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We need the right kind of climate optimism

Climate pessimism dooms us to a terrible future. Complacent optimism is no better.

Part of Against Doomerism from The Highlight, Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

We environmentalists spend our lives thinking about ways the world will end. There’s nowhere that I see doomer culture more vocal than on my home turf.

With leading activists like Roger Hallam, co-founder of the popular climate protest movement Extinction Rebellion, telling young people that they “face annihilation,” it’s no surprise so many of them feel terrified. In a large recent international survey on youth attitudes toward climate change, more than half said that “humanity is doomed” and three-quarters said the future is frightening. Young people have good reasons to worry about our ability to tackle climate change, but this level of despair should be alarming to anyone who cares about the well-being of future generations — which is, after all, what the climate movement is all about.

As the lead researcher for Our World in Data, an organization that aims to make data on the world’s biggest problems accessible and understandable, I’ve written extensively on the reasons to be optimistic about the future. The prices of solar and wind power, as well as of batteries for storing low-carbon energy, have all plunged. Global deforestation peaked decades ago and has been slowly declining. Sales of new gas and diesel cars are now falling. Coal is starting to die in many countries. Government commitments are getting closer to limiting global warming to 2°C. Deaths from natural disasters — despite what news about climate change-related fires and hurricanes might appear to suggest — are a fraction of what they used to be. The list goes on.

But here, I don’t want to talk about whether pessimism is accurate. I want to focus on whether it’s useful. People might defend doomsday scenarios as the wake-up call that society needs. If they’re exaggerated, so what? They might be the crucial catalyst that gets us to act on climate change.

Setting aside the moral problem of stretching the truth, this claim is wrong. Scaring people into action doesn’t work. That’s true not just for climate change, air pollution, and biodiversity loss, but for almost any issue we can think of. We need optimism to make progress — yet that alone isn’t enough. To contend with environmental crises and make life better for everyone, we need the right kind of optimists: those who recognize that the world will only improve if we fight for it.

A framework for bringing about societal change

To understand what sort of thinking does drive positive change, we can imagine a framework for how people conceptualize the future and their ability to shape it.

Credit where it’s due: I first saw a version of this concept in the venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One. He presented it in the context of entrepreneurship, but it tied perfectly with my experiences in the environmental space. I’ve adapted it.

My framework has two axes. On one axis, we have “level of optimism,” spanning from optimistic to pessimistic. People who think the future will be much better are on one end, and those who think it will be much worse are on the other.

On the other axis, we have “changeability.” This reflects how much people think the future can be shaped by the decisions we make today. People who think the world is changeable believe they have an agency to mold it, while those who think it’s unchangeable believe we’re on a predetermined path and that trying to shape the future is futile.

A blank cartesian graph with two axes. The X axis is labeled with a left arrow and “How much the world can be shaped,” and the Y axis is labeled with an up arrow and “Level of optimism.” Hannah Ritchie/Vox

This gives us four quadrants — but only one really matters for our purposes. The “optimistic and changeable” box is where people who move the world forward fall. We need more people in there. None of the other quadrants are effective. By exploring the characteristics of each person, we’ll see why.

A table with four boxes. “Optimistic, changeable” box reads: The future can be better if we work hard to change it. “Optimistic, not changeable” box reads: The future will be better; it’ll all work out fine. “Pessimistic, changeable” box reads: We’re doomed and need to take extreme action to protect ourselves. “Pessimistic, not changeable” box reads: We’re doomed and there’s nothing we can do about it. Hannah Ritchie/Vox

Pessimists doom most of humanity to a terrible future

Pessimists in the lower right-hand quadrant, those who think the future is not changeable, are the true doomers. Their position is that we’re screwed and there’s nothing we can do about it.

I used to be one. After completing several degrees in environmental science and following the climate movement closely for years, I became submerged by helplessness at the scale of the environmental problems we face. Despite it being my lifelong passion, I was ready to turn my back on the field and work on something else. The idea that I could do anything had been slowly beaten out of me.

Unchangeable pessimists have given up on agitating for change, and experience high levels of anxiety and despondency. But it’s important to realize that not all levels of anxiety are equal, or equally arresting. Research shows that some anxiety can be a strong predictor of positive, constructive action. It can be a signal that we’re unhappy with how things are and give us an initial trigger to act. But it’s useless unless combined with hope that things really can get better.

What unchangeable pessimists feel is paralyzing anxiety. That’s a horrible place to be in emotionally, but it’s also an ineffective one. It prevents people from actually going out and doing things to mitigate climate change.

