Is climate change the biggest threat to humanity? Many people would say so. Young people in particular feel hopeless. A recent survey asked 10,000 16- to 25-year-olds in 10 countries about their attitudes about climate change. The results were damning. More than half said “humanity was doomed”; three-quarters said the future was frightening; 55 percent said they would have less opportunities than their parents; 52 percent said family security would be threatened; and 39 percent were hesitant to have children as a result. These attitudes were consistent across countries rich and poor, big and small: from the United States and the United Kingdom to Brazil, the Philippines, India, and Nigeria.
It’s totally legitimate that young people feel this way. I’ve been there. Today, much of my work focuses on researching, writing, and thinking about climate change. But it’s a field I very nearly walked away from. Fresh out of university with a degree in environmental science and climate change, it was hard to see that I could contribute anything at all. I flipped back and forth between anger and hopelessness. Any effort seemed futile, and I nearly quit. Thankfully my perspective shifted. I’m glad it did. Not only did I continue working on climate, I’m also sure that my work has had many times the positive impact it would have if I’d been stuck in my previous mindset. And that’s why I’m convinced that if we’re to make progress on climate, we need to lift this cloak of pessimism.
Let’s be clear: Climate change is one of the biggest problems we face. It comes with many risks—some certain, some uncertain—and we’re not moving anywhere near fast enough to reduce emissions. But there seems to have been a breakdown in communication of what our future entails. None of the climate scientists I know and trust—who surely know the risks better than almost anyone—are resigned to a future of oblivion. Most of them have children. In fact, they often have several. Young ones, too. Now, having kids is no automatic qualification for rational decision-making. But it signals that those who spend day after day studying climate change are optimistic that their children will have a life worth living.
That’s why I find it alarming that most young people today feel like they do not have a future. Many might also forgo having children as a result. This mentality doesn’t just show up in survey data, it also tallies with my personal experience. I’m in my twenties and hear it from friends all the time. The dilemma about whether to bring kids into a world on the path to annihilation is a real one.
One of the most recent and alarming examples of this doomsday mindset came from a group of young activists before the German elections. The group, who call themselves the Last Generation, went on hunger strike for almost a month. Several ended up in hospital. One told his parents and friends that they might never see him again. Another told a journalist that the hunger was “nothing compared to what we can expect when the climate crisis unleashes a famine here in Europe in 20 years.” I couldn’t work out where this claim was coming from. Not from scientists. No credible ones have made this claim. Climate change will affect agriculture. In some regions—particularly across some of the world’s poorest countries—this is a major cause for concern. It’s why I spend so much of my time working on it. But famine across temperate Europe? Within 20 years?
There are a couple of ways I think this doomsday scenario has become commonplace. First, you don’t need to look far to find people with large platforms promoting these messages. Take Roger Hallam, the founder of Extinction Rebellion. In one of his most recent videos—titled “Advice to Young People as They Face Annihilation”—he claims we must get emissions to zero within months, otherwise humanity will be wiped out. He claims that this annihilation is now locked in. The worst thing about this message is that, rather than inspiring action, it resigns us to the falsehood that we are already too late. There is now nothing we can do. It’s easy to dismiss Hallam as an extreme outlier, but he is also the founder of one of the world’s largest environmental movements. A movement whose name is hinged on this premise that we’re heading for a total wipeout. This is out of line with the science, and scientists should call this out more prominently.
Second is a miscommunication of targets and thresholds. The 1.5 degrees Celsius target was written into the Paris Agreement in acknowledgement that 2 degrees Celsius of warming would risk the livelihoods of some communities—particularly low-lying island states. It was a call for greater ambition. But the likelihood that we would meet this 1.5 degrees C target was as slim then as it is now. Feasible in the models, but in reality it’s gone. The problem is that many now view 1.5 degrees C as a tipping point threshold. Once we hit it, the game is up. It’s therefore not surprising—given that we will most likely pass 1.5 degrees C in the next few decades—that many people believe we’re too late.
Third, the pace of almost-real-time updates means we are bombarded with news of the latest disaster. These stories matter, but they don’t give us an accurate perspective on how the frequency and consequences of disasters are changing overall. In fact, they give us a false perspective. The data tells us a different story: Death rates from disasters have fallen a lot over the past century. This isn’t because climate change has no impact on the severity of disasters. We’re just much more resilient to them. We have better technologies to predict storms, wildfires, and floods; infrastructure to protect ourselves; and networks to cooperate and recover when a disaster does strike. Follow the news and we quickly come to the opposite conclusion: That more people are dying from disasters than ever before. Some media outlets use the frequency of articles as a marker of progress. The Guardian publishes a new climate article every three hours. At that pace, most of these articles are reports on the latest catastrophe. It’s an anxiety-inducing feed.
Combine these messages with the slow and inadequate action on climate so far, and it's not surprising that so many feel that humanity is doomed. But this pessimism is a problem for several reasons. First, it comes at the cost of mental health. We shouldn’t underplay the toll that this can take. I’ve been there: feeling like you are screaming into the void and no one is listening. It’s why I find it shocking that it’s become acceptable to tell kids that they will die from climate change. Not only is it a terrible thing to tell our children, it’s also not true for most of them.
Second, doomsday scenarios play into the hands of climate skeptics. When the world doesn’t end in 10 years, the whole field of climate science takes a hit. People assume this message came from scientists—which it didn’t—and their reputation becomes tarnished. The public loses trust in them. This is perfect for those who want to stop us from taking action.
Finally, I am skeptical that this mentality is effective in driving change. It often makes us feel like any effort is futile. That we’re already out of time. Anger can, for short periods of time, be useful in kickstarting action. But it sometimes comes at the cost of clear thinking on how we actually make progress. And once anger transitions into hopelessness, we struggle to achieve much at all. Hopelessness is no better than denial.
Are there any signs that we should be optimistic about climate change? I won’t sugarcoat it and say that we’re anywhere close to our targets. We’re not. We’re moving far too slow. But things are now moving—and at an increasing pace. Politicians might be slow, but technological change is not. Coal is effectively dead in many countries. Renewable prices are falling rapidly. The price of solar fell by 89 percent in the past decade. Onshore wind fell by 70 percent. They’re now cheaper than coal and gas. To make this transition we will need lots of energy storage. There’s good news there too: The price of batteries has fallen by 97 percent in the past 30 years. In the 1990s, a Tesla car battery would have cost you more than half a million pounds. Today it’s around $13,000. Even those who don’t care about climate change will make these changes, because it makes economic sense to do so.
The fact that politicians act so slowly, and that low-carbon technologies have been up against lobbying fossil fuel giants, might make us pessimistic. But it actually makes me optimistic. If we can achieve this progress without real political or financial support, think how quickly it could change with it. Rather than trying to power through a headwind, we now have the wind at our backs.
We need a new message for climate change. One that drives action through optimism that things can be better. Or, based on the signs that things are getting better, we might rebrand this optimism as realism. This would be much more effective at driving real change, and would save a lot of mental strife in the process. It’s time to stop telling our children that they’re going to die from climate change. It’s not only cruel, it might actually make it more likely to come true.