Climate Defeatism: Like Denialism, With None of the Excuses

CC BY 2.0. Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren/NOAA Photo LIbrary

These folks really should know better.

As I wrote the other day, a series of recent reports has reenforced the fact that we have very little time to stave off the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. For most of us, this news is daunting. Indeed, I've also written about the growing willingness among activists and climate scientists alike to finally admit that they are scared.

This fear, of course, is understandable. But I've also noticed another kind of reaction among some in online discussions:

"We're screwed."
"There's no hope."
"It's too late."

You get the idea. Some folks appear all too ready to jump from us not doing enough to combat climate change, to not doing anything because things have already progressed too far. And this, I have to say, is unfathomable to me.

Not only is there ample evidence that progress is being made on several important fronts when it comes to shifting away from fossil fuels, but there's also a simple moral imperative that we have no right to write off those generations who will follow, simply because we're currently overwhelmed by the task ahead of us.

In many ways, I find the idea of climate defeatism considerably more troublesome than denialism. At least denialists have ignorance, or ideology, to fall back on. Defeatists, on the other hand, just appear to be unwilling to emotionally engage because they fear the battle is lost.

It's worth noting that climate action is not an all or nothing proposition. We're not faced with a choice between complete and total decarbonization within a decade, or business as usual and burn everything in sight. Alex Steffen is probably the person who has put this point most succinctly:

"...this isn’t a 2oC or bust fight. It’s a fight to limit consequences. It’s a fight for every 1/10th of a degree. If we fail to hold to 2oC, we have to fight for 2.1o; failing that, we battle on for 2.2o. With millennia of impacts at stake, we never get to give up, even if we end up in 4oC. For future generations, 4o is still better than 4.1o."

The Guardian reports that this was also one of the conclusions in the recent US government report on climate change which the Trump administration tried to bury over the holidays: Every bit of climate action—however inadequate it may be—still matters. Even if we don't reach peak emissions until mid-century, we'd still stave off significant percentages of the worst economic and social impacts compared to a business-as-usual scenario.

Finally, nobody really knows exactly how bad things are going to get. Sure, that means we should take optimists with a grain of salt. But it also goes for the doom mongers. Some say we can still keep warming to 1.5 degrees, even without the need for negative emissions technologies. Others say we are in a fight for survival.

I'm nowhere near smart enough to tell you for sure who is right. But I'm smart enough to know that giving up and wallowing in self pity is literally the dumbest thing that civilization could do right now.