December 10, 2019

The Case for Climate Optimism

“Climate denialism is back. For decades, denialists rejected truths about the environment: the link between carbon emissions and global warming, the human role in rising emissions, and the adequacy of climate modeling. That old form of denialism is buckling under the weight of the growing number of disasters clearly generated by our changing climate. In this era of climate crises, denialism often takes a new guise: The facts denied now concern human nature, rather than that of the world around us.

The loudest proselytizer of this “neo-denialism” is Jonathan Franzen. In a controversial New Yorker essay, Franzen scorns the “unrealistic hope” of preventing climate apocalypse. Rebuffing the denialism of the past, Franzen is certain that the horrors of climate change are real. But he is equally certain that there is little we can do to prevent those horrors from becoming reality. His argument against hope begins with the idea that the “point of no return” for climate catastrophe is a two-degree Celsius rise in global average temperature. Once such warming occurs, the world will spin out of our control in a series of cascading environmental transformations that will doom much of humanity. To prevent this death spiral, every country must “institute draconian conservation measures” and “completely retool its economy.” However, our “psychology” of complacency and myopic self-interest fuels a “political reality” of government inaction, making the necessary restructuring impossible.

“Call me a pessimist,” Franzen writes, “but I don’t see human nature fundamentally changing anytime soon.” Attempts to halt a snowballing crisis are therefore both hopeless and “actively harmful,” as they divert our efforts away from “smaller, more local battles that you have some realistic hope of winning.” In fighting such battles—like Franzen’s pet project, saving endangered bird populations—we can embrace “hope for today,” rather than hope for a “future … undoubtedly worse than the present.””

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