Opinion: On the climate crisis, it’s time to lean into pessimism

A digital billboard above a roadway displays 109 degrees
A digital billboard displays the temperature amid another heat wave this year in Phoenix.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

The state of the environment in California — as in the U.S. — is grim this summer. A record-breaking heat wave. The first tropical storm recorded in 84 years in the state. Another dangerous wildfire season ahead. There’s no end to the bad news. What’s the best way to cope with our collective climate anxiety?

Some might say that you should keep a positive outlook. In fact, if you’ve read about the environment lately, you’ve surely heard arguments in favor of “climate optimism,” the view that humanity will figure out how to fix the damage we’ve done before we reach social and biological collapse, often characterized as “climate doomism.”

There are two motivations behind this kind of positivity. The first is a genuine belief that things are going to work out. The other is a practical matter — the idea that a positive attitude is the best motivator for people to devote their time and resources to climate solutions. Or, perhaps more to the point, that climate doomism is as dangerous to the movement as climate denial. As Pilita Clark, a columnist in the Financial Times, recently wrote, “doomist thinking is dangerous because it breeds paralysis and disengagement, which is precisely what the forces of climate inaction seek.”


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But given the extreme climate events we’re seeing month after month, I can’t bring myself to embrace climate optimism. I consider myself a realist, and realistically there’s very little reason to believe that everything is going to be OK.

Disastrous effects of environmental destruction are piling up far faster than anything we’re doing to counter it. Focusing on doom is paralyzing, but there are real consequences to promoting a false sense of optimism. If people believe that life on this planet will continue to be comfortable, they’ll be less likely to make meaningful changes in their lives — whether in having lots of kids, consuming industrially farmed meat or driving SUVs. Of course, most people would rather not think about the climate catastrophe, but the only way we can avoid catastrophe is to stop clinging to the best-case scenario.

“Scaring people into action doesn’t work,”writes Hannah Ritchie, an environmental researcher at Oxford, in her argument about finding the balance between climate doom and complacent optimism. She criticizes sharing exaggerated doomsday scenarios as a tactic to get people to care — but the thing is, we don’t need to stretch the truth to express how dire the situation already is.

This year is on track to be the hottest on record, and climate scientists like Kim Cobb of Brown University warn that “in another decade, this will be viewed as a relatively cool year, most likely.” Communicating the fact that things are bad and getting worse isn’t fearmongering, it’s just honest. There is legitimate reason to be afraid, and if we can’t admit that, we won’t be able to adequately address the crisis.

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It’s not impossible to be realistic, even pessimistic, and take action at the same time. For example, it’s far from certain that cell-cultivated meat — meat grown from cells in a lab rather than slaughtered animals — will ever hit the mass market. In fact, there’s plenty of reason to believe that cell-cultivated meat will ultimately fail. Still, this innovation is worth pursuing, even though the technology required to bring these new meats to scale faces serious obstacles.

If we can figure out how to do this, making meat in breweries could eliminate the need for industrial animal agriculture and the detrimental effects that has on theenvironment. We can be realistic about the obstacles — and even the likelihood of failure — without prematurely writing off this effort.


There’s a parallel here to my work with the Reducetarian Foundation, an organization focused on encouraging people to reduce their consumption of animal products and providing them with ways to do so. I don’t expect our culture to end the horrendous industrialized animal agriculture that dominates our food system. But I also believe that it’s our moral responsibility to try. I may be a pessimist, but I’m not a doomer. The difference? Hope. And even a slim hope is enough to justify doing everything we can.

I get the appeal of embracing optimism. It makes everything so much easier. Pessimism is exhausting — and so is action, but we have no choice. In combating the climate crisis, we don’t need naive faith that we’ll succeed — we need enough fear, hope and compassion to kick things into gear.

Brian Kateman is co-founder of the Reducetarian Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing societal consumption of animal products. His latest book and documentary is “Meat Me Halfway.”