The RSA uses cookies on this website. By using this website you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more read our cookie policy and privacy policy. More Info

Pessimistic Optimism in the Climate Change Debate


  • Sustainability
  • Climate change
  • Community engagement

Recent good news regarding the climate illustrates how effective focused efforts to combat global warming can be. But let’s not delude ourselves into believing that they are anything close to sufficient, or that the need for large-scale behavioural change has become any less urgent.

The past few months have been a confusing time in the climate change debate. On the one hand, a series of recent reports from the World Bank, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the United Nations Environmental Protection Agency, ranging from pessimistic to catastrophic in their predictions, warn that we are close to if not past the point of no return in our attempts to address the problem.  

On the other hand, the decoupling of economic growth and increasing emissions for the first time in history, a surprise climate deal between the world’s two heaviest emitters, China and the US, as well as Costa Rica’s successful efforts to power itself fossil-fuel free, have given cause for hope.

The danger lies in letting these positive but modest developments encourage us in what our recent paper ‘The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change’ labelled ‘stealth denial’ – in other words the discrepancy between our intellectual acceptance of climate change and the actions we actually take to combat it in our lives.

Last year the Paris-based International Energy Agency noted that emissions for 2014 had remained at 2013’s level of roughly 32 billion metric tons, despite a global growth rate of 3 percent. The organisation hesitantly suggested that the decreasing use of coal and increasing application of renewable technologies in China and emphasis on energy-efficiency in Europe and the US might be the primary drivers of this development.

Previous instances of falling greenhouse gas emissions – only three in the past four decades – have always coincided with periods of global economic stagnation, so the data is noteworthy. But it would be foolhardy to infer from a single observation that the current rate of transition to renewables is sufficient. In announcing the news, the IEA’s director, Maria van der Hoven, urged against using ‘this positive news as an excuse to stall further action’.

Another cause of recent optimism, the US-China joint climate deal, involved both sides committing to unilateral measures to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. China plans to halt increases in emissions and augment its use of zero-emission sources to 20% by that date, whereas the US has agreed to cut its own to 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. These bilateral commitments follow in the footsteps of a binding 40% emissions reduction target for 2030 made by the EU.

Given the history of environmental conflict between the world’s top two economic superpowers, including mutual finger pointing for the collapse of the Copenhagen summit in 2009, the collaborative intent demonstrated by the secretly negotiated deal is comforting.

Yet here again it would be naïve to think that a single pact made between historical rivals signals an end to their thorny relationship. There remains a fundamental conflict of interest between the two states: China is focused on enriching its population and maintaining regime legitimacy via continued rapid growth, and likes pointing out that the West industrialised without having to worry about emissions and sustainability targets. The US meanwhile is reluctant to make commitments not matched by its global rival and number one emitter. The recent bilateral agreement is a good start, but the promises made are not nearly ambitious enough when viewed in light of the agreed 2°C global warming target.

Costa Rica’s success in powering itself solely on renewable energy since December 2014 is undoubtedly an impressive achievement that could inspire other governments considering making a move away from fossil-fuels, but the tiny country’s (population of 5 million) ability to make a difference on a planetary scale is clearly limited. Furthermore, the feat was largely driven by an usually heavy amount of rainfall - a stroke of luck rather than ingenuity of policy.

Taking a longer-term perspective on the problem, the aforementioned trio of 2014 reports from the World Bank, UNEP and the IPCC remind us how large the gap remains between current sustainability efforts and what is needed to prevent serious damage to the planet.

Taking into account past emissions, the World Bank report notes that a rise in temperature of 1.5°C is already practically unavoidable, increasing to 2°C by mid-century and 4°C by 2100 if concerted action is not taken. Even if the extremely unlikely scenario of a 1.5°C rise were to be realised, this would still imply further sea level rises, ocean warming and acidification, permafrost melting, more storms and more crop losses.

