How Optimism and Pessimism Shape Our Views on Climate Policy—Part I

August 12th, 2008 <-- by Paul Higgins -->

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.

Figure 1. Possible Perspectives Figure 1. Outlook Matrix

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?

6 Responses to “How Optimism and Pessimism Shape Our Views on Climate Policy—Part I”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I really like what you have written here. I would love to see you write about a ‘realist’ perspective that portrays a happy medium and a common ground that accommodates a larger team. Not necessarily a ‘realist’ in the sense of a justified pessimist, but a realist that sees what kind of progress (if any) has been made in recent years, and what kind of reasonable progress can be made within the next year or decade.

  2. RIC Says:

    I am inclined to agree with “Anonymous”, however, realism must include both the Optimistic and Pessimistic views to be correctly understood.

    Attitudes and agendas are major players in the control issues of Big Business and Governments.

    Realism understands that optimism says, we have the knowledge, technology and the finances to utilize nearly all of the renewable and alternative power sources and have had much of it for many years.

    Realism also understands that pessimism says, this knowledge, technology and finances are currently highly constrained by circumstances of disinformation, political posturing, public control mechanisms and greed in both the government and private sector.

  3. Jennifer Says:

    I am indeed a true pessimist, as I believe that greenhouse gas emissions pose a very serious threat to all of our planet, and also, that I don’t believe that we are willing to do what is absolutely necessary in order to change the situation we are now in. The most important thing that we need to do is to recognize and deal with the main cause of our present ecological crisis: human overpopulation, and our foolish belief that all of the natural world exists soley for our species to exploit and use up. We have polluted the atmosphere with soot and greenhouse gases, already causing major shifts in climate and rainfall patterns leading to drought and desertification. We are rapidly destroying the tropical rain forests and other sensitive wilderness areas. Huge dead zones are forming in the world’s oceans due to fertilizer and other chemical pollutants flowing through our rivers. We have driven 1,000s of species of plants and animals into extinction, and 100s more are lost every day. We now sit precariously close to the tipping point of catastrophic global warming, which could conceivably render this entire planet inhospitable to life as we know it. And all this could happen in as few as 25 years. Economic collapse and massive loss of all life, as well as human, will soon follow. We humans are as a cancer on this earth, and until we recognize and deal with this by controlling our population – and soon – all our other efforts to save this planet will only delay – for a very short time – the inevitable.
    However, I do not see any likely hood that this is going to occur any time soon, as religion and politics are proving to be very hostile to notions of population and birth control.

  4. Paul Higgins Says:

    These are three interesting and insightful responses. Many thanks.

    I see a realistic view independently of optimism and pessimism. Evidence, which underlies a realistic perspective, can converge to either the optimistic or pessimistic perspectives or, perhaps most likely, end up somewhere between the two.

    Incidentally, I’m probably closest to group II, which I believe most accurately reflects our scientific understanding (which addresses issue 1) and our past examples of human ingenuity in the face of societal challenges (which addresses issue 2). This is probably fairly clear in my follow up post.

    Speaking of which, I’ll be interested to hear how you each react to part II. I hope you’ll share your thoughts.

  5. Chris H. Says:

    Rather than be an optimist or pessimist perhaps a realist is better. We need action. Now. But what? I recommend to you all the discussions on

  6. Matthew Leitch Says:

    Firstly, I’m not sure how helpful it is to attribute views on climate change to the personality of the person holding their views.

    Secondly, there is more to it than just ‘optimist – pessimist’. There is also how confidence we are in our expectations of the future. This may sound a bit abstract but it’s fundamental, particularly with something big and uncertain.

    I wrote about it in an article called “Optimism, pessimism, and open-minded realism” at

    The ability to get on with actions even while the truth is uncertain is very important. I don’t discuss that in the article, but obviously it is important for climate policy.

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