Climate ‘Realists’ Are Delusional

So-called “realistic” responses to climate change don't literally refer to what’s possible. They just refer to what maintains the political status quo.
April 17, 2019, 2:00pm
A wildfire.

The most common criticism against the Green New Deal—Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for infrastructure reform, aimed at combating climate change and creating jobs—is that it’s “unrealistic,” or a “pipe dream.” These same accusations are made against carbon taxes, pushes to keep fossil fuels in the ground, carbon neutrality, and practically every other measure proposed to limit the very worst effects of climate change. People making these accusations claim that the proposed changes are too extreme, too quick, too redistributive, too unfriendly to the free market.


Claiming that any radical and necessary plans to mitigate climate change, such as the Green New Deal, is “unrealistic” is disingenuous. The people who make these accusations are either delusional or actively disregarding the facts.

Claims that aggressive climate change policies are “unrealistic” are, almost always, made by centrists and conservatives. In fact, the notorious climate change-denial think tank Heartland Institute has a task force called “Climate Realists.” This plainly illustrates the fact that the language of what’s “realistic” isn’t politically neutral. The language of what’s “realistic” also doesn’t literally refer to what’s possible.

Rather, limiting the political possibilities to so-called "realistic" options favors whatever maintains the status quo. This rhetoric supports the interests of the powerful. Being “realistic” is operably synonymous with moderation, with slow change. With inaction.

In the context of climate change, the status quo, guided by the principle of “business as usual,” will kill people. If we don’t take action to drastically reduce our emissions and continue emitting greenhouse gases at our present rate, the Earth’s temperature will be 4.9 degrees Celsius hotter, on average, compared to pre-industrial averages by the end of the century. This will cause flooding in some places, desertification in others. It will cause unnatural disasters like hurricanes, typhoons, wildfires, and flash floods that destroy city infrastructure, destroy people’s homes and property. Many, many people will die. The stakes for action are literally life-or-death. There’s no moderate way of framing that.


One solution to climate change that's considered "realistic" by wealthy philanthropists is geoengineering—even though it’s not remotely physically realistic, and science-fiction schemas of geoengineering programs include a host of unwanted environmental side effects. Geoengineering is only "realistic" in that it’s compatible within the logic of global capitalism.

Geo-engineering refers to the projection of sunlight-reflecting aerosols into the atmosphere, combined with using carbon removal technologies designed to induce chemical reactions that absorb carbon from the air, among other still-theoretical technologies that proponents say would put humans more in control of the Earth’s atmosphere and climate.

The global-scale introduction of both carbon removal and aerosol projection are purely theoretical. Carbon removal has only been achieved on tiny, experimental scales—nowhere near the scale needed to actually lower net carbon emissions globally. Aerosol projection, meanwhile, presents an enormous risks to countries in the global south that are already the most vulnerable from the effects of climate change. On a large scale, aerosol projection could majorly affect rain patterns and agricultural output in regions that depend on this industry in order to survive.

It should come as no surprise that the biggest supporters of geoengineering come from a class of elites who are at the least risk from upcoming decades of climate change destruction. Multi-billionaire capitalist Bill Gates has been one of the biggest supporters of geoengineering, pouring millions of dollars in funding into institutions that pledge to figure out a way to make it work. Elite scholars from institutions like MIT, Princeton, and Harvard—the beneficiaries of funding from billionaires, foundations, and their own rich alumni—have argued that the risk of geo-engineering to these regions is overblown. This assertion that has been questioned or rejected by indigenous persons who would be affected geoengineering, and even other scientists in their discipline.


Geoengineering is not a “realistic” strategy. It requires billions and billions of dollars in funding for the fractional chance that it may reduce warming somewhat, perhaps at the cost of setting off unknown environmental feedbacks.

Why do we accept the language of what’s “realistic” at face value? It’s ridiculous to allow people to tell us that geoengineering and capitalism-friendly, moderate strategies are more “realistic” than, say, the Green New Deal or sweeping forms of policy.

The language of “realism” is weaponized pragmatism—but it isn’t actually pragmatism. Pragmatism would be acknowledging the threat for what it is, and addressing it appropriately.

Semiotician Roland Barthes once argued that myth is inherent in language, and that it helps to naturalize certain world views. In his book Mythologies, he wrote, “Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact.”

The notion of what’s “realistic” is a myth which neuters the fact that the present isn’t a neutral state. Right now, we are emitting gases that will stay in the atmosphere, continuing to warm the earth, for several years (in the case of methane) to centuries (in the case of carbon dioxide). When the present is actively harmful, and actively compromising the future, inaction is also actively harmful.

In her work Carceral Capitalism, Jackie Wang challenges her readers to “…use a mode of thinking that does not capitulate to the realism of the present.” Her call to action—which was in the context of prison abolition—is also crucial in the context of all resistance targeting capitalism and forces that enforce injustice along racial lines: When we accept the rhetoric that claims to be “realistic” and based in the “real world” at face value, we maintain the status quo through a self-fulfilling prophecy. We sentence ourself to band-aids and rule out the possibility of structural change. If you limit yourself to the tools and framework of the present, you’re destined to reinforce and reproduce the present.

Now, consider climate change. Almost without exception, those who are obsessed with making climate policy "realistic” have the least to lose from climate change. They are the people who falsely say that warming and more carbon dioxide will be good for the US economy, and completely disregard the massive loss of live expected among economically vulnerable people, and countries in the global south.

Disingenuous rhetoric aimed at “realistic” climate policy shouldn’t, and cannot be taken at face value, and it’s on us to see through this actively harmful facade.