Against Catastrophism

What happens when progressives stop believing in progress?

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address rightly remains famed for its recognition that, even at the depths of the Great Depression, Americans had “nothing to fear but fear itself.” In our public consciousness, however, we tend to boil the speech’s message down to this single line and fail to grasp Roosevelt’s underlying point. He didn’t indulge in happy talk or mindless boosterism; indeed, FDR argued that “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.” But he knew that doomsaying – “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” – only “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” This sense of what Roosevelt would later call “courage and realism” pervaded his rhetoric during the Second World War as well, countering pessimism and defeatism with a rational belief in eventual Allied victory based “on the latest and best information.”

In contrast to Roosevelt’s practical optimism in the face of the nation’s worst economic crisis and the most destructive war in human history, today’s progressives embrace a fatalistic catastrophism that paralyzes needed action and needlessly polarizes our politics. It’s a deep-seated pessimism that can be seen in issues varying from information technology to racial equality, but it’s nowhere more apparent than in the way progressives talk about climate change. But progressive defeatism often fails to persuade others to support constructive policies and leaves the not-unreasonable impression that many progressives wish to use climate policy as way to advance other, largely unrelated ideological agendas.

That’s clear from the rhetoric employed by activists, journalists, and entrepreneurial politicians to discuss climate change. For many progressives, the fight against climate change has become a quasi-religious crusade – one complete with its own apocalypse. Take Greta Thunberg, the Scandinavian teenage activist who famously wagged her finger at international dignitaries assembled for the United Nations General Assembly and claimed that they had stolen her dreams and her childhood by refusing to acknowledge the impending cataclysm in the way she believes they should. Or the Sunrise Movement that gave then-candidate Joe Biden an “F” grade on his climate change proposals for failing to use sufficiently catastrophic language when talking about the issue.

Then there are well-intentioned journalists who amplify the worst of worst-case scenarios. Writers like David Wallace-Wells speak of an “uninhabitable Earth,” while Elizabeth Kolbert posits a “sixth extinction” due to human-caused climate change – but even otherwise sympathetic climate scientists disagree with these apocalyptic assertions. Similarly, entrepreneurial politicians like Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) claim that humanity has just over a decade tochange its ways or “the world is going to end.” Here again, climate scientists who share a sense of urgency about the underlying problem dispute the catastrophic spin given their findings by political figures: climate change is already here, they say, but “even under a business-as-usual scenario, the world isn't going to end in exactly twelve years.” 

To his credit, President Biden doesn’t take his own talk about climate change to such cataclysmic extremes. While he’s spoken of a “climate crisis” that amounts to an “existential threat,” Biden’s rhetoric mostly casts climate change as a practical problem to be solved or at least managed – not an eschatological emergency. Most importantly, he emphasizes the opportunities that tackling climate change will create: “millions of good-paying union jobs” to build new clean-energy infrastructure and make existing infrastructure more resilient. Still, catastrophism dominates progressive politics, and as on other issues Biden rhetorically gestures toward the apocalyptic mindset that animates the most vocal climate activists.

But catastrophism comes with real costs, starting with the fact that it paralyzes action rather than catalyzes it. Existential dread becomes a substitute for honesty and realism about a very serious problem, leading progressives to ignore or downplay obvious policy solutions like nuclear and geothermal power, carbon capture and removal, and building out electric vehicle infrastructure in order to make quixotic demands for radical remaking of societies the world over – or raise implausible geoengineering schemes like dimming the sunWhat’s more, the broad center-left forgoes opportunities to build the durable political coalitions around research and development funding and public infrastructure investment that would make a real dent against climate change. 

Above all else, though, catastrophism cultivates hopelessness – a sense that the problem of climate change itself requires the sweeping transformation of society as we know it, and therefore it remains for all intents and purposes intractable and unsolvable. Unlike FDR’s practical optimism in the face of depression and global war, progressive pessimism about climate change – and many other difficult problems, for that matter – stymies needed efforts to convert retreat and stalemate into advance. As a result, America finds itself unable to take the effective action necessary for progress in the fight against climate change – even though we have much of the requisite technology to do so. It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when progressives stop believing in progress.

For their part, though, liberal patriots ought to reject incapacitating catastrophism in favor of a rational faith in our own ability to tackle the difficult problems we face as a nation. This sort of realistic self-confidence doesn’t amount to blind optimism but is instead grounded in an accurate assessment of our present situation and its possibilities. Indeed, we best serve our interest in solving our pressing problems like climate change by looking at the world through clear lenses, not rose-colored glasses or blinders of despair. As FDR understood in the midst of our darkest days, we cannot address our national challenges in any real way if we allow defeatism to cloud our collective judgment. Any liberal patriotism worthy of the name has got to be optimistic in this practical sense.

This way of thinking has real consequences when it comes to the fight against climate change. It calls for direct and vigorous action to include substantial investments in clean energy research, development, and deployment as well as more resilient and climate-friendly infrastructure. That encompasses a favorable attitude toward nuclear power, including research into advanced nuclear reactor technology and the construction of new nuclear power plants that can generate electricity sans carbon emissions.

Rhetorically, liberal patriots should focus almost exclusively on the unique opportunity for national development and renewal that climate change presents – not as one of an endlessly proliferating crises or an existential threat, but a chance to lead the world in confronting a pressing challenge while developing new technologies and creating millions of new jobs at home. Climate change should be seen as a challenge to be overcome and a problem to be solved, one that, as President John F. Kennedy put it with regard to space exploration, “will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills” as a nation.

Realistic optimism of the sort offered by FDR, JFK, and other liberal patriots remains the only way to make real progress in the campaign against climate change – and so many other seemingly intractable domestic and foreign policy issues. Humanity often finds it too easy to imagine how events might turn out for the worst, leaving us susceptible to catastrophism and the paralysis that comes along in its wake. But if we abandon apocalyptic defeatism and look at matters with clear heads and through unclouded lenses, we’ll be able to build the practical political coalitions necessary to take effective action against one of the defining challenges of our age.