Pessimism and Optimism Are Both False Choices in the Climate Crisis

We should resist extrapolating from our legitimate outrage and fear to conclude that all hope is lost.

A formerly sunken boat rests on a now-dry section of lakebed at the drought-stricken Lake Mead on May 10, 2022 in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada.
The declining water levels at Lake Mead are a result of a climate change-fueled megadrought coupled with increased water demands in the Southwestern United States.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Since publishing my book, "We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now," I’ve given several talks and readings on what we, as deeply imperfect individuals, can do to change the deeply imperfect systems in which we live. While the response has mostly been receptive, every now and then I’ll meet an audience member who tells me that it’s all way too far gone: “There’s no hope. Runaway climate change is here. We should be preparing for the apocalypse.” 

It’s perhaps understandable why folks react this way. After all, from massive loss of biodiversity to a depressing rebound of emissions, it’s undeniable that we’re nowhere near to solving this problem, and that the political will is not yet there to make the changes that many of us know are necessary. But we should resist extrapolating from our legitimate outrage, fear, or disappointment to conclude that all hope is lost. And there’s one simple reason for it: The prevailing science just does not support the idea that we’re doomed. 

The latest reminder of this fact comes from a commentary in Nature, in which renowned climate scientists Zeke Hausfather, Kate Marvel, Gavin A. Schmidt, John W. Nielsen-Gammon, and Mark Zelinka point out that many studies predicting "worse than we thought" outcomes are relying on climate models that are running "too hot" when they seek to recreate historic conditions. Meaning, there’s good reason to believe that their future projections are also currently running "too hot." More troublingly, these models are making their way into studies because researchers have not been given enough guidance on how to interpret the data these models produce: 

“Results using the raw CMIP6 models are already entering the climate impacts literature. In our experience, few climate researchers outside those directly involved in the creation of models are aware of the assessed-warming approach taken in AR6. In recent months, we’ve seen numerous papers highlighting how much worse regional and global climate outcomes are in CMIP6 than in the previous model generation, caused largely by the inclusion of unrealistic high-sensitivity models.”

This word of caution comes on the heels of other scientists, like Michael Mann, pointing out that, contrary to commonly held wisdom, average temperatures would stabilize pretty quickly if—and yes, it’s a big if—we stopped polluting tomorrow.

Sami Grover

Neither optimism nor pessimism is particularly useful when it comes to the climate crisis. What is useful are determination, strategy, commitment, and change. 

Yet I’m not writing this to argue we’re all going to be OK. While there is a danger in unsupported doomerism, there is also a danger in unjustified optimism too. Most specifically, it risks glossing over the fact that people are suffering and dying today due to human-induced (aka wealthy human-induced) climate change. Just look at deadly heatwaves happening in India and Pakistan as one example of how many, and who, are being hit the hardest. 

That may be why one of the authors of the Nature commentary, Marvel, felt it necessary to take to Twitter to offer a counterbalance to any optimism or relief that many of us may take from that piece: 

As has been argued many times before, ultimately, neither optimism nor pessimism is particularly useful when it comes to the climate crisis. What is useful are determination, strategy, commitment, and change. 

That’s why the good folks writing in Nature suggest wherever possible that scientists frame their work, not in terms of hard and fast projections for the future, apocalyptic or otherwise, but in potential levels of warming, depending on what humanity chooses to do: 

“Global warming levels force a simple question: when will the world reach a given level of warming? The answer, of course, is that it’s up to us. Reporting that severe risks and catastrophic outcomes are projected to occur at a particular time can give a false sense of inevitability and obscure the role of human choice in determining the future.”

Not only does this approach help us all to rediscover our agency in this mess, but it also allows us to embrace the inherent uncertainty. To paraphrase futurist and storyteller Alex Steffen, our role is not to determine the future, because that’s impossible. Instead, it’s to help keep alive as many possible outcomes, preferably positive ones, to increase the chances of a soft(er) landing for as many people as we possibly can. 

I continue to be determined to do my part. (And yes, I’m cautiously optimistic that we can.)

View Article Sources
  1. Hausfather, Zeke, et al. "Climate simulations: Recognize the 'hot model' problem." Nature, 4 May 2022.