Climate Change and the hope conundrum (Part 2 of 2)

Facing up to climate change reality, the emerging political order and the hope conundrum – a review of Climate Leviathan by Wainwright and Mann

By Dr. Morgan Phillips (UK Co-Director, The Glacier Trust)

[This is part two of a two part article. Part one]


How to offer hope – navigating a conundrum

Whatever happens and however we get there, full decarbonisation must be the ultimate goal. Whether this can be achieved in 30 years or 130 years, it will eventually lead us to a time (anything between 100 and 1,000 years in the future) when levels of CO2 and other GHGs in the atmosphere return to pre-industrial levels. At this point, with no need for negative emissions technologies (NETs) or geoengineering, global cooling will commence. Water will turn back to ice at the poles and restore some sort of equilibrium to planet Earth. The longer we rely on fossil fuels, the more we delay, then the deeper and more prolonged the suffering.

It is a simple equation. ‘Dangerous’ climate change is coming but ‘catastrophic’ warming is still avoidable, we have to do everything we can to prevent it.   

Wainwright and Mann’s book is, in the end, depressing. The trajectory we are on is to a world that is 3 °C warmer than pre-industrial times and controlled by an all-powerful planetary sovereign. With this realisation in mind we can find ourselves staring into the abyss. The emotional strain climate change is having amongst climate scientists is already getting media coverage. The realisation that the window for climate change mitigation has closed is spreading through the environmental sector and soon the wider population. It is a moment in time that we, as a movement, need to be prepared for.

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, said ‘I have a dream’, not ‘I have a nightmare’, it was no accident. We feel a need to give people hope and we believe it to be effective; but it is not easy to do and does not guarantee victory.

The messages of hope that the sustainability movement share about climate change are well rehearsed. Faith is placed in two main areas. Both come from a starting point that ‘mitigation is possible’ rather than ‘adaptation is possible’. This, to date, just about makes sense.[1]

  • First, technology; the expanded role of renewable energy, geoengineering, nuclear power and future, speculative, NETs are spoken about with much conviction.

  • Second, behaviour change; centred on the belief that the world’s most profligate GHG emitters can be persuaded / coerced to dramatically reduce their consumption of goods and services.

Both are still being talked about as ways to keep global warming below 2 °C, ways of averting ‘dangerous’ climate change.

Believing that consumerism is near an end and/or that miracle technologies will emerge is not quite blind faith, but they both seem to be spurious hopes. This is not to say we shouldn’t continue to promote the benefits of renewable energy and question consumerist culture, we absolutely should. The plusses are obvious and climate change mitigation is not the only reason to make changes in these areas. But, if we go on telling people that ‘dangerous’ climate change can be averted (through behaviour change, technology, or by any other means), at some point soon we are going to start sounding ridiculous. Why? Because, as explored in part one, 3 °C or more of warming - ‘dangerous’ climate change - looks inevitable.

More worryingly, there is a strong scientific case to suggest that 3 °C warming could trigger positive feedback loops that will make runaway climate change inevitable (4, 5 or 6°C warming).[2] This would be ‘catastrophic’ rather than ‘dangerous’ climate change, it is important to differentiate because we may still be able to avoid catastrophic climate change. While there is still a possibility that catastrophic climate change can be averted, there is still something to hope for in the field of mitigation. Making continued efforts to find breakthroughs in environmental education, behaviour change and technology worthwhile.

Cycling in the rain – a note on courage

To prolong the creditability of hopeful messages about behaviour change and technology we may need to reframe them as ways to prevent ‘catastrophic’ rather than ‘dangerous’ climate change. But we cannot assume that this will be enough. There is evidence to suggest that hope may not be the powerful force we assume it is (just ask Barack Obama).

In 2017, Hornsey and Fielding[3] examined the role of optimism in climate change communications. Their findings are summarised as:

  • Emotional distress is strongly correlated with mitigation motivation; hope is not.

  • Optimistic messages about carbon emissions reduce climate change risk perceptions.

  • Less risk leads to less distress, which in turn lowers mitigation motivation.

  • Pessimistic climate change messages avoid complacency without eroding efficacy.

All of which adds to a hope conundrum. As well as finding something optimistic to say about climate change, we should perhaps be asking if hopeful messages are effective messages? If they aren’t, how else should we sign off when we talk to people about climate change? Especially if simply leaving people feeling reassured is problematic.

In a beautiful essay, climate scientist, Dr Kate Marvel, concludes that what we should be giving people is courage, not hope.

We are all fated to live lives shot through with sadness, and are not worth less for it. Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending.

What does courage look like in relation to Climate Change? It could be the courage to eschew behaviours that are catastrophic in climate terms, but conventional in consumer culture. If you take the train to reach a destination while others take the cheaper/ quicker/ simpler/ ‘normal’ option of flying, you risk being teased for what looks to many people like irrational behaviour - that takes courage.

Switching to a plant-based diet, cycling in the rain, attending a climate protest, holidaying locally, etc, etc, can all inspire prickly reactions from friends and family. They might simply just write you off as an eccentric or take it as a slight against their own character and decisions.   

