Is there a limit to optimism when it comes to climate change?

<p><em>Photo by Lance Cheung/USDA</em></p>

Photo by Lance Cheung/USDA


by Fiacha Heneghan + BIO

Photo by Lance Cheung/USDA

‘We’re doomed’: a common refrain in casual conversation about climate change. It signals an awareness that we cannot, strictly speaking, avert climate change. It is already here. All we can hope for is to minimise climate change by keeping global average temperature changes to less than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid rending consequences to global civilisation. It is still physically possible, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in a 2018 special report – but ‘realising 1.5°C-consistent pathways would require rapid and systemic changes on unprecedented scales’.

Physical possibility aside, the observant and informed layperson can be forgiven her doubts on the question of political possibility. What should be the message from the climate scientist, the environmental activist, the conscientious politician, the ardent planner – those daunted but committed to pulling out all the stops? It is the single most important issue facing the community of climate-concerned Earthlings. We know what is happening. We know what to do. The remaining question is how to convince ourselves to do it.

We are, I believe, witnessing the emergence of two kinds of responses. One camp – let us call its members ‘the optimists’ – believes that foremost in our minds ought to be the strict possibility of surmounting the challenge ahead. Yes, it is also possible that we will fail, but why think about that? To doubt is to risk a self-fulfilling prophecy. William James captured the essence of this thought in his lecture ‘The Will to Believe’ (1896): occasionally, when faced with a salto mortale (or critical step), ‘faith creates its own verification’ where doubt would cause one to lose one’s footing.

Those in the other camp, ‘the pessimists’, argue that countenancing the possibility, perhaps the likelihood, of failure, should not be avoided. In fact, it might very well open new pathways for reflection. In the case of climate change, it might, for example, recommend a greater emphasis on adaptation alongside mitigation. But this would depend on the facts of the matter, and the route to facts leads through evidence rather than faith. Some gaps are too wide to jump, faith notwithstanding, and the only way to identify instances of such gaps is to look before leaping.

On the extreme ends of these camps there is bitter mistrust of the opposition. Some among the optimists level accusations of enervating fatalism and even cryptodenialism at the pessimists: if it is too late to succeed, why bother doing anything? On the fringes of the pessimist camp, the suspicion circulates that the optimists deliberately undersell the gravity of climate change: the optimist is a kind of climate esoteric who fears the effects of the truth on the masses.

Let us set these aside as caricatures. Both the optimists and the pessimists tend to agree on the prescription: immediate and drastic action. But the reasons offered for the prescription naturally vary with the expectations of success. The optimist has recourse especially to our self-interest when selling climate change mitigation. To present an optimistic message on climate change in the sense I mean here is to argue that each of us faces a choice. We can either carry on pigheadedly in our pursuit of short-term economic gain, degrading the ecosystems that sustain us, poisoning our air and water, and eventually facing a diminished quality of life. Or we can embrace a bright and sustainable future. Climate change mitigation, it is argued, is effectively a win-win. Proposals such as the Green New Deal (GND) are often presented as prudent investments promising returns. Meanwhile, a report by the Global Commission on Adaptation warns us that, although a trillion-dollar investment is required to avoid ‘climate apartheid’, the economic cost of doing nothing would be greater. Climate justice will save us money. Under this messaging paradigm, the specifically environmental dimension can almost drop out entirely. The point is the cost-benefit analysis. We might as well be talking about mould abatement.

This brand of green boosterism has little resonance with those who, like the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, subscribe to ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. Expect to fail, says the pessimist, try anyway. But why? The appeal of a return on investment loses its effectiveness in inverse proportion to the likelihood of success. Pessimists must make a different kind of appeal. In the absence of a realistically expected extrinsic benefit, it remains to insist on a prescribed action’s intrinsic choice-worthiness. As the US novelist Jonathan Franzen put it in a recent (and badly received) New Yorker article on the question, action to stop climate change ‘would be worth pursuing even if it had no effect at all’.

Right action for its own sake is usually associated with Immanuel Kant. He argued that human practical reason deals in imperatives or rules. Whenever we reason about what to do, we employ various prescriptions for action. If I want to get to work on time, I ought to set my alarm clock. Most of our everyday imperatives are hypothetical: they take an ‘if-then’ structure, wherein an antecedent ‘if’ underwrites the necessity of the consequent ‘then’. If I am indifferent to getting to work on time, there is no need for me to set an alarm. The rule applies to me only hypothetically. But, Kant argues, some rules apply to me – to everyone with practical reason – regardless of personal preference. These rules, of right and wrong, command categorically, not hypothetically. I stand within their ambit as such. Whether or not I am indifferent to human weal or woe, it remains the case that I ought not lie, cheat, steal and murder.

Contrast this view with consequentialism. The consequentialist thinks that right and wrong are a matter of the consequences of actions, not their particular character. Though Kantians and consequentialists often agree on particular prescriptions, they offer different reasons. Where a consequentialist argues that justice is worth pursuing only insofar as it produces good outcomes, a Kantian thinks that justice is valuable in itself, and that we stand under obligations of justice even when they are futile. But consequentialists think that an ethical command is just another kind of hypothetical imperative.

The most interesting difference – perhaps the source of much of the mutual mistrust – between the optimists and the pessimists is that the former tend to be consequentialists and the latter tend to be Kantians about the need for climate action. How many among the optimists would be willing to argue that we must pour effort into mitigation even if it almost certainly won’t be enough to prevent catastrophic impacts? What if it turned out that the GND would ultimately cost economic growth in the long term? What if climate apartheid is financially and politically expedient for rich countries? Here I come down on the side of the Kantian pessimist, who has a ready response: what’s wrong with rapacious extractive capitalism, with climate apartheid, with doing nothing, is not, primarily, the long-term implications for GDP. It is a question of justice.

Suppose the baleful trends continue, that is, that our windows for action continue to shrink, if the scale of change required continues to grow unfeasibly large as we continue to wantonly pump CO2 into the atmosphere. Should we expect a shift from climate consequentialism to climate Kantianism? Will climate consequentialists start tacking on that small but significant qualifier, ‘even if it’s hopeless’, to their recommendations? The disagreements between consequentialists and Kantians extend beyond their metaethical intuitions to their pragmatic ones. The consequentialist harbours a suspicion about the efficacy of specifically moral exhortation. This suspicion is the wellspring of a popular criticism of Kant’s ethics, namely, that it rests on the Pollyannaish assumption that we mortals have a capacity for disinterested moral action.

Kant takes the concern seriously. The theme of moral motivation recurs across his writings, but he comes to the opposite conclusion from his critics. Many, he thinks, will rise to the occasion when their moral obligations are presented to them starkly and without appeal to their self-interest. ‘No idea,’ he argues in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), ‘so elevates the human mind and animates it even to inspiration as that of a pure moral disposition, revering duty above all else, struggling with the countless ills of life and even with its most seductive allurements and yet overcoming them.’

Perhaps at the moment we still have the luxury of being strategic about our messaging. It is not yet clear that the worst will come to pass, and that we cannot, where plausible and effective, emphasise the potential upsides of mitigation. Besides that, different messaging strategies might be more or less effective on different people. But if the pessimist one day becomes too persuasive to ignore, it behooves us to have one more card to play in our pockets. Moral exhortation, the Kantian argues, is an insurance policy against fatalism. It is our reason for doing the right thing even in the face of doom, when all other reasons fail. But let us hope they do not.