Hope or fear in the face of climate change?

Is there another justifiable attitude towards climate change besides doom and gloom? Dominic Roser – philosopher and economist and senior lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Institute for Ethics and Human Rights at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland – explores other options.

Does the prospect of climate breakdown scare you to the bones? Or do you see, rather, humanity’s path leading upwards – and the doom and gloom prophets to be unnecessarily clouding our walk on the sunny side of the street? In this blogpost, I want to argue that both sentiments are appropriate in some sense.

Sunshine or gloom?

Most of us intuitively either lean towards a bleak or a bright outlook on the future.

On the one side are those who call for shifting the language from climate change to climate emergency, whose mental health takes a toll due to eco-anxiety, and who are hesitant or refuse to even give birth to new children to populate this panic-inducing future.

On the other side are those who point to the incredible upward trends in living standards, who believe that human ingenuity has overcome other challenges before (or, if human ingenuity doesn’t do the trick, then God will get us out of trouble), or who just naturally tend towards a cheerful disposition.

In order to see how both attitudes towards the future are right in some ways, we need to distinguish between the levels of (1) beliefs, (2) action, and (3) hope.

1. Beliefs

Let’s take beliefs first. Should we believe the future to be better or worse than the present? A sensible answer doesn’t pick a side but goes for probabilities: there is some probability that our children will be better off than we are and some probability of the opposite. Which probability is greater?

Personally, I consider it more likely that our children will be better off. Our biased brain often misses the case for optimism because it gives disproportionate attention to the novel threats that humanity actively creates. In contrast, we have a hard time consciously noticing the massive and long-term background trend of improving living conditions.

This trend might well outweigh the harms ahead. So, if we focus on the level of belief and if we speak about the most likely scenario, there is something to be said for a bright outlook on the future.

2. Action

Still, even if the chance of a better future is above 50%, this does not imply that the probability of a worse future is small. In particular, it doesn’t mean that the probability of a much worse future is therefore small. And this brings us to the level of action.

For choosing the right course of action, the most likely scenario is often less relevant than the worst-case scenario. Assume you buy a house for your children and you can choose between two equally expensive ones: a modest and solid house or a beautiful house with a construction fault. The construction fault comes with a probability – less than 50% – of the stairways collapsing at some point in the future. Which would you buy? Obviously, it seems to me, the modest house.

The point to note here is that in the most likely case (the case that happens with more than a 50% probability), the beautiful house would be the better choice. But our first priority shouldn’t be to optimise the outcome in the most likely case but rather to shield our children from grave risks. Thus, on the level of actions, there is something to be said for the bleak side of the spectrum.

Horrific climate disruption has a far-greater-than-negligible probability and this calls for emergency action.

3. Hope

But there is still a third level – the level of hope.

Hope is not about believing a bright future to be likely but merely about believing it to be possible. Hope is neither about taking or avoiding action but rather about our mental focus – directing our attention towards the possibility of a bright future.

Hope recently got some bad press, however. Greta Thunberg, for example, said: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic.” Her words make sense if we consider that invocations of hope are often nothing but hot air.

At closing sessions of climate conferences, speakers often try to distract attention from the disappointing results with some cringeworthily upbeat babbling about hope. However, hope should not be thus abused. Hope for a better future is a noble and wonderful attitude. Hope is food for the human soul – real and healthy comfort food for the human soul!

In addition, hope seems to be more conducive to action than despair (and this might even be so if despair would in fact match the realities on the ground better – consider the outcast on the island who would have every reason to despair but who only makes it through due to manipulatively inculcating hope in himself).

Of course, not all hope is justified. Justified hope implies working towards fulfilling the hope. Shirking from climate action and then invoking hope is no option. Also, justified hope confronts with eyes wide open the probability of hope going unfulfilled. In the case of climate change, this probability is alarmingly and irresponsibly large. But it is possible to fully confront this probability and still hope.

Hope, after all, means dwelling on the possibility that it might just all work out in the end. Thus, as far as hope is concerned, we shouldn’t let ourselves be dragged down by the bleak end of the spectrum.

To conclude…

No wonder we are confused about a fitting stance towards the future. The situation is complex, after all.

In my view, we should believe the probability of a bleak future to be irresponsibly high – though less likely than a bright future. Hence we should take massive action to decrease this probability, and we should embrace the hope that we might, after all, succeed.


Help us to be able to do more

Now that you’ve reached the end of the article, we want to thank you for being interested in IF’s work standing up for younger and future generations. We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved so far. And with your help we can do much more, so please consider helping to make IF more sustainable. You can do so by following this link: Donate