Why the left needs to set out the case for climate optimism

'There is increasing cause for optimism when it comes to averting the worst effects of the climate crisis.'

Climate change

The left needs to articulate a positive vision of a liveable world, one that’s still worth fighting for. 

Whisper it: there is increasing cause for optimism when it comes to averting the worst effects of the climate crisis.

I know, I know. This isn’t the done thing around here. We’re much better at donning our sackcloths and berating the failure of twenty-seven COPs to halt fossil fuel expansion, or shaking our fists at the government’s maniacal plans to grant new oil licenses in the north sea. 

We’re right to be angry: it’s thought that the annual emissions from the proposed Rosebank Oil Field would create more pollution than the world’s 700 million poorest people produce in a year. And although the creation of a Loss and Damage Fund at COP27 must be seen as a hard-earned and historic victory for the global south, days before its formation a Global Carbon Project report stated that our current emissions trajectory puts us on track to exceed 1.5C degrees of warming within just nine years. Nine years!

This is grim news, and it’s driving people to despair. On Earth Day this year, the climate activist Wynn Alan Bruce died after setting fire to himself outside the US Supreme Court. The act of self-immolation followed the publication of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, which stated that 40% of the world’s population are now deemed ‘highly vulnerable’. Research published last year in The Lancet found that 59% of children and young people surveyed were ‘very or extremely worried’ about climate change, with 45% saying that it ‘negatively affected their daily life and functioning’.

Is it any surprise? The images and stories we share about the climate are often laced with doom-laden headlines, misery-inducing images and genuinely terrifying statistics. A quick glance at today’s Guardian headlines paints an appropriately bleak picture: ‘Seven ways in which our destruction of the natural world has led to deadly outcomes’, ‘Richard Dawson on his post-apocalyptic new album’ and ‘World still ‘on brink of climate catastropheafter deal’, and (my personal favourite) ’Climate Carnage: whose job is it to save the planet?’.

This kind of media coverage veers worryingly close to embracing a kind of eco-nihilism (or climate doomerism), in which the emphasis is no longer on what can be done to avert further global heating, but dwells instead on the most extreme, apocalyptic climate scenarios. For a certain strata of the climate movement, it’s already ‘too late’ to avert the climate crisis; time instead to start digging our bunkers ahead of impending civilisational collapse. ‘Wave your kids goodbye’  says one of my twitter followers ‘Climate change is a school bus with a drunk driver and no brakes…’.

This narrative is problematic for a number of reasons. The climate scientist Michael Mann argues that doomerist logic is easily appropriated by those who have an interest in furthering climate inaction. If the world that we are trying to save is already a lost cause, then what’s the point in trying to radically transform its future? It is a short intellectual journey from climate doomerism to climate inaction, he argues. 

Climate justice writer Mary Annaïse Heglar identifies a phenomena she describes as ‘existential exceptionalism’. When the (largely white, northern) climate movement describe the climate crisis as the first and greatest existential threat facing humanity, they conveniently overlook the threats faced by specific communities for time eternal. As she puts it ‘Black people of the not-too-distant past trembled for every baby born into the world. Sound familiar?’. It’s telling that eco-nihilism is not a narrative that activists in Tuvalu or Fiji tend to indulge in. They’re far too busy successfully fighting for Loss and Damage finance, or relocating communities to escape rising sea levels.

But most frustratingly, eco-nihilism is problematic because it paints an inaccurate portrait of likely outcomes. There is a different story to be told about our climate future, and it’s one that gives us reasons to be cautiously optimistic:

  1. The world is not about to end – and is always worth saving.

The sense that we are ‘running out of time’ to avert climate catastrophe and save the world has become a powerful metaphor du jour. Our rapidly diminishing carbon budget is intrinsically linked to the fate of our climate, and so the image of an hourglass in which every grain of sand counts is not an inaccurate one. 

But it’s not an image that can accommodate much nuance. When the final grain of sand passes through the eye of the hourglass on the day we collectively pass 1.5C of warming, we will not fall off an environmental cliff. And if we miraculously manage to prevent the hourglass from running out completely, we are still going to be living with a world fundamentally altered by climate change, in which many regions will experience temperature increases beyond 1.5C. 

The hourglass also fails to capture the incredible leaps that have been made in reducing emissions in the past ten or fifteen years. Before the Paris Climate Agreement, scientists feared that we were on a pathway that could exceed 3.5C of warming. What would this feel like? Well, interactive Carbon Brief analysis gives a good idea; at 1.5C of warming the world can expect 16 times more marine heat wave days each year – at 3.5C this could be up to 41 times more; every heat wave we can avert helps to protect marine life from devastation. Similarly, if warming is limited to 1.5C, 14% of the population would experience one severe heat wave every five years, this jumps to 37% at 2C of warming. 

So are there other images that help us understand the pathway our future can take? I find this illustration, designed by climate scientist and IPCC author Giacomo Grassi, helpful in that regard. It gives a good sense of the progress we have already made in reducing the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, and provides visual indication of the perilous waters that we continue to head towards. In this scenario, every tenth of a degree of warming matters. If we pass 1.5C, then we fight for 1.6C, 1.7C and so on. We don’t simply wring our hands and head straight back towards the large ice sheet. 

2) Things are pretty awful, but not as terrible as they could have been. 

The record-breaking heatwaves experienced around the globe this summer are haunting foretaste of what is to come, but we must also acknowledge that the possibility of a truly apocalyptic climate future is starting to recede, and that there is real cause for optimism as global actors finally starting to transform rhetoric into action when it comes to the energy transition. 

Two of the biggest polluters, China and the US, have both made significant strides in the past year alone. The Inflation Reduction Act is a game changing piece of climate legislation which will invest $369 billion in US Energy Security and Climate Change policies, and is estimated to reduce the country’s climate emissions by roughly 40% by 2030, in line with their Paris Climate Agreement commitments. Researchers are also predicting that China will reach peak emissions between 2025-2027, several years ahead of its commitment to peak emissions before 2030.

Electorally, we shouldn’t overlook the significance of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s victory over Jair Bolsonaro, not simply because it brings an end to the devastating deforestation practices of Bolsonaro, but also because it follows a so-called ‘pink wave’ of environmentally aligned governments in Latin America. In Columbia, the environmental activist and lawyer Francia Marquez has recently become the first black vice president, sharing a ticket with Gustavo Petro that promised to wean Columbia off fossil fuel dependency.

3) We have the solutions, and the solutions are aligning.

Even fifteen years ago, the argument that a green transition would mean a better future for all was a difficult one to land. But between 2009 and 2019, the price of onshore wind electricity declined by 70%, and the price of electricity from solar declined by a staggering 89%. It is no longer the case that fossil fuel dependency is the economically favourable position, and this is real cause for celebration.

The good news is that we have the solutions to the climate crisis, and we are in a far, far better position technologically than we were when Al Gore released ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ almost two decades ago. The even better news? The solutions to the cost of living and the climate crisis are aligning. The way out of inflationary gas prices is renewable energy and emissions reduction. The best remedy for a heating planet? Renewable energy and emissions reduction! 

Of course, the speed at which we bring down the emissions curve is the difference between us crashing into the sheet of ice or negotiating iceberg laden waters. But it’s essential that the left confidently communicates the fact that the future we are trying to save is absolutely one that is worth saving. It’s a cleaner, less polluted and potentially more equal earth, in which energy independence has paved the way for a liveable world.

The future, my friends, is still in our hands.

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