Should we be practising “climate change optimism”?

Looking at our climate crisis with pessimism is neither constructive nor fully deserved.

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It can be tempting to succumb to hopelessness over climate change, to view the most catastrophic climate forecasts as grimly inevitable. I have often felt this way, especially since I moved to New York two and a half years ago and observed as the Trump administration withdrew America from the Paris climate agreement, rolled back domestic environmental regulations, championed the toxic coal industry and marked a new apotheosis for anti-science, post-truth politics. A recent Yale survey found that a quarter of Americans believe that global warming is mostly caused by natural changes rather than human activity, and one in seven don’t believe in climate change at all – even though the US is already experiencing its consequences, from melting permafrost in Alaska to devastating Californian wildfires.

That said, climate change pessimism is neither constructive – the worst we can do now is give up – nor fully deserved. In the past year, we’ve also witnessed a surge in climate change activism around the world, often led by young people. After the school climate strikes across Britain and the Extinction Rebellion protests that shut down parts of central London, parliament declared a climate “emergency”. Support for the Green Party is also rising. Meanwhile, in the US, the progressive New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s calls for a “Green New Deal” have helped push climate change to the forefront of the political agenda ahead of the 2020 presidential elections.

In his first book, Given Half a Chance, Edward Davey makes a compelling case for qualified optimism on climate change. Davey, a project director at the World Resources Institute, a research and advocacy group, writes that he remains “deeply hopeful” despite the scale of the environmental challenges we face, because “we know with great clarity what needs to be done, and in many parts of the world we are already doing it”. He believes we may be reaching a tipping point and that finally enough people are concerned about climate change that they will force leaders to start addressing it.

For those who remain overwhelmed by the sheer number of things that demand their urgent attention – rising sea levels, air pollution, overflowing landfills, mass extinction – his book is intended to provide a useful blueprint. Davey identifies ten paths we need to pursue if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change and develop a more sustainable relationship with the natural world: the transition to renewable energy; forest conservation; combating soil degradation; better water management; protecting biodiversity; curbing overfishing and ocean pollution; building greener cities; reducing waste and improving recycling; strengthening reproductive healthcare; and transitioning towards a healthier diet. He suggests establishing a “global environmental Marshall Plan” – an international agreement as forward-thinking and ambitious as the postwar plan for reconstructing Europe – to bring about these changes.

Davey has worked for various humanitarian and environmental NGOs, and is a former environmental adviser to the Colombian government. His book highlights diverse projects that showcase what progress might look like, from Ethiopia’s ambitious plans to reverse soil degradation (which involves planting 22 million hectares of trees, covering more than a sixth of the country in forest) to the example set by town planners in Copenhagen for how to build sustainable cities. It’s not going to be easy to bring about a fundamental shift in humanity’s relationship with the planet, but environmental leaders around the world are demonstrating that change is possible.

It’s hard to find fault with Davey’s vision for a greener future. The global green political economy would be inclusive, pro-poor and accountable. Big business would be socially responsible. The feelings of exclusion and discontent that have fuelled the rise in global populism would be addressed. The risk of water-wars and other environmental conflicts would decrease. He remains vague, however, on how we set these virtuous circles in motion. Davey suggests voters should lend their support to political candidates with strong environmental agendas, which makes sense. But one still wonders if popular support for climate action has built to the extent that it can counterbalance the ascent of populist, anti-science politics, or the short-termism of most political and economic decision-making.

The costs of not acting to prevent climate change are astronomical, apocalyptic even – but people are also spectacularly bad at long-term thinking. Transitioning to a more sustainable economy will require short-term sacrifices, especially among the global rich. We’ll need to consume less and reuse more, and cut down on luxuries such as meat, plane travel and air conditioning. We may face higher carbon taxes. When people are polled about how much they’d be willing to spend to avert climate emergency, the results are rarely promising. A majority of American respondents recently told the Associated Press that they would support a carbon tax to restore forests or support renewable energy research, but 70 per cent would balk at paying a $10 monthly fee and 40 per cent objected to a $1 a month tax. One wonders if alongside the ten paths that Edward Davey identifies there’s another thing that we need to change, and that this will be the hardest of all: human nature. 

Given Half a Chance: Ten Ways to Save the World
Edward Davey
Unbound, 288pp, £9.99

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 07 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance