WE’RE all going to die and no one is doing anything about it. The response from our political leaders in the face of impending climate catastrophe has amounted to little more than cursory acknowledgement. Never mind the deniers—the 2018 midterm elections ended up running a large fraction of the true climate deniers in Congress out of office as part of an overall shift towards Democratic control of the House. It’s the rest of the political system we have to worry about. Even the politicians who believe in anthropogenic climate change have not made it a priority—they put out gravely-worded statements on the latest UN report, joked about the President’s misreadings of it, and went back to their signature issues. Climate change, if left unopposed, will transform the totality of life on earth. And no one really seems to care.
It’s not that there’s not enough evidence to prove the seriousness of the threat of climate catastrophe—the science on the issue is settled. It’s also not that most people don’t believe, or that we don’t think climate change is a serious issue in the abstract—a small library’s worth of polls indicates that the majority of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, believe in climate change and support action against it. It’s not even that there aren’t solutions—from the Green New Deal to Professor Mark Jacobson’s plan to fully transition to renewables by 2030, comprehensive, scientifically rigorous plans to reshape the United States’ carbon consumption exist.
Yet even as all the signs point to a growing consciousness about climate change and the need to do something about it, we’re still slipping into inaction. The average American wants action to be taken on climate change. But the average American has also not done anything about it—a recent analysis of media coverage of climate issues over the last decade hypothesized that we’ve gotten “bored” with climate change. But the malaise surrounding the issue of climate is more than just simple boredom. We have become a nation of climate nihilists, resigned to inevitable doom even before it’s really inevitable.
TYPE I: The Young Nihilist
The rise of climate nihilism—that is, the assumption that climate catastrophe is inevitable and that any action taken against it would be fruitless—is a threat to the movement for climate justice. It’s also a threat perpetuated by those who will be most impacted by climate change. A 2017 poll conducted by Ipsos found that young people aged 16 to 34 were the most likely to feel that climate change was a hopeless fight. The generation of adults who will have to live the longest on an earth after climate change is also the generation least confident in its ability to do anything about that change. That lack of confidence causes us to actually become less able to address climate change—a shift that is not just immediately logically evident but also borne out by data. A 2018 study in the journal Climate Policy, based on a survey of 50,000 respondents from 48 different countries, found that climate fatalism had (perhaps unsurprisingly) “a negative effect on behavioural change and willingness to pay” for the costs required to combat climate change.
But beyond data analyses, the most visceral way to understand the climate nihilism that has infected millennials and zoomers is through jokes and memes, the cultural canaries in the coal mine of ideology. If you’ve spent any time on the more irony-poisoned, Gen-Z-ish portions of Twitter and Instagram, you’ve seen jokes invoking climate catastrophe as a fait accompli, from admonishments to “shoot your shot” before climate change kills us all to surrealist riffs on having to communicate with dolphins after the “entire world is flooded.” Climate change jokes are the contemporary version of jokes about airplane food or the DMV, blithe invocations of an unsatisfactory, unchangeable status quo.
Perhaps the most representative example of climate nihilist comedy comes in the person of Jaboukie Young-White, a 24-year-old comedian with a quarter million Twitter followers who serves as the Daily Show’s “Senior Youth Correspondent.” Young-White’s twitter account, @jaboukie, is littered with invocations of climate catastrophe as death-and-taxes inevitability—the reason to not pay back your student loans, to send that risky text, to rejoice in the end of mowing lawns. They’re jokes, of course, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t reflective of a shift in how we think about climate change. They turn climate justice into just another one of the tragic, valiant, and hopeless fights that the left of our generation has taken on. The ruin wrought by climate change goes from a geopolitical problem that must be solved to an essential evil of the human condition, as indelible as capitalist greed or white-supremacist violence.
You can’t blame our generations’ cohort of climate nihilists for not having the most hopeful attitude toward the fate of life on our planet. Millennial and Gen-Z climate nihilists did not invent their position for the sake of cheap jokes or self-pitying glory. They’ve lived their whole conscious lives in a world where climate change was a known threat—the first reports on the impact of anthropogenic emissions on global climate date back to the early 1980s—yet they’ve witnessed only the most perfunctory action against it, a suite of more subtly nihilistic responses in themselves. The climate nihilists of the younger generations are the most obvious variety of climate fatalist, but they certainly are neither the only type, nor the most dangerous.
