Pragmatic optimism, rather than complacency or despondency, is the best way to tackle the climate emergency

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Dr Ajay Gambhir, Advanced Research Fellow at the Grantham Institute, considers the best mindset with which to approach the climate emergency.

In the last month there have been two eye-catching opinion pieces on climate change by famous, influential, though notably non-expert, commentators.

The first, by celebrity historian Niall Ferguson, weighs in on Greta Thunberg. He asserts that Greta is taking climate change far too seriously. He hopes that she’ll grow up to see the error of her ways, happily flying to New York (rather than sailing) in the future, with her adult sense of perspective. Yes, climate change is happening, says Ferguson, but it’s happened before. Even if the seas rise, we will develop and deploy the technologies to “ward off” flood waters. No need to worry.

The second, by American author Jonathan Franzen, warns that catastrophic climate change is now all but baked into our destiny. As a result, he feels there is little hope of preventing global temperature increase from passing through a dangerous point of no return (which he takes to mean a 2°C level of warming), beyond which the world becomes “self-transforming”. Franzen’s response is to accept this virtually inevitable disaster. This doesn’t mean simply sitting back and waiting for it, but rather focusing our current actions on those that might buy us a bit of time and those that could help us address more immediate problems that are “within our power to solve”, such as water depletion, damage to fisheries and overuse of pesticides.

Are either of Ferguson’s or Franzen’s views a correct or even useful way to be thinking about the problem of climate change?

Certainly not, in the case of Ferguson. His astonishing complacency flies in the face of the scientific consensus on the risks of the degree of human-induced climate change that we are currently heading towards. It also conflicts with any sensible precautionary principle – that actions should be taken to minimise the risks of potentially harmful impacts to society. Precautionary action means undertaking both mitigation and adaptation measures – the latter to prepare for potential climate change impacts, and the former to reduce their likelihood and severity.

What about Franzen? Certainly, he is incorrect on aspects of the science. For example, the evidence does not support his assertion that a 2°C level of warming marks a sudden, universal point of no return. But, if we fail to take adequate action to stem the rise in global temperatures and do get into a critical danger zone, should we then follow Franzen’s advice to accept our apocalyptic fate? He clearly doesn’t advocate a do-nothing approach, rather urging us to strive towards reducing our emissions as much as we can. Granted, it may be wiser to be alive to the possibility of failure, rather than simply assume in a blindly optimistic way that we will achieve the incredibly stretching targets of the Paris Agreement. But Franzen takes this too far. His message is one of ultimate despondency. In reality, it seems eminently plausible that we can galvanise the necessary actions to avert many of the worst impacts that would constitute his “inevitable apocalypse”.

The case for pragmatic optimism

Being mindful of potential disasters gives us a context in which to plan for them and potentially increase our actions to minimise their impacts. To do so we need to be optimistic. This needn’t be blind optimism. We should temper our hopes that we will achieve our climate goals with active planning towards the possibility that we will fall short. As Professor Bob Watson, former Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said over a decade ago, we should aim for a 2°C temperature rise but adapt for 4°C. This encapsulates the notion of pragmatic optimism, something that we will need in large doses for many decades to come – even if we meet our climate goals, the impacts of a warmer world, and the risks they bring, will still be felt across the globe.

It will be interesting to see what further views on climate change will be expressed by commentators from the non-scientific community in the near future. They will be a critical bellwether as to how society at large is beginning to absorb and react to the scientific evidence of a warming climate and the impacts it might bring – as well as the actions we can and should take to tackle this challenge.

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