There is a second flavor of pessimism: those in the lower left-hand quadrant of our framework, who are resigned to a doomed future but think that rather than do nothing, we must prepare for the inevitable.

This group is just as anxious as the unchangeable pessimists. But rather than being despondent, they become self-serving and indignant. They do all they can to protect themselves and whatever morsels of a livable planet are left.

Changeable pessimists promote extreme and divisive environmental solutions that are unrealistic and would leave many far worse off. Extinction Rebellion, for example, has called for the UK to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. It’s undeniable that the UK has to reduce its emissions rapidly, but many scientists agree that a 2025 deadline would be unworkable and damaging because we don’t have replacements ready to fill the energy gap.

An immediate boycott of fossil fuels would result in a humanitarian disaster because the world still overwhelmingly relies on them to meet everyday energy needs. This way of thinking doesn’t rationally weigh the costs and benefits of trying to radically reduce our resource use overnight. It represents a kind of self-preservation for people in affluent countries: Rather than looking outward to build international cooperation, it pushes countries and communities to look inward.

At its extreme, changeable pessimism is susceptible to the sort of ideas advanced by biologist Paul Ehrlich, who has been predicting environmental collapse due to human overpopulation for over half a century. It’s an approach that assumes — against our past experience — that it’s impossible for humans to overcome perceived environmental limits, and that we have to impose devastating austerity instead. It would sacrifice the well-being of some of the poorest people on the planet, who need both growth and energy. This is no way to solve global challenges. But it’s an inevitable outcome of a scarcity mindset.

Optimism is the only thing that works — but only if we don’t assume that progress is inevitable

Now we turn to the optimists.

The “unchangeable optimists,” those in the upper right-hand corner of our chart, are a dangerous group. They assume the world will continue to get better regardless of how hard we work to change it. They look at historical progress and believe it’ll just continue.

Complacency can get us into trouble. We should never think that our rapid progress in health care, energy, technology, and education over the past two centuries was natural or preordained. It has been an unprecedented boom, and it’s required deliberate action from people who were not happy with the status quo.

And today, we need to adapt and push in different directions than we have in the past. Yes, we’ve made amazing strides in human well-being, but we now have very large, very novel problems to tackle: environmental ones. Sticking with what got us here won’t solve those.

Alex Epstein, author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less, is a classic unchangeable optimist. He rightly argues that fossil fuels have transformed the lives of billions, and says we should, for now, continue to exploit them to improve more lives. But this fails to acknowledge the problems with fossil fuels — not only for the climate but for the millions of people who die from air pollution linked to fossil fuels every year. Epstein’s argument may have made sense in the past, when we did not have affordable, scalable alternative energy sources, but not now.

Fossil fuel boosters demonstrate perfectly why unchangeable optimists are so wrongheaded: They want to maintain a status quo that doesn’t serve us anymore. Their complacency only serves to slow the accelerated action needed to change our trajectory.

As a self-identified optimist, I’m always in danger of being boxed into this category. I fight hard to stop the label from sticking. I believe that if the arc of history bends toward justice, it’s because we’ve made a concerted effort to change its trajectory. The path we’re heading on is not okay — we need to redirect it.

This brings me to the changeable optimists. This is the group that thinks the future can be better but knows that a better future won’t happen on its own. The world has lots of optimist changemakers, even if they don’t identify as such. People engineering new solar panels, batteries, and electric cars are changeable optimists. So are scientists at organizations like the Good Food Institute experimenting with ways to make plant-based and cellular meats; entrepreneurs like Boyan Slat, whose organization the Ocean Cleanup is trying to pull plastic waste out of the ocean; and policymakers pushing for sustainable policies.

These people might not always put high odds on a better future — they may, in fact, think there’s only a slim chance of success. But the act of trying creates possibilities that no one knew about before, which build a concrete case for optimism. Several years ago, for example, most wouldn’t have predicted that renewable energy prices would drop so quickly and dramatically.

Changeable optimists don’t shy away from criticism of the status quo. In fact, they’re often its fiercest critics. People often mistake pessimism for critical thought and optimism for pollyannaism. In reality, progress is built by those who can look critically at a suite of solutions, discard the bad ones, and find and sharpen the gems that remain. Pessimists use criticism as a wall, while optimists use it as a guiding door.