TYPE II: The Cynic
If the first type of climate nihilist is most easily found on the discontented outskirts of the discourse, in the countercultural loci of weird Twitter and lefty Reddit, the second variety makes its home on Capitol Hill. And where the young climate nihilist is governed at their core by a sort of broken idealism, the second, older variety is more like the hand doing the breaking.
The second variety of climate nihilists—let’s call them “climate cynics”—tend to be older, liberal politicians. They would not be so uncouth as to deny the hypothetical threat of climate change. They’ll issue statements all day long on how serious that threat is—gravely worded but policy-light pronouncements befitting more nebulous issues like the crisis in political civility or the deficit rather than an existential, immediate threat. Even when a politician makes a statement that communicates a clear understanding of the threat of climate catastrophe, as when Nancy Pelosi declared it the “the existential threat of our time” and made plans to revive a select committee on the Climate Crisis, actions rarely live up to words. Less than a month later, Pelosi laughed off the Green New Deal plans championed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a “green dream.” That’s how climate cynics work. To them, climate change is at best a secondary concern and at worst an annoyance, a far-off threat brought up by the young or hippy-ish to get in the real issues.
And this position has a cruel logic behind it. It’s not that climate change isn’t a threat in the abstract—it’s that it doesn’t threaten them personally. They see the risk of climate catastrophe upon us as a theoretical concern— they are too wealthy and too old to feel the shock in any human way. If the consequences of 2 ºC of warming won’t be felt until 2050, and you’re a 60-70-something member of the centrist intelligentsia living comfortably in a pre-apocalyptic world, why would you make more than the barest sacrifice required to reverse the course of climate change?
So from these climate cynics, we get nothing but ineffectual “solutions” to climate catastrophe: Eat less meat! Replace your lightbulbs! Bike to work! The solutions posed by climate cynics are worse than useless; they’re steps in the entirely wrong direction. By situating resistance to climate catastrophe in individual acts, climate cynics get to look like they’re contributing to the cause through lifestyle changes—even as the industries and corporations for whom they’ve always worked continue to benefit from the status quo.
TYPE III, or the Type that Doesn’t Fit: The Profiteer
This individualized, de-fanged form of climate resistance leaves a vacuum of institutional inaction. And into the vacuum crawls the third type of climate “nihilist”: the Climate Profiteer. If the young nihilists resign themselves to catastrophe, and the cynics realize they can avoid the consequences of that catastrophe, the third looks to a future of catastrophe and sees only personal gain. For the profiteers, climate change’s perceived inevitability is an excuse to increase consumption, not to attempt to restrain it—if we’re all going to die, why change anything?
The climate profiteer is in a class apart from the other two varieties of climate nihilists in that profiteers don’t necessarily believe that catastrophe is inevitable. Yet they aren’t climate deniers either—in statement or in policy, they’re acting as if some change is going to occur. They lie somewhere in the middle, seeing some change as an inevitability, but more an opportunity than a catastrophe. If the climate fatalists of the young left hold that the only response to climate change is radical action, and the climate cynics of the center advocate for slight adjustments, the instinct of the climate profiteer is the further entrenchment of the status quo. To them, climate change is inevitable, but not a threat—it’s nothing more than a change of weather.
This attitude is exemplified in the conduct of the Trump administration. While President Trump himself has defaulted to a climate denier’s handbook of excuses, from old canards like pointing out extreme winter weather conditions to newer twists like blaming the whole thing on a Chinese conspiracy, his administration has been more pragmatic. Unlike the Bush administration, the Trump administration cannot, in practice, just ignore climate science as “not settled”—that ship has sailed. But the core interest groups informing Republican climate policy have remained the same: the oil industry, the auto industry, and their hangers-on. Their industries do not exist without the continued and unfettered extraction of fossil fuels from the earth, and to them, any attempt to rein in their appetites is a bellwether of their fall.
