The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a big report on Monday. Printed out, it’s as thick as Stephen King’s It, so I doubt you’ve read the whole thing. But you’ve probably at least seen some headlines culled from its findings—mostly about how hard it’s going to be to keep climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That in turn has led a lot of people to crack jokes about the apocalypse, which is perfectly understandable, and also to write that we’ll never get out of this mess and our species is going to be wiped out, which is totally inexcusable.
Anecdotally, knee-jerk bleakness appears to be the hot new trend in climate non-activism. "We've lost. Bring me the takes about how we ought to live our remaining years,” someone told me Monday on Twitter. Earlier this year, 86-year-old town-planning pioneer Mayer Hillman—a cycling activist who is a sort of elder statesman of British public transportation planning—told the Guardian that climate action is futile and his life's work was essentially pointless. "With doom ahead, making a case for cycling as the primary mode of transport is almost irrelevant," he said.
This type of edgelord tends to be on the left politically, but not always. Political scientist and alt-right darling Charles Murray tweeted on Wednesday that "There's not a chance for an effective reduction of global emissions," and solving the problem is "not politically possible. Period."
Have you seen the movie Deep Blue Sea? If you don’t mind a big spoiler, one scene in it makes a great metaphor for climate change from the edgelord perspective. Imagine Samuel L. Jackson in this scene is someone like me—an advocate for collective action to mitigate climate change. And meanwhile the shark is climate change itself.
Pretty cool, right? I can jabber all I want about survival, but that shark is just going to eat me, so I might as well take a refreshing swim before the inevitable happens.
This brand of coolness must be very fun online, because it’s showing up a lot these days. If you express a modicum of can-do spirit, or tweet about taking action to "stop" climate change, an edgelord will see it as their job to throw cold water on your enthusiasm, just as a denier will see it as their job to say climate science is a scam made up by China and George Soros.
The intellectual core of the argument behind this brand of edgelordism, as far as I can tell, comes from a 2014 Vox article by Ezra Klein about how it’s too late to act in time to do anything about climate change. But Klein himself isn’t quite an edgelord. He writes accurately about the topic, and finishes by noting that, “It's possible that we can slowly, painfully pull ourselves towards a manageable failure, but I'm not willing to call that optimism.” Manageable failure might be cause for more optimism than Klein thinks, and I'll come back to why in a minute.
The other big brain of this movement is named Roy Scranton, author of 2015’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, and this year's We're Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change. In book form, Scranton’s writing takes the form of beautifully written and often very personal literary essays. In Doomed, Scranton includes long, lugubrious word pictures in which he challenges his reader to “imagine nine months in a FEMA trailer" and "imagine your children growing up never knowing satiety, never knowing comfort, never knowing snow."
Scranton also refuses to be among the pathetic strivers trying to do anything about it because, he writes, “I’m committed to this world, the world I live in, in all its stupidity and doom, because this world is the one everyone else lives in too; my colleagues and students, my friends and family, my partner and daughter.”
But Scranton the thoughtful essayist melts away when the guy warms up his posting fingers and logs onto Twitter dot com:
Not that Scranton doesn’t already know this (his books get the raw facts right as far as I can tell), but “triage” is exactly what climate activism already is. Climate change has happened. As noted in the IPCC report, our planet is already about 1 degree Celsius hotter than it was before the Industrial Revolution, and so far civilization is, well, not exactly copacetic, but more or less hanging in there. That's about to start getting less and less true, but no one exactly knows how much less.
In other words, people like me with our “hope” and our desire for our species to “not go extinct” aren’t idiotically clinging to the delusion that maybe the big bad thing won’t happen. We’re trying not to let the big bad thing that is happening get infinitely worse.
Yes, this latest report comes off as more pessimistic than usual for the IPCC because it’s a slight departure from the panel’s usual work. It’s not an overall assessment but an overt attempt to spur the world into more aggressive action. The report's goal of 1.5 degrees, for those keeping score, is more ambitious than the standard line from the UN, which is basically, “Let's not go past 2 degrees. Or, if we want extra credit and a gold star, 1.5 degrees.” This report, on the other hand, looks at that whole 1.5 degree thing and says, “Yeah, that’s not looking so good at the rate we’re going.”
David Roberts of Vox, who is rarely anything other than brilliant about this issue, wrote a detailed explanation of the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming early this year. The big takeaway is that 1.5 degrees would be bad, but less bad than 2 degrees. But way back in 2012, Roberts gave a very short, easy-to-grasp speech about these temperatures, and the important takeaway is things might be much worse than 1.5 or 2 degrees.
This is where Klein's concept of manageable failure comes in. As Roberts points out, some models have suggested the average temperature could get as high as 12 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2300. At that point, half the land on Earth would be so extremely oven-hot that “if you go outside you die of hotness,” as Roberts puts it. That outcome is a lot worse than "just" having many coastal cities flood thanks to sea level rise.
So let’s not delude ourselves. The situation is very bad, but climate change will be better or worse based on our choices now. Apathy and cynicism may feel like a very mentally healthy form of acceptance of our collective fate—but these attitudes are actually just abdication of responsibility. What's more, antagonizing people for trying to build a movement for a cause you know damn well is worthwhile is an exercise in a sort of supervillain-esque misanthropy which demands that your entire species join you in suicide.
Scranton writes in Doomed that the tradeoffs of living like an environmentalist aren't worth it. "No car? No job. No flying? No Thanksgiving with the family." But I've got great news: There's no environmentalist heaven to try and get into. I'm certainly not keeping score of Scranton's eco sins, and I don't give a shit how many T-bones he eats. More important than anyone's individual choices are the oil reserves that need to be permanently kept in the ground, the airports that need to not grow, and the cargo ships that need to not be added to fleets—all just to keep climate change at hell level rather than mega-super hell.
Thanks to activists, some oil projects are being slowed, and some airports are failing to expand. It's not enough, but it's a start. The IPCC report says in order to hit the (admittedly unlikely) 1.5 degree mark, we have to transform the global economy in a little over a decade, and master the currently shaky science of carbon capture in the near term. It's a very tall order, and sure, we have a good chance of falling short. But not trying would be the worst failure of all.
I could make the case that there's cause for optimism, but I won't. There's just work to do, regardless of what we think it will accomplish. Optimism and pessimism are both irrational, and based on assumptions that you can predict anything about the future. Climate activists aren't all optimists. We know things are bad and getting worse, but we also know we don't know everything—good and bad—that's going to happen in the next couple decades. God knows a lot about the present seemed unimaginable a few years ago. So seemingly impossible things do happen.
In that case, to quote Scranton's book once more, "Imagine a happy ending." Because you might as well.
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Update 10/12: An earlier version of this article stated that the IPCC report suggested possible temperature fluctuations between 3.6 and 2.7 degrees celsius. While those numbers are possible, the report did not suggest them. We regret the error.