Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist probably influences your views on how society should deal with climate change. Today I hope to open a running discussion that explores how our outlook affects our climate policy preferences.
I see two key areas where our views on climate policy may be influenced by whether we’re optimists or pessimists.
The first area deals with society’s resilience to earth system disturbance.
An optimist might believe that changing the composition of the atmosphere (greenhouse gases in the case of climate change) would lead to minor impacts relative to human capacity to cope. This could be the case if either: 1) the earth system is resilient to human disturbance, or 2) human’s have a strong capacity to overcome earth system disturbance.
A pessimist, in contrast, would see our greenhouse gas emissions as likely to trigger major impacts that are largely beyond human’s coping capacity.
The second area where our outlook likely affects our policy preferences deals with society’s capacity to reduce emissions while continuing to thrive.
An optimist might believe that humans have tremendous capacity to reduce emissions and improve the quality of our lives while doing so. This follows from the view that we are good at overcoming difficult challenges, finding creative solutions, innovating, and adapting to new policy and economic signals.
A pessimist, in contrast, would view human wellbeing as inescapably linked to our current patterns of energy use and that energy use leads inescapably to emitting greenhouse gases. Therefore, reducing our emissions would necessarily harm human wellbeing.
So are you an optimist or a pessimist?
Sometimes those most concerned about greenhouse gas emissions get ridiculed or dismissed for being “alarmists” or “doomsayers” by those who believe efforts to reduce emissions will lead to economic disaster. That may be effective political framing but it isn’t a very accurate or thoughtful depiction of who’s an optimist and who’s a pessimist.
Because there are two areas that shape policy preferences here (sensitivity to earth system disturbance and mitigation potential) and two possible perspectives for each (optimism and pessimism) there are four potential ways to view climate change (Figure 1). Each has implications for one’s preferred climate policies.
Group I: The true optimist
The true optimist would believe that we can happily go on emitting greenhouse gases because we aren’t sensitive to the resulting earth system disturbance. However, the true optimist would also believe that we can easily reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and thrive.
Reducing emissions probably makes sense to this group for two reasons: 1) insurance is cheap (i.e., nasty climate impacts, while unexpected by the true optimist, are avoidable through emissions reductions that are easy to realize), and 2) co-benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions are easily reaped. These co-benefits include things like reducing traditional forms of air pollution (smog, mercury, aerosols, etc.), economic gains from improved energy efficiency (here), and enhanced national security from greater energy independence (here, here, and here). Thus, a true optimist would still seem to favor strong climate mitigation.
Group II: Pessimist (on earth system resilience), Optimist (on mitigation)
One who sees serious risks from earth system disturbance along with tremendous potential to reduce emissions easily would likely favor strong efforts to reduce emissions.
Group III: Optimist (on Earth system resilience), Pessimist (on mitigation)
One who believes that emissions reductions will require major sacrifices and that our emissions pose little threat to society would likely want to avoid strong climate policies.
Even then, I wonder if this group may be willing to embrace some effort to mitigate as a hedge against disturbing the earth system. The reason is that the stakes differ between the two areas under consideration. Mitigation poses potential economic risks, while damage to the earth system risks weakening more basic life support services.
Group IV: The True Pessimist
The true pessimist would believe that our greenhouse gas emissions pose serious risks to society (i.e., we’re sensitive to earth system disturbance) but that efforts to reduce those emissions will be painful.
These two views, by themselves, lead to policy preferences that go in opposite directions: sensitivity to earth system disturbance pushes toward aggressive mitigation, while the pain expected from mitigation points away from emissions reductions. Reconciling the two rests on assessing the stakes involved. Again, reducing emissions poses potential economic risks (here), whereas earth system disturbance poses a broader range of risks, economic damage being one component. If a true pessimist viewed the likelihood and magnitude of each as being roughly comparable, then I’d expect them to favor mitigation fairly strongly based on this asymmetry.
Of all groups, this one might be most interested in a new option, like geo-engineering (more here, and here). Then again, geo-engineering requires additional tampering with the earth system, which this group sees pessimistically, so perhaps not.
Of the four groups, three seem likely to favor mitigation. An important question remains, however? Which groups’ outlook is most realistic? I will explore that with my next post by turning to the objective evidence that we have to draw upon (climate science and our past experiences facing societal challenges).
Before getting into that, your feedback can help reveal whether this framework is helpful for thinking about policy choices. What group captures your outlook best and how do your views on climate policy square with what I’ve said about that group’s preferences?