How courageous each one of these acts is, depends on the makeup of the social circles into which we throw them. In relatively privileged societies, such as the U.K. from where I write this, these acts are courageous in the sense that they require us to risk the sanctuaries of our social and professional relationships. A sudden determination to change our behaviour in response to a profound awakening on climate change can be jarring, not just for the individual, but also for those closest to them. This should not be underestimated for it can open up difficult questions about deeply held values, assumptions and beliefs. Having the courage to act on climate change means risking the emotional wellbeing of ourselves and, sometimes, those closest to us.

When Marvel says ‘we need courage, not hope’ she is effectively saying ‘they need courage’ or ‘you need courage’. The communicators, educators and activists in the climate change movement may come to recognise this and develop the capacity to develop and nurture that courage in themselves and then others.

Without downplaying or trivialising the significance of emotional wellbeing[4] of comparatively well-off individuals, climate change, more urgently, is threatening the immediate physical wellbeing of people and animals today. The courage required to survive the havoc of (un)natural climate related catastrophes - hurricanes, floods, forest fires, freezes, heatwaves, landslides - is unimaginable; many have already perished.

But it is not just sudden extreme events that threaten physical wellbeing; the climate is changing in a drawn-out way, it is planet Earth’s chronic illness and GHG emissions are the toxins. For those heavily reliant on the agricultural productivity of their immediate environment, climate change demands adaptation. Without it, people’s homes could become uninhabitable; and in a matter of years rather than decades. Facing up to this and finding the resolve to take action requires sustained courage.

For some, climate change adaptation may mean experimentation with new agricultural methods, water supply systems, pest control, cooking equipment and other novel or unfamiliar devices. In many cases this means abandoning, or at the very least altering, traditions that have been handed down through multiple generations. It also requires faith in those who come to you with advice and ‘solutions’; the courage to trust others.

As climate change impacts, people and nature suffer. The suffering is vivid, it is communicated to us through numerous media channels and occasionally witnessed or experienced first-hand. The suffering of others, is a painful thing to witness. As we consider 3 °C of warming, the suffering and loss we can foresee is painful to even imagine. Which brings us back to hope, hope that can ease pain.

If we want to provide a hopeful message, we could highlight how the impacts of climate change can be reduced and how the suffering on display can be eased. Climate Change adaptation projects are enabling people to understand and adapt to the changed and changing environment they are experiencing. Lives are being improved, there is hope.


But courage and hope alone are not enough

Changes to local ecology, weather patterns and physical environment can be imperceptible over short time periods, but over periods of a decade or so they can be quite pronounced. Recognising change and the need to adapt to it, is part one of the adaptation process. This is happening in affected communities all over the world thanks to education and communication programmes in often very remote locations.

However, moving from recognition of the need to adapt, to actual adaptation is the vital step; the courageous step discussed above. But, as any soldier will attest, courage is not enough, we need to be well supplied.

Resourcefulness requires resources (human and capital) and these do not just magically appear. Education, equipment, training, entrepreneurship, persistence and hard graft are essential, they need to be nurtured and resourced. Climate Change adaptation projects can do this, but they must be adequately funded and efficiently run. These projects exist, their very existence should provide us with hope. These are good news stories, they are tangible, and they inspire. Knowing that climate change adaptation is underway and that suffering is either ending or being prevented is hugely uplifting.

Getting involved

Wherever they are in the world, people who are deeply concerned about climate change can involve themselves in adaptation efforts today. They can volunteer, fundraise or just raise awareness. They may even consider a career move; climate change adaptation is a growing professional field with opportunities for a wide variety of specialists.

The more these stories of hope are shared, the more support we can generate for those adapting courageously to climate change today.


Empathy and wider structural change

A swell of empathy is what we are seeking here. At a broader level, these are issues of social justice with wider ramifications. Before we explore that, we must remember that any effort to enable climate change adaptation, at however small a scale, is a humanitarian act.

Efforts to enable climate change adaptation should therefore be pursued regardless of any wider significance and without waiting for change at a macro or structural level. But as these individual acts of humanitarianism grow in number and scale, values of empathy, kindness and equality are activated and reinforced in society too. If enough people engage in this humanitarianism, this will contribute significantly to the broader political movement surrounding issues of global economic inequality. Eventually, this might help trigger a letting go of consumerism, neoliberalism and maybe even capitalism itself. Where that takes us is unclear, we are still feeling around in the dark for a new socio-economic (and eco-literate) system.

In her work on the potential for far-reaching and radical political change, Rebecca Solnit[5] describes how hope can be found in the light of the past to illuminate the darkness of the future. She inspires hope too, pointing out the importance of groundwork to sustaining change after a revolution:

After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many come from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms, mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but it is the less visible long-term organising and groundwork – or underground work – that often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists and participants in social media. To many, it seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.

Ideas at first considered outrageous, or ridiculous, or extreme, gradually become what people think they’ve always believed.

