“Over the last 10 years, I’ve been asked one question more than any other: Is there any hope? Or are we just f*cked?” asked David Roberts in Grist back in 2013.
Given the amount of bad news that scientists have given us on the climate since then — right now, the Arctic is burning! — the question of whether there’s any hope to avoid climate catastrophe is more relevant than ever. And so is Roberts’ answer.
Why haven’t the nations of the earth, especially the United States, done more to cut greenhouse pollution? It’s not for lack of warnings from scientists. Instead, lots of things stand in the way of change, explains Roberts:
Cognitively, we suffer from status quo bias and loss aversion. Psychologically and physiologically, we are designed to heed immediate threats with teeth and eyes, not long-term, incremental, invisible dangers. Socioeconomically, power is concentrated in the hands of wealthy incumbents who benefit from the carbon-intensive status quo: fossil fuel companies, the sprawl industry (roads, real estate), Big Ag, airlines, heavy manufacturers, and so on. Politically, we are gripped by polarization, dysfunction, and paralysis. Individually and collectively, we are extremely poor judges of risk, particularly the sort of risk posed by climate change. That makes social change, what Weber called the “slow boring of hard boards,” halting and painful at best.
I happen to think that the emotional barriers like status quo bias and loss aversion are easy to overcome, as societies have done in the past in times of big change. But you need the right motivation, like World War II, to get the public on board.
Meanwhile, as Roberts says, we’ve fiddled while the world has burned — and we keep pumping out more greenhouse pollution.
And now, if you haven’t heard, the Arctic is on fire!
“A Vegas bookie making odds would probably say that the good money’s on us being f*cked,” Roberts says. We could stop the world from warming another two degrees Celsius or whatever metric scientists pick in the future. But there’s a good chance we won’t.
So, where’s any cause for hope? Yes, if you define it the right way, says Roberts:
I don’t think [hope is] about the future as much as it’s about the present. It’s about whether it’s worth it to learn about this stuff, carry the weight of it, talk about it with other people when they don’t want to hear it, fight against overwhelmingly steep odds, suffer daily disappointments and setbacks. If tomorrow we die, would it not be better just to eat, drink, and be merry? What good is all this anxiety, pain, and yearning?
And with no obvious path to victory, Roberts asks, what will motivate us to keep fighting?
Roberts has his own answer that doesn’t work for me but it may work for you:
Though it may seem odd, I find comfort in chaos theory. For all our sophistication, we remain terribly inept at the simple task of predicting what will happen more than a few years out. All our models fail. That means those who predict a steady extension of the status quo will be wrong, too.
Chaos theory? Isn’t that just another way to phrase the legal disclaimer in ads for mutual funds, that past performance is no guarantee of future results? Or a way to use math to show that tomorrow could be different than yesterday?
I agree that it’s good to avoid foregone conclusions about the future. But it seems like a cop-out to hope the future will be better than we think because we’re just not that good at predicting stuff.
And as a history buff, I know that we can find hope today from a more reliable source, from things that actually happened in the past.
Fortunately, the history of decades and centuries past contains many stories of victory against impossible odds. Three big examples from American history alone are enough to get started. Best of all, these examples are not environmental movements, but political ones. To win, the climate movement needs to be upgraded from a fight to reduce pollution to a high-priority issue of national security, the economy and personal freedom. And that’s going to be all about politics.
So, let’s look at three efforts in the past whose success was hardly assured in their own day. In fact, all of them looked unlikely to succeed for a decade or more — until the moment when they finally did succeed.
1. The Apollo Moon Launch Program
I just wrote about how the Apollo Program, which seems today like it was always destined for success, was actually in its own day a huge, unpopular gamble.
- Hundreds of top scientists said a manned moon mission had little scientific value.
- The New York Times said the cost would be enough to start a university like Harvard in every state and called for the money to be spent on education and other earthly priorities. Civil rights leaders agreed denounced the expenditure as taking money out of the mouths of the poor.
- And Dwight D. Eisenhower, ignoring the precedent that former presidents shouldn’t criticize the current occupant of the White House, called Kennedy’s idea for a manned moon launch “nuts.”
Throughout the 1960s, polls showed public support for the program at 50% or less. Only in 1969, when Apollo 11 took off and came back successfully did the moon launch become the world’s favorite government science program.
2. Women’s Suffrage
Today, it might seem like it was simply the march of progress that women would eventually get the vote in any modern democracy. Yet, in the United States, the Nineteenth Amendment almost failed to win approval by three fourths of the state legislatures required to add it to the U.S. Constitution.
- By 1919, women already enjoyed some voting rights in 36 states. They were only barred from all elections in 12 states. Some suffragists thought that the issue could be handled entirely on the state level and that a federal amendment was not necessary.
- Many opponents of suffrage were women themselves and one prominent group published a widely-read pamphlet claiming that “90 percent of women either do not want [the vote] or do not care.”
- After nearly all other likely states rejected the amendment, only Tennessee remained in 1920 as perhaps the last chance to become the 36th state to ratify. The vote passed by a nail-biting margin of 49-47 only after state representative Harry Burn switched his vote to yes to please his mother. Without Burn’s mother, the vote would have been tied and the amendment would have lost in Tennessee by default.
