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Climate defeatism: If we are already doomed, why bother?

Unthinkable: Political theorist Catriona McKinnon has a message for those feeling fatalistic about climate change

Who would have thought a veteran Portuguese politician would get more headlines than Greta Thunberg at this year’s Cop27? António Guterres, the 73-year-old UN secretary general, has set the tone of the climate conference in Sharm El-Sheikh with increasingly forthright language.

Warning that “we are on a highway to climate hell” and at risk of “collective suicide”, he said the scientific evidence was clear: “We are in the fight of our lives and we are losing.”

Guterres’s foreboding is well justified but there are concerns that, despite his pleas for a redoubling of efforts, the world is tipping towards defeatism. Progress may have been made in some areas but Cop27 has largely showcased the failures of developed countries to meet previously agreed targets. All the while the clock is ticking on irreversible climate breakdown.

Recent surveys have shown an alarming degree of fatalism about climate change. An international study last June from Peritia, a UCD-based project on trust in science, showed 30 per cent of people in Germany agreed that climate change is beyond control and “it’s too late to do anything about it”. In Ireland 18 per cent of people agreed with this.


An Ipsos/Futerra poll last year found defeatism was highest among younger cohorts. Of the 20,000 people from 27 countries surveyed, a fifth of under 35s said they believed it was “too late to fix climate change”.

Catriona McKinnon, author of the recently-published book Climate Change and Political Theory (Polity Press), acknowledges a communications dilemma. “I have to tread this path with my students when I teach them about climate justice,” she says. “You can’t sugar the pill: they have to know the truth of the peril we are in. At the same time, there’s a real risk of pushing them into a state of despair that makes them incapable of action.”

McKinnon, who is professor of political theory at University of Exeter, examines the case against fatalism in her book, arguing that even if we can’t agree on the best outcome we can identify what is worse in any particular situation. If humanity was to dwindle to a small population on a ravaged island, perhaps the leaders would “make the biggest bonfire in human history, and dance around it naked”. She asks: “Is this outcome worse than one in which the resources are shared in some way that enables at least some of the remaining thousands to survive?”

In short, no matter how bad things get there are always options. She explains further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.

If we take the climate science to be accurate – the consensus is some climate changes are inevitable and irreversible – then is the natural response to give up? By staying hopeful one seems to be betting against the science

Catriona McKinnon: “The UN Environment Programme has said recently that there is now ‘no credible pathway to 1.5C’. It’s awful ... but let’s be clear: we are in this position now because of a lack of political will to make and keep to aggressive emissions reduction targets.

“This has been worsened by the machinations of the fossil fuel industry, and the continued willingness of banks to finance planet-killing extractive industries. None of this was written in the stars. It could have been otherwise.

“While 1.5 degrees is beyond us now, we could still achieve the Paris target of staying below 2 degrees. And even if we fail on that, keeping temperature rise as low as we can still matters. Giving up because, say, we are on track for 2.7 degrees by 2100 rather than 2 degrees could mean that we end up with warming of closer to 4 degrees by 2100. This would not only make climate failure an even worse self-fulfilling prophecy, it would also be a moral disgrace in the face of what we owe to people in the future.”

Our existing model of democracy seems to be ill-equipped to deal with the climate emergency. Do we need to ditch democracy for effective action?

“This model is ill equipped because of the short-termism baked into it. Democracy doesn’t have to be that way. And the political and economic institutions of democratic societies don’t have to treat the non-human natural world as nothing but material to fuel our addiction to consumption.

“For example, democratic institutions could include spaces in which the interests of future people are represented. Or: democratic leaders could take seriously proposals for ‘degrowth’ to protect the planet, and so protect people – especially the most vulnerable.

“The solution is not to throw away our democratic institutions but to strengthen them and prevent them from being abused and manipulated, for example, by climate denial think tanks channelling fossil fuel money into US politics under the guise of free speech.

“All of this said, we are kidding ourselves if we think that political and economic elites with their hands on political power will voluntarily make these changes. We have to force them to do this. This starts with using your vote. It can also mean organising locally to challenge the status quo, protesting, or talking to your neighbours and friends about the changes that are needed.”

To return to a question you ask in the book “If we are already doomed, why bother?”, what gives you hope?

“Notice the ‘if’ at the start of that sentence! I don’t think we are doomed. I think we are at an unprecedented moment in history but that the future remains unwritten. What gives me hope – hope in the sense of the courage to go on, rather than some dewy-eyed wishful thinking – is that I think the majority of people really don’t want a future of climate catastrophe.

“We don’t want our descendants to be ashamed of our failure to rise to the moment in the climate crisis. What is blocking effective action on climate change are the special interests of a very few people who will benefit from the continued extraction of fossil fuels and who are not willing to give up their power and advantages. Our political and economic institutions serve to protect these interests.

“The climate crisis is a product of the global capitalist economy and will – if we fail – ultimately cut away the ground from under it. I’m hopeful because I think it is impossible to deny this dirty connection between the way we have done politics since the industrial revolution and the accelerating climate crisis. Something has to give. I don’t think most people want that to be the planet, our home.”

Does geoengineering offer the best grounds for being optimistic?

“On geoengineering, I certainly don’t see solar geoengineering as a cause for optimism. This is the proposition that we can artificially cool the planet by spraying reflective particles (eg sulphur) into the stratosphere. One proposal is that drones could continuously circle the planet releasing these materials into the atmosphere. Thus, we would have our hands on the global thermostat.

“What a dire future that would be: what a disgusting spectacle humanity would be if we created such a world. We have to put emissions reductions first as the path to tackling climate change. And this means massive reform – if not revolution – of our political and economic systems, and the expectations they generate. That’s a huge task – but why think that solar geoengineering presents less of a task, given that the technology is still imaginary?

“We already know what we have to do to get ahead of the climate crisis. Solar geoengineering gives me no cause for hope at all.”