An individual, then, who contributes to climate change adaptation now is also contributing to a broader movement. In doing so, they help transform ‘assumptions about who and what matters’. They add nutrients to the soil from which change grows and sustains.

At the very least, even if the consumer capitalist status quo remains, any individual who enables climate change adaptation is doing something worthwhile and it does not preclude them from engaging in broader climate change and social justice movements.

The $100 billion dollar question

To end, let us return to Mike Davis (2010) and his warning of an ‘accelerated investment in selective adaptation for Earth’s first-class passengers’; we must take heed. While the pendulum has been heavily leant towards mitigation in the last few decades, it is entirely possible that it will swing violently over to adaptation in the coming years. Wainwright and Mann’s ‘Climate Leviathan’ scenario implies that investment in adaptation will be at the discretion of those holding the purse strings; a small and possibly self-selected group of nations or institutions. They will decide how adaptation funding is spent and who or what will benefit. 

Climate Change is already a class issue, financially vulnerable communities are less resilient to climate change related events and less able to recover from them. The devastation caused by 2017’s Hurricane Harvey and the ongoing struggle to recover is an illustration of this. Six months on, over 3,420 households were still living in hotels, with thousands more living in badly damaged and unrepaired houses[6]. Outside of the USA and the wider developed world, the vulnerabilities are even more pronounced. Millions have already been displaced by rising sea levels in Bangladesh, it is estimated that 18 million Bangladeshi will need to relocate by 2050. Climate Change will impact rich and poor countries, but if a US led Climate Leviathan emerges, will it be more or less likely to channel adaptation funds to its own citizens, or those of other nations? 

The Paris Agreement, in 2015, was the first time that adaptation and mitigation were given equal status. Adaptation is no longer the poorer partner, at least it shouldn’t be. Signatory parties committed to raising and spending a combined US $100 billion annually by 2020 on climate change projects. The scrap for this funding is likely to be intense. Green capitalists will seek to shore up investment in the development, testing and implementation of their array of NETs, sustainable transport and renewable energy projects. That spending is important, but, the climate justice movement should take care not to find themselves beholden to the seductive power of green capitalism. It must be recognised that the pot of funds available for climate change action (be it mitigation or adaptation[7]) is not bottomless, every extra dollar spent on mitigation is a dollar less for adaptation; trade-offs exist. We must ensure that a fair share of funding is directed to climate change adaptation projects that are ending suffering today and preventing suffering tomorrow.

Those in most need of adaptation funds are often those with the littlest opportunity to petition for them; this is true today and may become even truer in the decades to come. The climate justice movement has these people at front of mind, indeed many of these people are members of the movement themselves. To date, their focus has been split across mitigation, adaptation and reparations for climate change triggered loss and damage (to life and property). In the coming years, it will be interesting to see how this focus changes, will priorities shift?

What seems clear is that the movement will have a growing need to lobby for the marginalised to secure adaptation funding. Increased lobbying of this sort, a strong act of solidarity, would be a sign of hope for those already suffering. It would also hearten those traumatised by the stories of suffering, a process that could galvanise support in the form of donations, volunteering and more. It may even trigger a wider examination of the structural causes of poverty, inequality and the emerging ‘Climate Leviathan’. This in turn, could inspire deeper engagement in the development of alternative models of the social and economic order. This may not be enough to usher in an anti-capitalist, anti-planetary sovereignty ‘climate X’ at a global scale, but it may generate pockets of it.

Given the proximity of a substantially warmer world, can we afford to stay distracted by the false promises of NETs, Paris and behaviour change by the rich? Should we instead focus more fervently on adaptation? 


[1] Up until the point that mitigation is not possible, this makes sense – for if we had mitigated against climate change successfully, adaptation would be less necessary.[1]

[2] Permafrost thaw across swathes of Siberia, the Himalaya and other high mountains could release large volumes of Methane (a highly potent GHG) into the atmosphere. Due to the amount of GHGs already emitted into the atmosphere, this situation could now happen even if GHG emissions fell to zero tomorrow. Further GHG emissions only increase the likelihood of positive feedback loops and runaway climate change.

[3] Hornsey, M.J. and Fielding, K.S. (2017) A cautionary note about messages of hope: Focusing on progress in reducing carbon emissions weakens mitigation motivation, Global Environmental Change, Vol. 39, 26-34

[4]Many societies, across the world, are in the midst of a mental health crisis, it is arguably developing into an epidemic. Emotional and physical wellbeing are often closely linked and the causal relationships can flow both ways. Threats to physical wellbeing can be very distressing emotionally and low emotional wellbeing can lead to physical pain, sickness and harm. Emotional wellbeing is not something to take lightly.

[5] The quote cited here is taken from Solnit’s essay: ‘Hope is embrace of the unknow’: Rebecca Solnit on living in dark times published July, 2016 in The Guardian and linked to the re-issue of her book Hope in the dark.


[7] It must of course be recognised that climate change projects can be categorised as mitigation and adaptation simultaneously. For example the restoration and conservation of Tropical Wetlands: