Tick, tick, tick.
The alarm bells have been going off for decades. For a long time after scientists began ringing them, the changes that they forecast in their various scenarios appeared gradually here and there, making it easier for the “merchants of doubt”—as Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway so memorably named these scheming liars in the title of their 2011 book—to ridicule (and smear) scientists and convince large chunks of the U.S. populace that the whole concept of human-driven climate change was bogus.
These days, you don’t have to read Jeff Goodell’s stunning new book “The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet” or slog through the latest U.N. climate assessment to know that climate change is seriously underway. Day after day around the planet, we’re living … and dying … amid the disruption of the chaos created or exacerbated by climate change, the climate crisis, the climate emergency, the “code red for humanity,” as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres rightly calls it.
The everywhere-you-look occurrence of severe impacts from this climate chaos and the speed with which some effects have arrived that most scientists didn’t expect until late in this century or beyond has engendered in some people a profound sense of doom. It is no stretch to say that some climatologists are freaked out by the data they’re seeing. And you don’t have to search far on social media to find non-scientists predicting end of days, not the Rapture, but a secular apocalypse.
Believe me, I get it. I’ve breathed the smoky air from distant wildfires, had friends who barely escaped the fire that incinerated Paradise, California, and others in Louisville, Colorado, whose house survived just blocks away from the fire that burned more than half the city’s homes. I frequently talk with friends and acquaintances who are stunned by what they’re seeing in their country, state, city, backyard. Every week, I read scores of climate-related articles and check out two or three journal studies. Since January, to the many books on the subject I’d read in the past, I’ve added 11 others with titles like “Nowhere Left to Go: How Climate Change Is Driving Species to the Ends of the Earth”: “The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity”; “Solved: How the World’s Great Cities Are Fixing the Climate Crisis”; and “Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet and How We Fight Back.”
So I think it’s understandable that many people have become so-called climate “doomers.” I’m surprised more people haven’t.
But in my view, there are three kinds of “doomers”:
- Those who say our circumstances are grim and will get more grim, and that if we don’t spur our leaders to take the drastic actions needed to mitigate at least some climate change impacts, then we’re sunk.
- Those who say we (our species, and possibly every species on the planet) are inevitably screwed, and there is nothing we can do about it but lament and await our fate.
- Those who say we’re inevitably screwed and label as fools anybody who doesn’t think it’s too late.
I think people in that first “doomer” category, including me, are simply realists. Whatever we humans do, we face rough times ahead because of rapid climate change and its evil twin, loss of biodiversity through mass extinction. And those times are coming faster than most scientists expected. But this doesn’t mean there’s no hope of mitigating and even preventing some of the worst climate impacts. Of course, we have to act immediately, and that takes political will that we have yet to see from enough people—in the streets or in government and corporate institutions—to make it happen.
Eventually, it may turn out that the reality of the crises of climate and biodiversity colliding with the reality of politics in the world’s largest carbon emitters will mean the planet loses. But we don’t know that anymore than we know whether the proposed alterations to our way of life will successfully reduce the impacts of these crises. We only know that if we don’t try, then the grimmer doomer predictions are likely to come true.
I highly recommend the distinguished climatologist Katherine Hayhoe’s newsletter. Here are excerpts from her most recent entitled ”We Are Not Doomed”:
The last few months, there’s barely a corner of the planet that hasn’t been touched by some form of climate change-related disaster, it seems. From Hawai’i to northern China, wildfires, drought, hot oceans, floods, severe storms and seemingly endless heatwaves are leaving a trail of devastation.
These near-daily catastrophes can make us feel like a burning, suffering world is an inescapable fate—but it’s not.
The challenges we face are significant; but they are not insurmountable. We still have the ability to change the future, starting now. And the more we do, the better off we will all be. This is literally what the science says: every bit of warming matters, and every action and every choice matters, too.
That’s why I am not giving up, and neither are millions of others. I am not accepting our current circumstances as the new normal. Throughout the world, there are companies transitioning to green energy, voters speaking up, governments making progress, and people fighting for climate action. Yes, there are harrowing headlines; but there is also good climate news all around us. […]
I’m asked all the time how I cope with feelings of impending doom in my work as a climate scientist. I don’t do it by burying my head in the sand. I start with a clear look at just how bad it is. But I don’t stop there. Next, I envision what the future could look like, if we take action – one with clear skies, pristine air, abundant nature, and food and water for all. I search out who is actively working towards that future. I educate myself about effective solutions; and finally, I ask what are the most effective things I can do to help get these solutions going faster.
I know we have the ability to change the future. That’s not positive thinking: it’s the truth. By recognizing our power to work together, we can change the behavior and systems that got us to this point. And, it turns out that this kind of optimism can inspire collective action!
António Gramsci, the Italian communist who died after 12 years in one of Mussolini’s fascist jails, said in a letter from his cell in 1929, “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” As Kim Beazley, former head of the Australian Labor Party and once governor of Western Australia, remarked, “António Gramsci once said the correct position for a social democrat like myself was pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will. Optimism without realism handicaps a society. Realism without optimism defeats it. In the confused world we inhabit it is the optimists who seize every opportunity for a constructive outcome. As a friend said of Winston Churchill’s view in 1941 when all seemed bleak, his stance was ‘something will turn up. Fight on and give it a chance’.“
An optimistic doomer may sound like an oxymoron, but that’s what I am.