectations reset, survival instincts unleash new creative juices, and people start thinking and acting in ways they wouldn’t have contemplated before the crisis.
In general, it’s really hard to predict the outcomes of two huge and complex systems — society and the environment. No one really knows what’s actually going to happen: neither the distinguished scientists at IPCC nor the talking heads on our screens.
The good news is that this creates a gap just big enough for hope to live in.
Let me know what you thought of this piece by clicking one of the links below👇🏼.