Pessimism is a Barrier to Action — And So Is Optimism

In an earlier post I noted that fatalism, an extreme form of pessimism, is a formidable barrier preventing people from working to mitigate climate change. If someone’s perception is that nothing can be done about climate change, then it is not worth trying to address the problem. If we count fatalists along with the climate deniers (who don’t even see a problem) and add the roughly 25 percent of people who are typically “free riders” (meaning they won’t act because they expect their goals to be achieved by others’ actions), it is clear that a large fraction of the public is simply not going to be active in combating climate change.

What is less obvious is that optimism can be a deterrent to action, too. For example, according to a recent article in The New Yorker the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen—co-creator of the first Web browser (Mosaic), and co-founder of Netscape—apparently believes that technology will solve any environmental crisis. Andreessen is not alone. There are many other proponents of hypothetical geoengineering “solutions” to climate change, which includes actions like injecting massive amounts of sulfates or other chemicals into the atmosphere to block sunlight and thus cool the earth.

Joe Nocera, a reporter for the New York Times, recently wrote a column called “Chemo for the Planet” in which he wrote, “maybe it’s time to at least consider using technology to keep climate change at bay.” Nocera’s column weighs the pros and the cons of geoengineering, including the unfortunate possibility that public support for a technological solution will reduce people’s incentive to address the primary cause of climate change, namely excess greenhouse gas emissions. Nonetheless, he concludes by saying, “if disaster is truly approaching, wouldn’t you rather be safe than sorry?”

But Nocera’s column does not address many dangers of geoengineering, including the prospect that once society commits to changing the ecology of the entire planet (while not fully understanding the additional problems that are likely to be caused), we may never be able to turn off the new global processes we start without making things even worse. In fairness, however, Nocera expresses a more balanced “techno-optimism” than geoengineering zealots.

But it is not only technologists or unbridled proponents of geoengineering who have an overly optimistic bias. Optimism is wired into most people’s brains. In 2011 one scholar (Robert Gifford) wrote:

Optimism generally is a healthy, desirable outlook that can produce useful personal outcomes …. However, optimism can be overdone, to the detriment of one’s well-being. Considerable evidence suggests that people discount personal risks, such as their likelihood of a heart attack (e.g., Weinstein, 1980), but also their environmental risks, for example from radon exposure (Weinstein, Klotz, & Sandman, 1988), other environmental hazards (Hatfield & Job, 2001) or, in fact, 22 hazards (Pahl, Harris, Todd, & Rutter, 2005). Thus, one can reasonably predict that optimistic bias applies to risks from climate change…

A recent popular book (The optimism bias: A tour of the irrationally positive brain) reviews the voluminous evidence, psychological and neurological, showing that in many circumstances people are unduly optimistic. It has been said that optimism is like red wine: a little bit is good for you, but drinking too much of it can be hazardous to your health. With respect to climate change, undue optimism can be hazardous to everyone’s health.