Given the many crises and challenges we face as a society, it is easy to feel discouraged and pessimistic in recent years. For more than a decade, I have seen a significant shift in the outlook, attitudes, and morale of students who enroll in my environmental courses at university. They learned a lot about the serious problems we face and the many obstacles to implementing effective solutions. Some of these realities are indeed disheartening and not just for students.
There is growing evidence that climate defeatism and fatalism are now bigger obstacles to galvanizing support for climate action than climate denial. While fewer and fewer people today deny the reality of climate change, many more believe that there is no point in taking action to minimize global warming.
Defeatist views hinder action because people fail to act when they believe there is no way to succeed. A major misunderstanding that fuels climate defeatism is the idea that if we exceed 1.5° Celsius (= 2.7° Fahrenheit) of warming, then we have lost the battle. However, every fraction of a degree counts because it means more loss and suffering. A 2°C (=3.6°F) warmer future will be much more liveable than a 4°C (=7.2°F) warmer future. Even if we exceed 1.5°C and there are possible thresholds and tipping points, there is no known tipping point that would justify giving up.
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Climate fatalism refers to the idea that significant global warming and catastrophic climate change are inevitable and there is nothing we can do about it. In other words, it’s our destiny. Some may even claim that humans deserve the consequences of their actions. Yet, as the global hunger charity Oxfam International points out, 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the richest 10% of the world’s population, while those who produced the least Emissions also have the fewest resources to adapt and survive impacts. .
Fatalism is often associated with ideas that people should just ignore climate change and enjoy life, focusing on spending time with friends and family and what makes them happy. However, while some people may have the resources and wherewithal to try to ignore climate change, most people don’t. Especially those who live in island countries where rising sea levels are flooding their communities or those who face drought and famine. In this way, adopting a fatalistic attitude towards climate change remains a very privileged position.
Instead of succumbing to defeatism and fatalism, I encourage my students to work actively to create a livable future – come what may. Pessimism can be justified when the odds are not in your favor. You may be pessimistic because you think your actions won’t be successful, but just having a little hope that it might do some good can move you forward. We can’t predict the future, but one thing is certain, and that is that if the majority of people give up, we will suffer much greater losses.
Another reason for hope is that there is a growing climate movement, growing public support for climate action, and growing opportunities for climate policies. In the United States, the Sunrise Movement continues to push climate policy forward. In the UK, Extinction Rebellion is pushing the government to take bolder action to tackle the climate crisis. And globally, young Fridays for Future activists continue to stage Friday school strikes to demand that world leaders tackle the climate and biodiversity crises. History shows us that every significant social change has involved a critical mass of people continuing to demand change.
Defeatist and fatalistic views can be comforting because they justify doing nothing and maintaining the status quo. We can try to ignore the impacts and dangers ahead, but that won’t help. Taking comfort in false narratives only distracts us from the very important work that needs to be done – demanding, supporting and being part of a transition to a low carbon society. Warming is happening, but we still depend on it, and there is a huge difference between a 2°C (=3.6°F) warmer future and a 4°C (=4°C) warmer future. 7.2°F).
Diana Stuart is an associate professor in the Sustainable Communities Graduate Program and School of Earth and Sustainability at Northern Arizona University.
Spotlight on Climate is sponsored by the NAU Center for Adaptable Western Landscapes, https://www.cawl.nau.edu, and the Northern Arizona Climate Change Alliance, www.NAZCCA.org/volunteer.
Stefan Sommer, [email protected], works with the NAU Center for Adaptable Western Landscapes, https://www.cawl.nau.edu, and the Northern Arizona Climate Change Alliance, www.NAZCCA.org/volunteer.