Is Pessimism A Better Call for Climate Action?

Is Pessimism A Better Call for Climate Action?

Dangerous floods, heatwaves, and wildfires are ongoing proof that climate change is already here, but in the new book Hothouse Earth, volcanologist Bill McGuire claims things will get much, much worse. He goes so far as to argue that the world has passed the point of return, and life on Earth needs to adjust to a new normal of extreme weather.

McGuire’s pessimism bucks conventional wisdom, with most climate experts and activists proclaiming there’s still time to reduce carbon emissions. At COP26, 196 nations agreed that the world must limit that rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and cut emissions by 45% by 2030.

The problem is that global temperatures have risen by a little over 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, already dangerously close to the 1.5-degree mark. In fact, the world is on track to heat up by 2.4 to 3 degrees Celsius.

"I know a lot of people working in climate science who say one thing in public but a very different thing in private. In confidence, they are all much more scared about the future we face, but they won’t admit that in public,” McGuire stated to the Guardian. "I call this climate appeasement, and I believe it only makes things worse. The world needs to know how bad things are going to get before we can hope to start to tackle the crisis.”

NSW HSC Maths: Climate Change Science 7.7 | Tipping points, April 11, 2022.

BBC: The Tipping Point | Climate Change | The Facts, November 13, 2021.

Now This: Scientist Johan Rockström Explains Earth's Climate Tipping Points, October 14, 2020.

Why This Matters

Some worry that being overly pessimistic about climate change could cause people to fear it’s already too late and prevent them from taking action. McGuire believes the opposite, calling that approach "a conspiracy of ignorance, inertia, poor governance, and obfuscation and lies by climate change deniers that has ensured that we have sleepwalked to within less than half a degree of the dangerous 1.5C climate change guardrail.”

DW: Time is running out | WMO warns 1.5 degree threshold could be topped by 2026, May 18, 2022.

Washington Post: Al Gore says climate change is already making places unlivable, causing mass migration, October 25, 2021.

The Economist: See what three degrees of global warming looks like, October 31, 2021.

Governments and corporations continue to put climate on the back burner. Where the GOP has been repeatedly unwilling to legislate on climate change, instead claiming to prioritize the economy, reports prove Big Oil firms continue to be dubious with so-called net-zero” commitments. As fossil fuel giants skirt public security and government regulations, many are failing (if not refusing) to actually reduce emissions.

One thing is for sure: The world keeps pumping carbon and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and this year’s atmospheric carbon levels are at a 4-million-year high.

Bloomberg: Record Methane Levels Made 2021 5th Hottest Year Since 2000, January 10, 2022.

While governments and corporations are idle, the earth is changing irrevocably. Severe flooding puts 1.81 billion people -- nearly a quarter of the global population -- at risk. Greenland’s ice sheet is at a near-tipping point. Should it melt, sea levels around the world will rise. The US West’s megadrought could entirely jeopardize a water source relied upon by 40 million people. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres declared an "ocean emergency” because only 1.2% of the high seas are classified as protected, leaving most of the world’s oceans vulnerable to exploitation.

DW: Banks increase funding for fossil fuels despite 'net-zero’ pledges, February 15, 2022.

NBC: Are Major Companies Living Up To Their Net-Zero Pledges To Combat Climate Change?, February 10, 2022.

PBS: Melting of the Thwaites Glacier could rewrite the global coastline, December 15, 2021.

CBC: Millions displaced as India, Bangladesh see worst flooding in decades, June 23, 2022.

UN: John Kerry at UN Ocean Conference | "We can not separate the ocean from the climate crisis," June 28, 2022.

Is McGuire’s Approach Better?

It's not just McGuire’s stance to serve up a harsher reality. One recent analysis calls on scientists to seriously consider the potential for catastrophic scenarios or the “climate endgame,” like global societal collapse and human extinction, to spur action. Another scholar, Timothy Beal, suggests that people should act as if it’s "too late” to fix the climate crisis -- that accepting the eventual end of humanity will make us treat the world better. "Most people, when they find they have a year to live or two years to live, they don’t just become assholes,” says Beal in a statement to Grist.

Beal emphasizes that beating climate change isn’t just about reducing emissions or conserving natural resources; it also requires letting go of the core tenets of capitalism which demand infinite growth at all costs. Rather than focusing on climate solutions that promise economic prosperity, Beal suggests a shift toward those that alleviate climate change impacts, particularly for the most marginalized.

Nate Hagens: Dennis Meadows | "Limits to Growth turns 50 | Checking In,” March 31, 2022.

Amanpour and Company: Expert Warns of Rise in "Mass Casualty” Events as a Result of Climate Change, July 1, 2022.

MSNBC: We Must Pay Attention To 'Urgent Crisis’ Of Extreme Heat Events, May 23, 2022.

Similarly, McGuire explains that seeing the bleak reality of the climate crisis can function as a call to action. "This is a call to arms,” he told the Guardian. "So if you feel the need to glue yourself to a motorway or blockade an oil refinery, do it. Drive an electric car or, even better, use public transport, walk or cycle. Switch to a green energy tariff; eat less meat. Stop flying; lobby your elected representatives at both local and national level; and use your vote wisely to put in power a government that walks the talk on the climate emergency.”

ABC: 'The survival of our civilization is at stake' | Gore on need for climate action, July 24, 2022.

Euronews: UN Secretary-General says the climate crisis is placing half of humanity in 'the danger zone,' June 14, 2022.

Bertelsmann Foundation: A Global Security Threat | Climate Change, February 28, 2022.

CBS: Climate change could displace 200 million in 20 years, disaster relief organization warns, June 1, 2022.

Potsdam Institute: Is the Atlantic Overturning Circulation approaching a tipping point?, March 21, 2022.