How we can become more optimistic

Pessimism is hard to overcome precisely because it’s often served humans well. History rewarded those who could detect threats early and fixate on them. But while pessimism might be good for survival — and survival was virtually all humanity had on its mind for most of its history — it’s not good for the flourishing we could achieve in the future. At its best, pessimism helps us stay where we are. It doesn’t give us the agency and determination to build something better.

The world would be a much better place if we had more optimistic changemakers. But there are key habits of mind I’ve found that can engender precisely the brand of optimism we need.

Most importantly, optimists take a long-term view of human progress. Many people forget how bad the human past was. Until the last century, poverty was the default. Half of children died before puberty. Health care and education were nonexistent for virtually everyone. Even with respect to environmental health, our preindustrial history was not as rosy as one might assume. The air our ancestors breathed was polluted from burning wood and charcoal; evidence of damaged lung tissue has been found in Egyptian mummies and in the remains of 400,000-year-old hunter-gatherers. The only reason our aggregate planetary impact was low is that high child mortality kept the human population small. We hunted many of the largest mammals into extinction. To think that the world today is dismal is to ignore the misery of our past.

Even if you accept that we’ve made enormous progress from the past, you might look at the scale of the threats we face in the future and lose hope that progress will continue. But in thinking about today’s challenges, it’s crucial to look at change over time, not just snapshots in time. During any transition, changes can look small at first; it’s the pace of change that’s important. Renewable energy right now makes up just 29 percent of global electricity production, but this is changing quickly. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that almost all of the growth in electricity use in the next few years will come from renewables. Electric vehicles made up just under 10 percent of new car sales globally in 2021, but in 2020 it was 4 percent, and the year before that, it was 2.5. It won’t be long until EVs dominate the car market.

Focusing on change over time doesn’t make us optimistic by default. The early days of Covid-19 are a case in point: Many people underestimated the scale of the pandemic because they were looking at snapshots of reported cases and deaths. In early 2020, these were tiny. What they should have been focusing on was the rate at which these numbers were climbing, which told a much more worrying story. Looking at change over time doesn’t always paint a rosy picture, but it does help us see the world more clearly and understand what future we might be heading toward — and, in most respects, seeing the world more clearly means seeing it more positively.

Similarly, we need to look at the complete picture, not isolated individual metrics, to understand complex problems. Global carbon emissions are still rising, which is bad. But many of the underlying factors that determine emissions — like the growth of low-carbon energy and the emissions of wealthy countries — are changing quickly. We need to look at the inputs into the system, not just the output. We’ll soon reach a tipping point when these inputs cause emissions to peak and decline, according to the IEA.

Finally, we should probably stop constantly reading the news. I used to read the news obsessively, thinking this was how to be knowledgeable about the world. Every day I was hit with stories about the latest hurricane, flood, drought, or wildfire. The problem is that I didn’t actually know whether the impacts of these events were increasing or decreasing. I thought more people were dying from disasters than ever, but only because I mistook an increase in reporting and my own interest for an increase in the numbers.

When I looked at the long-term statistics, I realized my perception was upside-down. The news isn’t a reliable barometer for the overall state of the world. I’ve found that pessimists look at the news, while optimists look at the data.

We must avoid complacent optimism

I often worry that people confuse changeable optimism with its counterproductive, unchangeable counterpart. That’s just as ineffective as pessimism. To avoid falling into the complacency trap, we need to hold on to an edge of dissatisfaction. Yes, many trends have been moving in the right direction, but we shouldn’t pretend that this was the best we could do.

As my colleague Max Roser has put it: “The world is awful. The world is much better. The world can be much better.” All three statements are true. We can acknowledge the progress that we’ve made but remain dissatisfied that we haven’t made more. We’ve reduced global child mortality to below 4 percent, but 5 million children under age 5 still die every year, most of them from preventable conditions like malaria, measles, and diarrheal diseases.

We can learn from this long-term decline in childhood mortality to understand what does and doesn’t work. But we then need to turn those lessons into action in places where child mortality remains high, which won’t happen on its own.

We also need to be honest about the areas where things haven’t been going well. Human progress has come at the cost of the environment and the lives of tens of billions of non-human animals that we slaughter for food. That may have been a price worth paying in the past, but we shouldn’t — and don’t have to — accept it anymore. Technological progress can build sustainability that works for people, the planet, and the species we share it with.

This is a totally different trajectory from the past, and a track that complacent, unchangeable optimism won’t get us on. Optimistic but dissatisfied is the road to progress. Let’s make sure this coalition is as large and diverse as possible.

Hannah Ritchie is deputy editor and lead researcher at Our World in Data, and a researcher at the University of Oxford.

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