Climate Optimism Versus Fatalism

Time to choose our future, says Solitaire Townsend, Co-founder at Futerra. This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.

“The ice caps are melting, Leonard. In the future, swimming won’t be optional!”

So says the inept genius Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory whilst explaining why he learnt swimming off the internet (rather than in a pool). This might be taking climate fatalism a little far, but Sheldon’s attitude is more prevalent than you might think.

A new global survey has revealed that the division between climate optimists and fatalists is the new frontier of public response to climate change. I asked the global market research firm Ipsos to poll adults aged 16–64 in 26 countries, and what they found surprised me. They’ve shown that when it comes to solving climate change, whilst most of us are optimists, more folks share Sheldon’s point of view than you might expect.

Notice the deniers? Whilst they might be loud and aggressive, they represent the tiniest segment of the global public. And I’m very encouraged that the majority think we have the ability to, and may have the willpower to reduce climate change. But it’s the climate fatalists who are the real news – those who think we now can’t do anything to reduce climate change. Until now, they have been a relatively hidden cohort. Because, of course, those who believe we simply can’t do anything about climate change have no reason to shout or tweet. They are quiet because they have given up.

And a shocking number of them are young people. 22 percent of those aged 16-34 agree that it is now too late to stop climate change. 39 percent of under-35s in India, 30 percent in Brazil, 27 percent in Spain and Sweden, and 29 percent in the United States.

Why so many young fatalists? Our survey found that young people hear much more about the problems of climate change than the potential solutions. As many as 61 percent agree “I hear much more about the negative impacts of climate change than I do about progress towards reducing climate change.”

For a painful example of this, see the New York Magazine essay by David Wallace-Wells titled The Uninhabitable Earth. In over 7,300 words, he sets out a picture of climate meltdown so horrifying that even environmentalists have pushed back against it. From climate plagues to food production crashes, heat death and perpetual war, Wallace-Wells paints a nine-chapter picture of unavoidable climate hellfire and brimstone. It’s almost pornographic in a masochistic way.

This all matters because fatalism is fatal to action. When climate activists talk about the seriousness, urgency and threat of climate change, I guess they aren’t hoping their audience responds by giving up. I’m often asked if ‘optimistic’ messages are an excuse for inaction, yet they never question the dangers of fear.

I’ve long been a climate optimist, and not because of my naturally sunny nature. But because after 20 years of running climate campaigns, sitting in focus groups and talking to the ‘soft optimists’ I’ve learnt a few things. And my main insight? This fatalistic ‘climate doom’ is dumb:

IT DOESN’T WORK– I’ve written about this again and again. There are myriad psychological and sociological reasons why fear messages tend to fail over time. Not least, because people don’t want to hear them. And you can’t force people’s attention.

IT’S CRUEL – making someone scared without giving them a sense of agency that they can overcome the cause of that fear is an aggressive tactic. Overwhelming fear is more likely to cause damaging stress than action. And if your audience has ‘low self-efficacy’ or a feeling they aren’t very powerful then the negative affect is even worse. Climate messages that include both threats but dismiss the power of personal action are particularly damaging to action and mental health.

IT BACKFIRES – renowned sociologist William Thomas wrote one sentence that today is known as The Thomas Theorem: “If men define situations are real, they are real in their consequences.”

Popularized years later by Professor Robert Merton of Colombia University as ‘self-fulfilling prophesies,’ this theory states that we make our collective expectations into reality. Even if those expectations weren’t necessarily inevitable or even conscious. If this holds true for climate change, then we’re in danger of talking ourselves into the catastrophe we want to avoid. As the survey shows, people are far more familiar with the problems of climate change than the solutions. That needs to flip to get sociology on our side.

I do have empathy for fatalists. They are scared. And as this article seeks to show – fear isn’t great. And we humans have a built-in need to transmit our fear to those around us, we evolved that way. In close societies, herds and tribes calling out danger to others can help save the collective. But climate change doesn’t affect our response system like a forest fire or stalking predator would. Transmitting our fear is stealing hope from our children rather than motivating action for change.

So, is there another way? If you’re terrified of climate change, and desperate for people to act, what options do you have beyond shouting about the threat until you become hoarse?

For me, all that matters, is what works. Which is why I’ve helped to launch the new climate optimist campaign this week. Because solving climate change starts with the belief we can. Let’s be clear, that optimism isn’t a Pollyanna belief that ‘providence’ or ‘good vibes’ will save us. But a steadfast belief that we must, we can and we will solve climate change. And that optimistic attitude will drive more action than pessimism or fatalism ever could.

I will shine a light on solutions.

I will take positive action.

I will share my optimism.

Each of us must face climate change in our own way, I choose hope.