5 Reasons To Be Pessimistic About Climate Change

Despite the climate deal reached this weekend, it’s important to always remember: humans are lazy and don’t make changes until it’s too late.

5 Reasons To Be Pessimistic About Climate Change
[Top photo: Antti T. Nissinen]

The big climate news over the weekend was that 196 countries agreed a new pact to limit their carbon emissions. Sort of. What actually happened at a meeting in Lima, Peru, was that 196 nations agreed to make plans to limit their emissions–which, of course, is different. There was progress, but only of the barely meaningful kind.


First, the good news. The framework agreement for the first time involves all countries: big, small, developed, developing. Previous deals, like the Kyoto Protocol in 1992, only affected richer nations, not emerging giants like China and India. Now, every country has to submit a plan for decarbonizing its economy.

Here’s the bad news. The plans can be as sweeping or as small-bore as governments like. They’ll be completely voluntary, and there won’t be an outside body to assess whether they’re being carried out. The governments couldn’t even agree to standards to measure emissions, making future apple-to-apple comparisons difficult.

As such, Lima follows a pattern. It looks good initially, until you get into the details. Like other pacts (including the recent one between the U.S. and China), it’s worth celebrating more because it’s better than nothing than because it’s a good deal for the planet. The reality is that carbon emissions continue to rise and that all the science points to dangerous temperature increases by the middle of this century.

I say this not to be overly pessimistic, but because being too celebratory about Lima could lead us to a false sense of security. It could be that we’re further away than ever from dealing with climate change in any comprehensive way, and that Lima actually proves our impotence, not any newfound resolution.

Let’s review a few of the basic facts about the situation we face:

The math

Scientists say we need to keep global temperature increases below 2 degrees C, and that means carbon emissions in the atmosphere of no more than 550 parts per million (ppm). We’re already well beyond 400 ppm, and, in fact, 450 ppm gives us only a 50% chance of staying below the relatively “safe” level. Projections from the World Bank and others see us breaking through 3 degrees C by 2080 and perhaps 4 degrees C by the end of the century. That would be absolutely catastrophic for most of the planet (particularly the poor). As one climate scientist puts it, “the difference between two and four degrees is human civilization.”

Flickr user Jim Crocker

Many impacts are baked in

The way the world is organized today–including the type of cars and power plants we use–means we’re bound to break through 2 degrees C whatever we do. There may be new ways of generating power cleanly, like solar power, and they may be taking off fast and have lots of potential. But they’re not going to spread quickly enough to make a difference. In effect, a 2-degree increase is inevitable given the world as it is now. The real question is whether we can keep increases between two and three degrees, and adapt to the consequences of global warming.

Flickr user Loren Sztajer

The developing world wants to get rich first

It’s possible that certain climate-conscious countries will reduce carbon emissions substantially. Sweden and Denmark, say, may become carbon-neutral by the middle of the century, if they follow through on their current policies. Most of the rest of the world wants to get rich before it deals with climate change. It plans, for example, to grow its use of carbon-intensive fuels, not use less of them. The International Energy Agency predicts fossil fuel consumption will rise 37% by 2040, as countries like India and Indonesia continue to expand. In fact, the U.S.-China climate pact is recognition of this. It allows China’s fossil fuel emissions to grow until 2030.

Flickr user wbr_deluz

We’re politicized, or, worse, indifferent

When the recent “synthesized” version of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report arrived, you could see how divided humanity has become. Environmentalists got upset. The climate-denying wing of the Republican party claimed it was all a hoax. Most people shrugged. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it: here were hundreds of respected scientists predicting the worst sort of disaster, and most people were saying, effectively, that it didn’t matter.

The lesson, perhaps, is that the IPCC is irrelevant. We don’t need another report to tell us what we already know. No form of publication–even one written clearly and filled with helpful graphics–is going to convince people more than they’re convinced today. We’ve seen a huge number of these reports released, and public opinion has actually gone backwards. In the U.S., there are now fewer people who believe in climate change than a few years ago.

Flickr user Rachel Johnson

Climate change is a wicked problem

In his recent book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, George Marshall describes climate change as a “wicked” problem that’s “incomplete, contradictory, and constantly changing.” It’s different from a “tame” problem that has “defined causes, objectives, and outputs.” That makes it hard for us to get our heads around because it’s a problem too cosmic to fathom. In the Washington Post, Chris Mooney details a bunch of other psychological obstacles, including the limited capacity of people to worry about the future.

Flickr user Ann Baekken

Appearances aside, we don’t really want to deal with the problem

In the U.S., climate change has become just another wedge issue dividing Democrats and Republicans. A few years ago, climate change action had bipartisan support. Now the issue is more like abortion: you can identify politicians from where they stand on it. This, in turn, has led those on the left to demonize those on the right as uncaring and immoral. But, as Marshall points out, there’s a lot of hypocrisy to this. In fact, everyone is responsible for the currently high state of emissions.


“The missing truth, deliberately avoided in these enemy narratives, is that in high-carbon societies, everyone contributes to the emissions that cause the problem and everyone has a strong reason to ignore the problem or to write their own alibi,” he says.

In a review of the book, the author Paul Kingsnorth comments:

Climate change isn’t something that a small group of baddies has foisted on us, and the minute it becomes an issue identified with one political persuasion, action to prevent it becomes less likely. In the end, we are all implicated, which is one reason we refuse to look at it directly. This is a less palatable message than one which sees a brutal 1 per cent screwing the planet and a noble 99 per cent opposing them, but it is closer to reality.

What does all this mean? A certain amount of climate change is inevitable and the big question is how we manage global warming, not how we “solve” global warming.

As I say, I’m not optimistic because the hunger for prosperity and lifestyle normally trumps the environment–at least, until we wake up to the problem at hand. The scariest thing about climate change is that the worst impacts will appear only when it’s already too late. To do something about it, we have to trust that the science is correct and that the predictions are right. That’s going to be difficult for a lot of people, especially those with no immediate incentive to change.

We’re headed for climate disaster as things stand, and Lima hardly changes that trajectory.


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.