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 Optimism or Realism?

Within the climate movement, the analysis, reactions and speculations arising from Paris COP 21 have eclipsed other issues. Now seems a good moment for some careful focussing.

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Whilst scientific, political and economic discussion abounds and we continue to monitor it, the main task of CPA is to act as a forum for psychological insights which serve the wider movement. And psychology in this context must be free to embrace the ethical issues which are so often excluded from these other fields.

Talk of “optimism” and “realism” gives us opportunities to look for insights that are both useful and ethically informed. These words, along with the unmistakeable pessimism in their shadow, serve as a constant backdrop to this remarkable interview conducted in Paris by the prolific Nick Breeze with Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre and Dr Hugh Hunt of Cambridge University. The actual words break the surface in a momentary clash between the two experts. In terms of debate, this moment in their exchange seems to hold little meaning. But dynamically, we seem to get a glimpse of something – something more than intellectual rivalry. Again, at the end, the interviewer asks them if there is anything which they can feel optimistic about and for a moment they both seem at a loss for words. Then they cooperate in sketching an optimistic narrative of sorts, albeit one that is partly based on elements that they have, earlier in the interview, defined as hugely challenging or improbable.

Despite the reasoned tone, the mastery of facts and arguments, it is possible to sense despair, horror, alarm, vulnerability, maybe even radical hope, in the striving of these two men to encompass the human dimensions of the problem. Anderson sets the scene by highlighting the huge disconnect between what climate science is telling us and recognition of the implications of this for contemporary society. Whether we accept his label “cognitive dissonance” for that disconnect or prefer “disavowal”, the fact is that he, a scientist, is naming it and challenging it. He also goes on to own it, rather than simply blaming it on the politicians or other elite groups who want to keep the implications at arms’ length. So he names the disconnect in a way that makes it a little harder to dismiss the messenger.

The darkest passage in the interview is reached in the context of a second disconnect - between the rich world which is responsible for nearly all the historic emissions and the poor world which will suffer the worst consequences. “Let them eat cake” comments Hunt. Anderson hammers home the ethical point more starkly, characterising the attitude of the “have’s” as “We’ll muddle through and the poor will die”. When you examine the language closely he says, the underlying attitude is savage, inhumane. This brings to mind Sally Weintrobe’s theme “The Culture of Uncare”. In Anderson’s bleak appraisal, we see uncare writ large.

A further key psychological factor which this conversation spotlights is pervasive wishful thinking which borders on delusion. This theme is largely explored in the context of technology and you have to watch the film to get the twists and turns. But the most challenging psychological question is how, for instance, vague and fantastic recipes for a carbon negative future serve as a mass defence, both against recognition of the scale of action needed now and against the admission of uncare. No-one wants to believe or admit that their cherished lifestyle contributes to a death sentence for millions, so we sign up for the disconnect, disavow cause and effect and reinforce each other’s belief in the wondrous clothes of the future emperor. It has been pointed out elsewhere that a recognition of the inhumanity implicit in the 2 degree target helped to drive the lower target agreed at Paris. This gives rise to the question of whether the 1.5 degree target has any real foundation in the plans of the rich world, or is more in the nature of a fig leaf, placed over the reality of uncare. It is maybe telling that, in the Hunt / Anderson interview, the feasibility of 1.5 degrees was not even mentioned. This seems to place a big caveat against any optimistic narrative and in the long pause before they respond to this challenge, can we hear them thinking: “We must come up with something, however unlikely it seems”? The narrative, however, is well worth considering.

Despite some differences on detail and emphasis, they agree on four points:
1.The very fact that 10% of the world’s population is responsible for 50% of global emissions means that profound behavioural change by this relatively small, rich group would make an immense difference in lowering energy consumption – a vital requirement.
2. All the technical tools exist to achieve decarbonisation of our society.
3. There are many examples in history of engineering breakthroughs at times of great stress.
4. Given the complexity of the climate issue, unpredictable developments are certain. We are all, potentially, agents of change.

Our response to item 1 is likely to be “a fat chance”. But when it is combined with item 4, it begins to look more like Gramsci’s pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will, which is a cornerstone for radical hope, as opposed to delusional optimism. Last month’s newsletter referred to Christiana Figueres’ comment that people power had made a crucial difference to the mood and ambition of Paris. It was a kind of quantum leap from the situation at Copenhagen. So, whilst our current political leaders show few signs of mustering the will or resources for a global transformation of the kind and at the speed we need, why rule out another leap, or set of leaps? We not only shouldn’t rule this out, we must not, because we are all potentially those agents of change, in a complex and unpredictable leadership scenario.

This month’s newsletter has focussed on one interview and some of the psychological currents which emanate from it. Below is a list, without discussion, of some other items which you might want to view:

Buzzfeed: The notion of “normal weather” is now out of date Confirmation of Bill McKibben’s “Eaarth” (2010)
Dawn.com: The exclusion of agricultural emissions from the Paris agreement
Washington Post on “echo chambers”
Robert Scribbler: Jump in global temperatures
Carbon Brief: timeline for the ratchet
Carbon Pulse: The EU – aviation and shipping
Reuters: EPA legal victory

Adrian Tait, on behalf of the Executive Committee