Apocalyptic Optimism Could Be the Antidote for Climate Fatalism

After 28 years of failed climate negotiations, scientifically informed emissions reductions set by governments have languished. Consequently, the pace at which the world is mitigating and adapting to the threat of climate change is far too slow to meet the challenge. Carbon concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise quickly, as the ice sheets melt and climate shocks—like droughts, floods, and heatwaves—increase in frequency and intensity.

Meanwhile, leadership of the climate negotiations at this late hour has been relegated to petrostates and former fossil fuel executives, which has helped make it impossible to agree upon, let alone implement, policies that could save us from the worst of the climate crisis. The writing is on the wall: the only way for things to get better is after they get much worse. Lives will be lost, and social conflict driven by climate migration and competition for increasingly scarce resources will proliferate. These look like insurmountable odds, and in many ways they are. But there is a slim chance that we can slow climate change enough to preserve our planet and minimize the catastrophe that is just around the corner.

I call myself an apocalyptic optimist. I believe we can save ourselves from the climate crisis that we have caused; I also believe it will only be possible with a mass mobilization driven by the pain and suffering of climate shocks around the world. As the social effects of climate shocks grow in both frequency and severity, I predict they will motivate an AnthroShift where personal and economic risk reaches a critical threshold that leads people to alter their behaviors and force governments and businesses to transition aggressively away from fossil fuels. This process requires halting all fossil fuel subsidies and stopping all efforts to extract more fossil fuels to be burned at home or exported for use abroad. Such AnthroShifts can open up windows of opportunity for innovative social change—but only, as I have discussed in detail elsewhere, if the risks are both severe and durable.

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The COVID-19 pandemic offers a recent example of an AnthroShift where risk durability was too low for the social changes to be sustained long term. In spring 2020, we changed our behaviors overnight to limit the transmission of the coronavirus and flatten the curve. We wore masks, we homeschooled our kids, we disinfected our groceries, we accepted not seeing family for holidays, and we even made our own bread. The social changes were so notable, in fact, that climate activist Greta Thunberg shrewdly observed early in the pandemic: “The coronavirus is a terrible event…. But it also shows one thing: That once we are in a crisis…we can act fast and change our habits and treat a crisis like a crisis.” However, as vaccines reduced the threat of the disease, the world opened back up. Our lives shifted back to normal (or at least close to it), and the window of opportunity for big social change closed.

The social responses to the pandemic showed us that the type of systemic changes needed to address the climate crisis are possible. But they also made clear that without a sustained shock that has tangible costs to people and property, those changes will be ephemeral and social actors will regress back to a business-as-usual trajectory. Imagine what would have happened if COVID-19 vaccines had not been developed or if the disease had mutated in a way that was even more deadly.

There are no vaccines or any other sort of silver bullets to save us from the climate crisis. To make matters worse, the level of shock needed to motivate sustained social change on the climate front is even higher than it is in a public-health context, given the many actors with vested interests in maintaining their access to the resources and power in our fossil-fuel-dependent economy.

Whatever the shock is, it will need to mobilize a mass movement against these entrenched fossil fuel interests. One question right now is whether such a movement can succeed without resorting to confrontational action. Studies have shown that nonviolent conflict can be successful in bringing about large-scale social transformations in a given region if a critical mass of 3.5% or more of the population participates in the activism. However, beyond responses to repressive and autocratic rule, examples of sustained activism at this level of engagement are scant. So it’s unrealistic to imagine that such a high percentage of the population would mobilize and engage in peaceful climate activism without some sort of large-scale risk as motivation.

It is possible that more confrontational activism could be more effective, and calls for such an approach are growing. To date, though, we are nowhere near the level of mass mobilization needed.

We can look to history to see what kinds of crises have triggered the level of drastic social changes needed to reach a tipping point that motivates an AnthroShift that would be sufficiently wide spread and long lasting to limit climate change: war, economic depression, and natural disaster. Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report suggests that world war and widescale economic depression are possible consequences of climate change. The most likely, though, is natural disaster.

The climate shocks to come have the potential to motivate an AnthroShift that reorients all the sectors of society to respond meaningfully to the climate crisis. Without them, the best we can hope for is incremental change that does not disrupt the current political and economic powers—and we’ve seen how effective that has been over the last 28 years. The climate disaster that is coming is inevitable at this point, but it may also be our only hope for meaningful change. In the meantime, the best way through the climate crisis is to build strong ties within our communities, create solidarity, and cultivate social and environmental resilience capable of supporting one another and exploiting the windows of opportunity when the apocalypse arrives.


Adapted from Saving Ourselves: From Climate Shocks to Climate Action by Dana R. Fisher Copyright (c) 2024 Columbia University Press Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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Dana R. Fisher