Climate crisis is a thoroughly depressing and often seemingly hopeless subject. So it’s no wonder conventional wisdom dictates we need to focus solely on optimistic messages if we’re to get people engaged. It’s why I’ve left summits like UN Goalkeepers and Davos feeling pumped that climate solutions are on the horizon. But when I take a step back, the inconvenient truth is that we’re still so very, very far away from cracking climate crisis.
The tangible consequences of climate crisis are all around us: Cape Town is now on water rations and faces ‘day zero’ in a matter of weeks. The Arctic started 2018 with satellite-era record lows of sea ice. And on the 30th of January, a south London street reached its annual legal limit for toxic nitrogen dioxide. And yet where’s the citizen anger? Why aren’t the masses protesting on the streets? Why aren’t ‘the people’ furiously demanding institutional change?
The problem, even though it may seem counterintuitive, lies in too much optimism. The orthodox response to terrifying climate crisis predictions is hopeful resolution. But instead of creating citizen engagement, pure optimism alone has created citizen apathy; a prevailing assumption that: “someone else will fix it”.
It’s this style of optimism-driven apathy that was partly responsible for the political earthquakes known as Brexit and Trump. Too many remainers rested on their laurels, thinking: “nah, the Brexiteers will never win, that’d be mad.”
Similarly, if you cast your mind back to the US election, you’ll remember a blissfully ignorant period when most of the world felt sure Trump could never win. Because that’d be sheer insanity, right? And yet we all now know that insanity did indeed reign. Both times.
Climate crisis is suffering from this same optimism-led disbelief. People across the globe think there’s no way the powers that be would let planet earth destroy itself through unchecked climate crisis. But the evidence that we’re doing exactly that is utterly visceral. And utterly undeniable.
So how can we get people to wake up and smell the climate-change-induced-lower-quality coffee? How can we motivate the world’s 7.5-billion humans to take action, rather than assume that the authorities will wave a magic wand? In short, if it doesn’t sound too grandiose, how can we save the world?
It’s time to admit that the strategy of triumphant optimism, a laudable idea though it is, isn’t working. Blinkered optimism creates citizen inertia. Although I’m a fundamentally positive person, it sadly seems that we’ve reached a point where the most effective way to create real impetus and urgent change is to start blending a little fear into our messages of hope. When it comes to climate crisis, timing is everything. If we don’t move fast, we will fail. And people move fastest when they’re scared.
Using fear is a bold step that no one, me included, really wants to take. The last thing we want to do is unwittingly add to climate crisis fatigue and despair. Spreading terrifying messages of impending doom would be as counterproductive as taking the “just chill, everything will be alright” path. So the key is to get the right blend of optimism and fear; something that leaves people thinking there’s still time to get climate crisis under control, whilst giving them enough fear-induced motivation to trigger micro-level accountability.
So here’s my message of justified fear: we’re already missing the targets set by the seminal 2015 COP21 climate conference in Paris. Michael Oppenheimer – one of the original climate scientists – rates our chances of keeping global warming under two-degrees as less than 10%. And Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, in a term he coins ‘the tragedy of the horizon’ says that only a fifth to a third of proven fossil fuel reserves can be burned if temperatures have a chance of staying within the critical two-degree increase zone from pre-industrial levels.
It’s why many well-informed people now say that if we can’t get climate crisis under control, the world as we know it simply won’t be here in 30 to 50 years: New Yorkers will experience heat stress that exceeds that of present-day Bahrain. NASA predicts that agriculture in the American plains would suffer its worst droughts in a millennium. And diseases like smallpox and bubonic plague could be released from melting Siberian ice. Other alarming but not unrealistic predictions include: unbreathable air, perpetual war, economic collapse and poisoned oceans.
But here’s my much needed message of hope: if we can shake people up with this wake-up call, we can create enough constructive anger and personal-level responsibility to get climate crisis back to a level where the world can survive.
Now over to you. What’s your message of fear and hope?