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Pessimism about climate change does not justify inaction

Gar Alperovitz

“Even if the United States deals with its carbon emission problem, the Chinese won’t. So what’s the point?”

“You can’t condemn the entire global South to abandon energy development, and you can’t provide enough with solar and wind. So what’s the point?”

“Besides, the whole enterprise of trying to achieve a future sufficiently carbon-free to deal with the most important problems is politically hopeless.”

These challenges are sometimes spoken, sometimes not, but they commonly and powerfully weaken efforts to deal with the climate crisis. Despite the well-funded bluster of disingenuous or, at best, delusional skeptics and deniers, a majority of Americans believe the climate is changing in worrying ways, and many (PDF) also believe that these changes pose a threat to current and future generations. But this belief has not yet translated into action at a scale adequate to the problem we face.

One reason for this is that once we recognize the magnitude of the effort that will be required to avert disaster, we all too often discover our vested interest in pessimism. After all, if the situation is hopeless, why act? But it’s time to challenge the structure of feeling that mires us in pessimism and inaction.

We appear to be on a trajectory well past the 2 degree Celsius rise in average global temperature long considered by scientists the maximum allowable to sustain life on Earth as we’ve known it. As Naomi Klein documents in her new book, “This Changes Everything,” many experts — from climate change scientists to the World Bank to the International Energy Agency — are warning of temperature increases of 4 or more degrees. Changes of this magnitude will likely result in widespread flooding, collapsing water systems, decreases in agricultural production, increases in disease, massive migrations and social strife.

“Only mass social movements can save us now,” Klein writes. I agree. We must build a truly broad movement — one that encompasses those who aren’t already convinced of the need to act — and alongside it a new politics capable of reasserting the power of democracy at all levels. Such a movement and politics must not only confront slow-to-act authorities with appropriate civil disobedience but also build the new economic institutions that will be necessary to a world weaning itself off its addiction to carbon and to growth.

But faced with such a tall order, many still ask (or secretly feel), Why bother? Or, more specifically, is it really possible to make more than a small nick in the dire warming trends?

The simple response to the reasonable doubts offered by friendly questioners — and to the reasonable (often unspoken) doubts of even committed activists — is this: Doing almost anything significant can help save human lives. This is an obvious point, perhaps, but one that too often is lost in the big debates about trends.

Already, roughly 400,000 (PDF) people die from the effects of climate change every year. On our current path, we are likely to lose up to an estimated 500,000 lives per year over the coming decades. That is more each year than the 420,000 the United States lost in all of World War II. Most of these deaths will be due to diminished food production, increased disease, heat waves, loss of employment, fires, floods and storms. Almost any serious slowing down of the global temperature increases will lower this figure. It will save lives, whether or not others join in, whether or not the biggest challenges are met.

In other words, this is a life or death issue now, one in which even partial solutions matter.

study (PDF) released recently by researchers at Harvard, Syracuse and Boston universities estimates that reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 25 percent could save up to 3,500 American lives per year by 2020, or an average of nine lives per day, and prevent up to 1,000 hospitalizations annually.

This also means that no matter the gargantuan nature of the overall task, what one person does, alone or in concert with others, may matter. This remains true whether or not China acts, the developing world chooses a low carbon future or our overall energy needs can be effectively sourced from renewables.

More sophisticated justifications for pessimism and resignation may be offered, of course. There is, after all, no easy linear relationship between the number of lives at risk and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.  Climate is a complex and chaotic system in which hitting tipping points may trigger positive feedback loops that compound the effects of emissions beyond anything we can control. Modeling such a complex system is an intractably difficult problem: We know that there are tipping points waiting for us as the temperature climbs, but we cannot say with any certainty where they are.

But this very uncertainty also strips away the alibi of those who believe that it’s not worth acting if there’s a chance we might fail or only partially succeed in slowing the warming of the planet. If we are unable to say with precision where the supposed point of no return lies, then there is little excuse for giving up.

This basic argument — that every action we can take to reduce emissions is of vital moral importance — may or may not coincide with arguments about the importance of adaptation and of erecting the physical and social structures that will save lives as climate changes begin to take hold. Either way, the bottom line is simple.

Next time you talk to your neighbor, colleagues or even fellow activists about climate, listen closely to the doubts — both expressed and unexpressed — that hold them back from acting with full confidence. They are reasonable doubts. But building a mass movement means we need everybody — even those who do not believe that global warming can be stopped. So listen to their doubts and remind them that whatever can be done is likely to help. The cost of inaction is measured in human lives.