Is climate optimism dangerous?

Does hope for the future push us back into our past?

Hand dripping water on to plant.
Climate optimism encourages either action or complacency, depending on who you ask
(Image credit: gece33 / Getty Images)

While the threat of global warming has certainly given way to climate doomerism, which is the belief that "the world has already lost the battle against global warming," according to BBC, it has also encouraged climate optimism, or the "understanding that we know how to prevent things from getting worse and that we're making progress," according to Harvard University.

Though nice on its face, climate optimism can also act as a double-edged sword, critics say, in that while it prompts action to combat climate change, it might also encourage undue complacency.

Delaying action

Climate optimism allows "overly-confident math models based on unrealistic assumptions" to "offer false comfort" to observers by "relying on unrealistic levels of fairy-tale technology" and "ignoring many known salient factors," Jag Bhalla wrote in Current Affairs. Such climate models can, at times, mislead us regarding our progress and bring a false sense of security. Choosing to look solely on the bright side is "light-years beyond foolish" and "we must act to aggressively minimize risks."

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Climate optimism means that people are "completely placated" by the idea that things will turn out alright and will "continue to live their lives ... without regard for some of the future's darker possibilities," Brian Kateman wrote in a piece for Fast Company. "We haven't yet figured out how to support the population we currently have, on the planet we currently inhabit, without causing irreparable damage to our environment." In reality, it is too soon to feel optimistic about the many problems we have yet to solve. The "stakes are very real."

"Optimism can look suspiciously like greenwashing," explained Liza Featherstone in a piece for The New Republic. (Greenwashing is when a company conveys "a false impression or misleading information about how [its] products are environmentally sound," per Investopedia.) "There must be space in our discourse for climate grief and anxiety," Featherstone continued, adding that "neither the totally positive nor totally negative effect is quite right."

There's reason to believe

Climate optimism isn't about "denying what we can see with our own eyes," remarked Marcy Franck for WBUR. It's about "understanding that we know how to prevent things from getting worse, and we have a plan in place to be successful." While there is certainly a risk of complacency, humanity has good reason to be optimistic. "Actions we've already taken have averted the most apocalyptic scenarios we feared just a few years ago," Franck added. "[W]e need to ask why it is that we're living in an era of massive climate action, yet most of us feel little hope."

Refusing to acknowledge the progress we've made is a "barrier to action," German Lopez wrote for The New York Times. "Fear is useful to wake us up and make us pay attention," Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, told the outlet. "But if we don't know what to do, it paralyzes us."

"If you are feeling, like so many, that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, know that your attitude may be contributing to our collective future," Avivah Wittenberg-Cox wrote for Forbes. Perhaps a bit of climate optimism would help — recognizing that there is hope in the future could "just change your attitude — and your impact."

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