Consider the Trump administration’s reaction to the Obama administration’s proposed fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. Announced in 2011, Obama’s gradualist approach would have increased miles-per-gallon standards to 54.5 mpg by 2025. Last July, Trump froze those standards, locking them in at the level set for 2021 for the next six years. When asked about this decision, the EPA gave two seemingly contradictory answers. First, they claimed the Obama-era standards were “too high,” but months later found that the standards did not go far enough. According to administration, fuel standards alone couldn’t solve climate change—that is, they did not achieve a degree of societal change that would do anything. In the Administration’s own words, that change is not “currently technologically feasible or economically practicable,” a point always just beyond the horizon.
It is in that contradiction that climate profiteers make their living. They seek to tear down existing, reformist measures to act against climate change, justifying their abandonment by saying that those half measures alone would not do enough to stop catastrophe. The city will already burn, so let them fiddle in peace. And the tragedy is that, in a sense, they’re right: the gradualist policies of the current political status quo won’t transform society or reverse a century-long tide of climate change—by their very design, they can’t. And so climate profiteers can claim that they’re just putting off action until their solutions are “technologically feasible” even as technological solutions arise. So that gulf between the policy of climate cynics and the reality of impending catastrophe allows profiteers to run rampant, laying the groundwork for a post-crisis world in their image.
And what does that world look like? We do not have to speculate too far afield—in many parts of the world, the climate profiteers are here already. It looks like an Amazon rainforest made “open for business” by Jair Bolsonaro, endangering the lives of the indigenous peoples who make their homes there but also the fate of 10% of the earth’s carbon absorption capacity. It looks like Dhaka, where thousands upon thousands have pushed an already dense city to its brink as they attempt to flee flooding homes and rising tides elsewhere in Bangladesh. It looks like America, where Andrew Carnegie’s Pinkertons have rebranded as a firm that will provide private “security” forces to the well-off in the case of climate catastrophe.
The cycle is clear: the complacency of well-meaning, market-focused liberals who see climate change as a gradual issue engenders a deep sense of hopelessness in the young, leftist activists who should be agitating for climate action. And into that vacuum comes rushing a set of climate profiteers, who see the shock of climate catastrophe as nothing more than a business opportunity.
One Weird Trick To Break from the Vicious Cycle
What is to be done? The solution is just as clear: the Green New Deal. Which is to say, the Green New Deal as both a project and a concept. The Green New Deal as a project is simple: a complete reinvention of the American energy economy with the goal of replacing fossil fuels with green, sustainable energy, coupled with additional efforts to climate-proof the country, from promoting sustainable agriculture to improving mass transit. It’s an ambitious goal—based on the plan currently put forward by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jeff Merkley, it would cost tens of trillions of dollars and take years to fully implement. If it became federal policy, it would lead to a reworking of American society in ways that may be impossible to predict.
But even beyond its practical implications, the Green New Deal is necessary as a rhetorical and philosophical rallying cry for a society subsumed by the different varieties of climate nihilism. It’s a bold, comprehensive movement that would fight the creeping dread of climate catastrophe in the long term while still providing short-term policy boons, like infrastructure fixes, that even the most cynical boomer could support. It makes the argument that good climate policy is good policy in general, that the ultimate reason we want to save the earth is for the same reason we want to make any change in our society: for the sake of the people. It turns the battle against climate catastrophe into both a heroic, grand thing and a feasible list of things that must be done.
It’s an antidote to nihilism at its core—and you can tell from the people who have rallied against it. From old-guard senators pulling rank and naysaying child activists to the right-wing media taking potshots at gaffes, the culprits behind our society’s entrenched climate nihilism have risen up against the Green New Deal. And despite it all, the policy remains remarkably popular with Americans—Data For Progress, a left-wing think tank, found twelve percent net approval for the plan as recently as March. That, on its own, is a sign of hope in a sea of climate nihilism. But to kill the beast we cannot simply console ourselves that we want something to be done—we must do it. Anything less, and we may as well just let the world burn.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.