Reflections on climate pessimism

24th November 2022

Web p8 Tom Pashby CREDIT Paddy Mills

Related Topics


Tom Pashby

Tom Pashby reflects on the feelings of pessimism experienced by many within the climate movement

COP27 shouldn’t have existed. Climate scientists were raising the alarm on the climate emergency, then called global warming or climate change, back in the 1970s and 1980s. The climate and wider environmental summits of the 1990s and 2000s should have been enough to put the world on track to sustainability.

Humanity is way off course from a sustainable future. The reactions to this lie along a scale from optimism to pessimism. That tension between hope and doom is present in the overarching narrative of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations, which are underway in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt as I write this column.

UNFCCC talks are incremental by design, built on fundamental principles of co-operation and consensus building. If there is not overall global consensus, progress is difficult or impossible. That incrementalism stands in contrast to the urgency of action on the climate emergency, which UN secretary general António Guterres regularly highlights, calling it a “code red” for humanity.

This urgency has been obvious within the climate movement for decades, and it is a normal human response to treat iy with optimism or pessimism. Many I speak to in the climate movement are publicly neutral or optimistic, but privately devastated. That personal devastation is sometimes made public in the form of direct action such as the protests we have seen recently from groups such as Just Stop Oil, Green New Deal Rising and Greenpeace.

Some people are so upset by the situation that, despite being activists or otherwise involved in the climate movement, they disengage from the news. The saying “no news is good news” rings true for many.

Greta Thunberg, the now 19-year-old climate activist who started the Fridays for Future and school strikes movement, recently spoke in London at a literary event. When asked about hope and gloom, she said “despair is a privilege”. She was referring to the fact that many environmentalists, despite feeling the distress associated with awareness of the climate emergency, aren’t themselves experiencing the physical impact of the climate emergency, such as floods, drought and other forms of extreme weather that can destroy people’s homes and livelihoods. The people experiencing the impacts of the climate emergency, mainly in the Global South and living in absolute poverty, have to stay engaged with it because it’s their reality and a matter of survival.

However, while what Thunberg said about despair and privilege is true, this doesn’t make despair, eco-anxiety or eco-grief any less legitimate or valid. I live with depression and anxiety, and the climate and ecological crises definitely makes my mental health worse. When I read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on 1.5°C of global warming in 2018, I felt massive anxiety and grief – grief at a lost future for all of us.

I would guess that anyone reading this who has been involved with the climate movement for more than a few months feels similarly, or at least recognises a lot of these feelings, either in themselves or among friends or colleagues. I have a permanent case of pessimism, but that doesn’t mean I think we should give up.

“I think people who are pessimistic are worried about being honest about it, in case it turns potential converts away”

I think people who are pessimistic are worried about being honest about it, in case it turns potential climate movement converts away. That is a risk, but I think it’s worth us having this conversation with ourselves – especially so we can all come to terms with the impact that this work has on our mental health.

COP27 plays a critical role in focusing media and political attention on the climate emergency. COPs are not a suitable arena for action on an emergency, which is what the climate crisis is, but I believe it is better that they take place than not at all, given that they can act as springboards for action outside of the negotiations – from the grassroots, through the corporations, and to unilateral and multilateral government actions.

Tom Pashby: IEMA digital journalist

Image credit | Paddy-Mills | Getty


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.

Transform articles

Career profile: Kimberley Lasi, CEnv, MIEMA

Senior consultant, EcoAct

3rd April 2024

Read more

At a School of Management careers event at Cranfield University, one of our IEMA-approved university partners, we spoke to students from a range of postgraduate courses, from supply chain to marketing and management.

28th March 2024

Read more

To make real change on sustainability, it’s time to redefine leadership models, writes Chris Seekings

1st February 2024

Read more

Caris Graham (she/her) is Diverse Sustainability Initiative officer at IEMA

1st February 2024

Read more

Lisa Pool reflects on the highlights of the past year and what they mean for the future

1st February 2024

Read more

The percentage of women working in the built environment sector rose significantly last year although people from ethnic minorities find it up to six times harder to be recruited, according to a major survey.

17th January 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close