Optimism creates a false sense of security that everything will be okay in the end
Had the Wright Brothers believed they didn’t stand a chance of creating a machine that could fly, they would never have had the inclination to try. Optimism bias is part of our hardwiring and means we tend to overestimate the likelihood of positive events happening and underestimate potential negative ones. Usually, optimism bias stands us in good stead, but when it comes to the climate crisis, it’s proving to be a deadly psychological weakness.
Optimism bias is creating complacency and a feeling that no matter how bad things get, everything will be okay in the end. This attitude is deeply irrational when we know the cause of the climate crisis is economic activity. While certain circles, like ecological economists, recognise that the problem necessitates nothing other than social transformation centred on a redesign of the economy, conventional economists and politicians see no need. They argue the solutions to our problems centre on stimulating more economic growth, the very thing that leads to a bigger economy, which translates into undesired environmental impacts like increasing emissions.
As a result, solutions to the climate crisis revolve around making small incremental changes to how we do things. But without questioning the causes of the problem, we continue to see the same undesired outcomes; emissions continue to increase, and so do the risks posed by the climate crisis.
Even if it were widely acknowledged that the economy needs a redesign, that would be an unfathomably large, monumental undertaking; where would you even begin? Sure, optimism would be an important component of succeeding in redesigning the economy, but clearly, it would also involve a sense of realism at the scale of the task at hand.
What feeds into optimism bias, and helps justify the continuation of business as usual, is that the climate crisis still doesn’t feel like one…yet. Sure, it might be getting hotter, drier, or wetter; sure, huge numbers of animals and plants are going extinct; sure, the oceans are becoming more acidic, but how does any of that affect me right now?
When I wake up in the morning, I unplug my fully charged smartphone from the electricity mains. When I open the fridge to make breakfast, it’s full of food. When I turn on the TV to watch the news, there’s no mention of a climate crisis. When there is coverage about global warming, it barely mentions just how catastrophic the situation is. When I turn on the shower, I’m soothed by hot water. When I step outside, everyone goes about their business as they always have. The climate crisis is an emergency, but it sure doesn’t feel like there is an emergency.
The climate crisis is unlike any other because the impacts aren’t immediately noticeable, but due to tipping points, it will be too late to do anything about it when they do become noticeable. A tipping point is when a natural process or system is pushed into a new, unrecognisable state. As we place more pressure on the natural world, the likelihood of breaching tipping points increases.
In some cases, it’s likely tipping points have already been breached. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is collapsing and could lead to three metres of sea level rise, the Amazon Rainforest is dying and could turn into savannah in a matter of decades, and permafrost is melting in Siberia, which could unleash a carbon bomb larger than the amount of carbon dioxide ever emitted by humanity. And the thing about tipping points is they have a cascading effect; once one system tips, it creates s a domino effect that can then set in widescale changes on a global scale.
Hollywood has tarnished our perception of environmental emergencies; it doesn’t do slow creeping changes that take decades to reveal their impacts; it does big explosions, destructive hurricanes, and catastrophic tsunamis. Nature doesn’t work that way. It changes slowly, but when those changes are perceivable, the effects will be overwhelming. The issue with tipping points is that we don’t know when a tipping point will be breached, but we certainly will feel the impacts once natural systems transform due to the pressures we’re placing on the climate.
If tipping points are breached, then everything changes. The goods and services needed to provide our needs will become far harder to meet. Crop yields will significantly reduce, leading to food shortages and higher prices. More people will go hungry. When people go hungry, they riot. That’s what happened before the French and Russian revolutions. Historically it’s only in moments of crisis that the fabric of society has weakened and provided revolutionary groups with the opportunity to redesign society in their own image. It seems the only way any such social transformation will be realised now is if a similar breakdown of law and order presents an opportunity to create a system that provides people’s needs within ecological limits.
For now, though, people aren’t engaged in solving problems that don’t directly impact their lives. They certainly wouldn’t buy into the need for the government to implement radical policies or social transformation. Without reading about the dire implications of our current path, there isn’t a compelling argument for why systems change is necessary. And that’s why, as hard as it is to accept, the majority will continue sleepwalking into oblivion while the cheerleaders of optimism will continue serenading us all with claims that all we need is a bit of optimism and, like magic, all of our problems will be solved.
The climate crisis is set up for the optimists to feel optimistic. All this does is create a false sense of comfort, and means calls for social transformation feel rather extreme when markets appear to be doing such a fine job at solving environmental problems for us. Rather than a widespread need to instigate an emergency response to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis, we’re resting on our laurels, safe in some delusional comfort blanket that things aren’t going to be as bad as scientists are making out. Unfortunately, if they do get really bad, it will be far too late to do anything about it. Surely that risk alone should trigger an effective response, but we don’t usually take a rational approach to problems; the climate crisis is proving no different.