OPINION: Apocalyptic narratives of climate change harm the movement to fight it

A billboard with a photo of a tree in a forest is on a building.
Ben Reicher PO ’22 argues that in order to be motivated to make change, people need to have hope about the climate. (Anna Choi • The Student Life)

“Are you hopeful?” As a climate activist with the Sunrise Movement, I get asked some variant of this question a lot, and I don’t especially like answering it. I try not to think about the climate crisis in those terms; we know the scale of the problem of climate change and what needs to be done to address it, so why does it matter whether I feel hopeful of success? If I didn’t feel hopeful, taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would not be any less urgent.

More recently, though, I’ve come to feel that asking the question of whether or not we have any hope of mitigating climate change is more worthwhile than I’d previously considered. And, with Joe Biden’s election to the presidency, it is crucial to find ways to answer that question affirmatively, given the tremendous opportunity a Biden administration presents for climate activists.

There is one simple reason why it is important for a climate activist to express reasons for hope: People cannot be mobilized to action for an issue over which they feel they have no control. Any descriptions of impending climate disaster should be accompanied by the fact that this problem is solvable; any activist should emphasize that no matter how hard the road ahead may be, there is always something that can be done. 

We know what policies our government needs to enact to meaningfully mitigate global warming and adapt to the warming that will occur. Most crucially, we know that any citizen can be part of the solution through their voice and their vote.

This is not the time for so-called declensionist or apocalyptic narratives about how the current state of affairs guarantees that the planet is doomed no matter what we do, especially when those narratives minimize genuine — if not especially exciting — ways to make a difference in favor of preaching some pretentious moral against man’s hubris and capacity for self-destruction, capitalist greed and the evils of modernity. It’s our planet’s future at stake, and that’s too important to subordinate to the goal of some cheap sermonizing. 

For one example of the problems of a declensionist narrative, here’s Naomi Klein in her 2014 book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate”: “Between 2008 and 2010, at least 261 patents were filed related to growing ‘climate-ready’ crops ‒ seeds supposedly able to withstand extreme weather conditions; of these patents close to 80 percent were controlled by six agribusiness giants, including Monsanto and Syngenta.”

I’m not a scientist (and neither is Klein), but I do know that the scientific community unanimously agrees that genetically modified foods are safe, and moreover stand to play a critical role in improving worldwide food security amid the threats posed by climate change. This isn’t that surprising, because there is no such thing as genetically unmodified food; we’ve been selectively breeding crops since the dawn of civilization. 

But Klein clearly won’t be deterred by something as trivial as science (despite claiming to oppose climate denialists); if these products are sold by multinational corporations, then they must instinctively be condemned. In reality, any technology has the potential to be abused, but an innovation that could improve so many people’s lives should not be rejected just because of who its owners are — and, for what it’s worth, companies like Syngenta have offered their products to developing countries for free for humanitarian purposes. I guess the millions of people who would otherwise face starvation and malnutrition are out of luck, just so that wealthy Western intellectuals like Klein can rest assured that their groceries are not propping up global capitalism.

It quickly becomes evident that Klein is fishing for evidence to support a conclusion she has already reached: “None of this is surprising. Finding new ways to privatize the commons and profit from disaster is what our current system is built to do; left to its own devices, it is capable of nothing else.” 

To be completely fair, Klein probably doesn’t believe there is absolutely nothing to be done. She just believes that before any effective action can be possible, we have to tear down our current world order and build something new in its place. Like everyone else who makes this argument, not only does she ignore that there are meaningful things we can do now without waiting for the Messiah but she’s never entirely clear on what the new system should look like. 

As renowned climatologist Michael Mann put it, “[Declensionist] rhetoric is in many ways as pernicious as outright climate change denial, for it leads us down the same path of inaction. Whether climate change is a hoax or beyond our control, there would obviously be no reason to cut carbon emissions.

Much of Biden’s highly detailed climate plan depends on whether Democrats gain the Senate in the upcoming Georgia runoffs or, if not then, in 2022. Nevertheless, there are things that his administration can do without Congress by using federal regulation and procurement to revoke the Trump administration’s actions and go further than what the Obama administration felt ready to do. 

Some examples of action without Congress include using the federal government’s $500 billion annual procurement to promote zero-emissions energy and transportation, reinstating and strengthening vehicle emissions standards that the Trump administration weakened, enacting a moratorium on new oil and gas exploration on public lands and restoring the Obama rule on methane releases from fossil fuel operations. On the international scale, Biden could rejoin the Paris Agreement and build a true coalition of sympathetic governments to reduce climate-warming pollution.

More importantly, regardless of what Biden does, the fundamentals of the fight against the climate crisis have not changed, and here is where we find genuine grounds for hope. While this is no reason for complacency, nor does it mean that the battle is anywhere near over, these reasons for optimism should not be minimized either, because they can counter the declensionist narrative that is equally harmful to the cause of climate action.

First of all, even a worldwide pandemic, which one might expect would monopolize public concern, has not been enough to dampen rising popular concern for the climate. A Yale survey from last April found that, even when COVID-19 was at its worst so far, a record-tying 73 percent of Americans believed the climate was warming, and 62 percent understood global warming was man-made. Sixty-six percent said they were somewhat or very worried about global warming; the same percentage said that the issue mattered to them personally and that they felt a sense of responsibility to help mitigate warming.   

Moreover, you may be surprised to learn that the United States has actually achieved one emissions reductions goal. Under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which was blocked by the Supreme Court in 2016, regulations on power plants aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Even though the Clean Power Plan never went into effect and was formally repealed under Trump, the U.S. power sector met its target last year — over 10 years ahead of schedule. 

This is due to the remarkable growth of the renewable energy industry in the past few years, as it quickly becomes cost-competitive with fossil fuels, even without subsidies. Last May, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that, in 2019, annual renewable energy consumption had surpassed coal for the first time since the mid-19th century — when most people’s source of power was burning wood.

And the market is taking notice: In the last 10 years, a movement for environmentally and socially responsible investing has gained steam, with a proliferation of funds dedicated to investing in companies that advance long-term goals of sustainable and equitable growth, specifically forswearing investment in fossil fuels or other large polluting industries. Investors have found these funds to be a stable investment with above-average returns: A report from last April found that the 17 largest of these funds on average outperformed the S&P 500 amid the COVID-19 crash.

All this is not to say that we can count on the invisible hand of the market to solve climate change — government action will be needed to achieve socially desired outcomes when the market cannot produce them on its own. But, as has been clearly illustrated in the last few years, all the momentum in the national — and, in fact, global — economy is in the right direction, and that momentum can only build on itself and grow. That is undeniably a reason for hope, and one that few could have predicted even 10 years ago.

So the next time someone asks me if I feel hopeful, I’ll answer, “Yes — and you should be, too. I know sometimes it seems there’s so much to be done that it all feels impossible. But we’re just getting started.”

Ben Reicher PO ’22 is from Agoura Hills, California. He joined his high school newspaper in ninth grade because he loved to argue, and hasn’t stopped since.

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