For many years now, people worldwide have viewed climate change as one of the top global threats facing humanity. Warnings of catastrophic weather events, large swaths of land becoming uninhabitable, and existing social and political problems becoming exacerbated by the changing climate are all cited as reasons to be fearful of what the future may hold. And for many of these warnings, there is reason to be worried. The earth’s average temperature continues to rise, and many predictions and climate modelling scenarios put preventing an average temperature rise of two degrees Celsius out of reach. The result of this out-of-control warming, some say, will be the end of human civilization as we now know it.
In certain online circles and many media outlets, these dire predictions are constantly repeated, often with a sense of widespread pessimism and defeatism over the ability to make substantive change in reversing these trends. Such attitudes are now manifesting themselves in young people. According to one recent survey, over 50% of young people between 16-25 said they feel “sad” and “powerless” and reported feelings of anxiety when considering the future given the threat climate change poses. Another found that young people in the United States and the United Kingdom were more resistant to changing behavioural patterns that would benefit the climate than older people because they felt doing so wouldn’t make a difference in solving the problem.
What is climate doomerism?
These attitudes fall under the umbrella of what can be called climate doomerism. Climate doomerism is a view that nothing can be done to stop runaway climate change and that humanity is destined to a future of climate-induced suffering and misery. These views appear to be increasingly pervasive among young people and have even led a significant portion to declare that they will be having no or fewer children on the basis that doing so is morally reprehensible given the state of the earth they will inhabit.
Driven by sensationalist headlines that predict a complete breakdown in modern civilization due to climate change, this view offers little on the necessary and possible actions that can be taken to avoid such hellish scenarios. Moreover, these worst-case scenarios of four degrees Celsius and greater (commonly known as the business approach) appear to be increasingly unlikely given current climate policies yet you would not know this by reading certain media coverage about the subject.
Unfortunately, all of this might prevent otherwise intelligent and talented young people from putting their skills to use against the problem. The degree to which these views are common among young people should then be alarming. Like this Twitter thread from prominent tech entrepreneur Sam Altman describes, many smart young adults see little chance that they could influence future climate policy and climate-related technology and have instead resigned to a worldview of defeatism.
If climate doomerism continues to occupy some of the brightest young minds, it might only worsen the problem. It is still undeniable that bold action is needed to mitigate the worst of climate change. Still, such action will only be made harder if an otherwise talented and capable subset of the population is convinced that little can be done to avoid what they see as the inevitable.
In light of these feelings of dread, there should be, perhaps, a reminder of the many failed predictions that warned of impending social and ecological collapse. Notable examples include the 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” which warned that the world would no longer be able to feed itself due to a growing population. And another 2002 report warned that within 20 years, climate change could cause Britain’s climate to resemble that of Siberia and that many European cities would have sunk under rising sea levels.
While these predictions obviously didn’t turn out, they and others like them likely contribute to much of the widespread despair among climate doomers. Instead, there needs to be a message in the culture that is optimistic and underscores remarkable progress to date and the continuing efforts into technologies that help the world transition to a more sustainable future.
Reasons for optimism
Apart from potentially creating a self-fulfilling prophecy where climate doomerism never leads anyone to solve the problem, there are an incredible amount of ongoing developments that shift the world towards a greener future that often gets less recognition than they deserve. The first is that in many developed economies, including the largest such as the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom, total emissions have been falling for at least 15 years. Emissions in these countries peaked around 2005 and are down by as much as 40% in the UK. Reduced emissions mainly result from improvements in energy efficiency and a shift away from coal-fired electricity generation to natural gas and renewables.
Albeit the per capita emissions in these countries are coming from very high levels, this is still welcome news as this decline has occurred mainly in the absence of an aggressive climate policy. Climate policies targeted at reducing emissions appear to be increasingly likely in developed countries, with virtually all of Europe and North America committing to be carbon-neutral by 2050. This will hopefully cause emissions to fall even faster, with the trend spreading to other countries as well.
Another significant cause for optimism is the quickening pace of the energy transition towards sustainable sources. Primarily led by solar and wind energy, renewables have grown from not even 2% of global electricity generation in 2010 to 10% today. Precipitated by this has been the massive cost declines in technology, to the point where in certain areas, solar is now the cheapest form of electricity in history. Such developments were unforeseen by all ten years ago, including the International Energy Agency (IEA), which forecast just a quarter of the amount of solar energy that was ultimately installed by 2020. A key reason these predictions failed was that they did not consider what might happen to the costs of the relevant technology once greater sums of investment and institutional capacity were put into it, allowing for the decline in costs.
The lesson of the cost declines and improvements in technology for renewable energy can be applied more generally to those worried about climate change. Many fail to consider the many new possibilities and technologies that will materialize due to all of the current efforts going towards solving this problem. Moreover, efforts to mitigate climate change are now seen as a financial opportunity, with record amounts of private capital going into the space — up 210% from last year by one estimate. And this funding isn’t just going into renewable technology and electric cars — although continued efforts to improve these areas are essential.
Much of the funding into climate tech, both public and private, is going into more futuristic technologies that, if successful, could reap major benefits for the environment. One such technology is nuclear fusion, a process that if successful, could meet the energy demands of the globe and which saw a significant technical breakthrough last year. Another is the rapidly growing hydrogen industry. Many people are hopeful that its unique characteristics could help reduce emissions in sectors that have proven difficult to decarbonize, such as aviation and heavy industry.
A different type of messaging
Nuclear fusion and hydrogen are but two of the dozens of exciting developments occurring in the climate space that should be highlighted as reasons for optimism. Critics might argue that many of these are still unproven and do not represent a silver bullet in solving this enormous problem, and the latter point is undoubtedly true. However, as mentioned earlier, there is often a failure to imagine what breakthroughs can be achieved once sufficient intellectual and financial capital is put towards a problem. Future significant technological breakthroughs should be operating assumptions to achieve widespread optimism among the general public, or things will remain at the status quo with slow progression.
Unfortunately, positive developments like those mentioned above receive less attention than fatalistic predictions that there are only a few years left to solve climate change or we are all doomed. Critics will point to these predictions and countries where emissions are still rising like China and India. This only re-enforces the feelings of doom and defeatism that have become so prevalent among young people today. Instead, a more positive and motivational story needs to be told. It does not need to dismiss the severity of the problem, which will still take a huge amount of innovation and human cooperation to accomplish. But changing the culture by ditching the more dire predictions and replacing them with a vision of a sustainable world driven by technology and innovation is more likely to benefit the earth and the people who inhabit it.