Given that other states didn’t ratify the Nineteenth Amendment until as late as the 1970s (Louisiana and North Carolina) and 1980s (Mississippi), if suffragists lost in Tennessee, there’s no guarantee that American women would have gotten the vote nationwide until decades later.
Compare the narrow success of the Nineteenth Amendment to the fate of the Equal Rights Amendment, written by suffragist leader Alice Paul, and first introduced in 1923. In the early 1940s, both Republicans and Democrats added support for the ERA to their party platforms. The ERA passed Congress in 1972 and was sent to the states for ratification. Yet, after nearly a century, the amendment still remains unratified — just two states short.
3. The Abolition of Slavery
Modern people think that slavery’s end in the United States was inevitable at some point in the nineteenth century, even without the Civil War. After all, the British Empire had freed its slaves in the 1830s. With the rise of industry and the decline of agriculture in the mid-nineteenth century, so the story goes, American slavery, which was never very profitable anyway, was ready to wither away and collapse on its own.
But recent histories paint a very different picture of the economics of slavery. As it turns out, what Southern leaders called the Peculiar Institution was quite profitable up to the very end and was actually ready to expand in the middle of the 1800s:
- If the Confederacy had been a separate nation right before the Civil War, it would have ranked as the fourth largest economy in the world.
- Cotton was the most widely traded commodity on earth at the time, when textile mills led the industrial revolution in both the U.S. and Britain. Seventy-five percent of cotton traded worldwide was grown by enslaved people in the southern states.
- According to Yale historian David Blight, “by 1860, there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States. In the same year, the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.”
- Before the Civil War, the issue for slave-owners was not simply whether they could keep their slaves. It was whether slavery could expand to new territories. In 1850, a decade before the war, southerners successfully pushed the federal government to enact a Fugitive Slave Act that essentially legalized slavery even in northern states.
- In years leading up to the war, southerners had plans to expand slavery beyond such recent acquisitions as Texas into Central America and the Caribbean.
If the South had won the Civil War, slavery would have continued in all the states of the Confederacy. Then, it could have expanded from there. Imagine if the Spanish American War of 1898 had instead been the Spanish Confederate War? It’s possible that slavery would have lived on by moving into tropical areas of the hemisphere where industrial agriculture still has not displaced humans from farm work.
It might seem like a crazy idea to think that without the Civil War, slavery might have persisted in the Americas into the twentieth century and beyond. But keep in mind that, around the world, in the present day there are more people enslaved people, 40.3 million, than there were in 1860.
Of course, contemporary slavery doesn’t look like slavery did in the nineteenth century. Since slavery has been outlawed by every nation on earth (Mauritania was the last to abolish slavery in 2007), today’s slave economy must operate underground, trafficking women as forced sex workers or children as soldiers.
Why History Shows that Climate Victory is Possible
If we agree with Roberts that victory in the case of climate can be defined as “minimizing suffering and maximizing flourishing,” then history shows us that such victory is by no means assured and may in fact seem unlikely given the massive political obstacles that stand in the way of serious climate action including abolishing fossil fuels altogether.
But history also shows that climate victory is not impossible.
The Apollo program sent men to the moon against long scientific odds and against public opinion.
Women got the right to vote when the Nineteenth Amendment squeaked by in the same state, Tennessee, where a court would soon declare, in the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925, that evolution was a theory without as much credibility as the creation story in Genesis.
And without forced emancipation, slavery would probably have flourished in the southern states for another few decades past 1865 (as slavery persisted in Brazil until 1888). Slavery also could also have expanded into new territories before perhaps morphing into a more modern form of unfree agricultural work similar to forced labor systems found in Latin America through the twentieth century and even up to the present day.
Despite the longest of long odds against them in their own day, all three of these miraculous efforts found victory. And while we celebrate the achievements of the men and women who sent men to the moon and brought them back in the 1960s, who gained women the right to vote in 1920 and who freed millions of enslaved Americans in 1865, we can also take inspiration from their success.
David Roberts himself, writing six years later in another article published in January of 2019, makes a case for “conditional optimism on climate change,” with a formula for how the world can still save its own bacon in terms of doable emissions cuts made in time to avert the worst.
Many other climate leaders, from scientists James Hansen and Michael Mann to activists Al Gore, Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben to politicians Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and all the Democratic candidates for president, also seek victory on climate.
Yes, the Arctic is burning!
Nonetheless, there’s a big reason for hope.
Americans are getting more worked up about the climate than ever. And more of them are demanding clean energy.
A Yale survey released in December of 2018 found that “a large majority of registered voters (85%) – including 95% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans – support requiring utilities in their state to produce 100% of their electricity from clean, renewable sources by 2050. Nearly two in three conservative Republicans (64%) support this policy.”
Since we already have the technology we need to cut greenhouse pollution — clean energy, efficiency and conservation and low-tech approaches like planting trees — the only barrier to climate solutions is political.
And to win in politics, you need public opinion on your side.
The best reason for hope is that climate solutions today have better public support than abolishing slavery did in 1860, better public support than women’s suffrage did in 1915 and better public support than the moon program had in the 1960s.
They won. And we can win too.
— Erik Curren, author of The Solar Patriot