The UNEP Emissions Gap report calls for a complete halt of emissions by the end of the century - only 1000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide remain to be emitted before the 2°C ceiling is surpassed and irreversible damage to the environment is caused. Based on our current ‘spending’ rate the world has about 30 years left before it exceeds its ‘carbon budget’.

The IPCC report is the gloomiest of them all, pointing out that 1983 to 2012 was the warmest 30-year period in 1400 years, and claiming that without a total phase out of fossil fuels a devastating 5°C jump by 2100 is a distinct possibility. The panel report concludes that an 80% stake for renewables in the earth’s energy production is essential if ‘severe, pervasive and irreversible’ climate change is to be avoided.

Hasty overexcitement at a few better-than-anticipated outcomes in the climate domain threatens to lull us into a fall sense of complacency when a huge amount of work remains to be done. Our collective willingness to jump on the celebratory bandwagon only illustrates how desperate we are to ‘stealth’ deny what the bigger picture shows us to be true. As the world’s political and business leaders belatedly start attempting to address the degradation of our planet, good news will undoubtedly filter through here and there, but such efforts have a long way to go before they begin overturning the pessimistic predictions that arise from the broader trends.

More fundamentally, statistical disputes over the severity of climate change keep us rooted in the ‘hands-off’, fact-driven mentality that has so far failed to spark deep-reaching behavioural change. Instead of broadening our understanding of climate change from that of a solely scientific reality to one with an equally important social dimension (one that demands immediate grassroots mobilisation), we continue to passively await the next report or titbit of information, which we believe will either reassure us (climate change is not as bad as we thought), finally frighten us into action (climate change is worse than expected) or relieve us (it’s too late to stop climate change).

In postponing decisive action to a future moment when the facts will be better understood, this ‘hands-off’ approach is ultimately a form of procrastination, and it is precisely this desire to delay that makes us so susceptible to a little good news. But the truth of the matter is that the facts as they currently stand give us a more than good enough basis upon which to act. And even in the utterly improbable scenario that we are not causing climate change, would building cleaner, more economical and more sustainable societies really be such a waste of time?

As a final illustration of the inadequacy of current mitigation efforts, this month the most extensive land-based study of the Amazon to date was published, which showed that for the first time in history the forest’s net carbon dioxide uptake (down by half since the 1990s) was overtaken by fossil fuel emissions in Latin America. The report puts this loss of capacity down to a spike in the rate of death of its trees, caused in turn by an overdose of carbon in the environment. The Amazon’s role as a vast ‘carbon sink’ for the planet is in jeopardy. 

While abandoning all hope would clearly not be the appropriate response to the pessimistic predictions, our political leaders should keep both the trees and the forest in mind and not let a little good work breed complacency. This will be especially important as they descend upon Paris this December for the latest and (hopefully) greatest session of the UN Climate Change Conference, which aims to finally achieve the legally binding and universal agreement so long in the making.  

Looking beyond the frequently uninspiring government-led climate change regime, one might hope that the fate of the Amazon will prove capable of capturing hearts and minds in a way that warnings about sea-level rises and temperature changes have so far failed to do. Like the complex evolutionary processes that gradually resulted in the Amazon’s unparalleled biodiversity, any solution to climate change will require the individual contributions of a huge number of actors, their sizes mattering less than their agglomeration into a broader societal effort.

Let’s just hope we’re a little faster. 

Be the first to write a comment


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

Related articles

  • A citizens’ economy for tomorrow’s world

    Kenny McCarthy

    For the final challenge of the Citizens’ Economic Council, we’re crowdsourcing your ideas on how we can shift the incentives within our economy to meet the needs of tomorrow.

  • Pessimistic Optimism in the Climate Change Debate

    Maximilian Yoshioka

    Recent news illustrates how effective focused efforts to combat global warming can be. But let’s not delude ourselves that they are sufficient, or that the need for large-scale behavioural change is any less urgent.