In February 2020, I attended a conference in Vancouver called Globe 2020. For climate-and-energy wonks in Canada, the Globe conference is one of the biggest dates on the calendar—the kind of event where the federal government sends cabinet ministers to make major climate-policy announcements, oil-company CEOs sit on panels with climate activists, and electric-vehicle makers display their latest and greatest cars.

One of the keynote speakers on the first morning was David Wallace-Wells, an American journalist who’d written the latest bestseller on the imminent climate-caused peril of humanity, The Uninhabitable Earth. Wallace-Wells was composed and passionate, his speech short and punchy like a TED Talk. He began with a careful recitation of the many inconvenient truths—the climate crisis already upon us, catastrophic disaster underway and worsening, a humanitarian tragedy of flooded cities and climate refugees all but guaranteed in our far-too-near future. But the problem, he argued, was ours to solve. “The main driver of climate change is human action,” Wallace-Wells said, “which is to say how much carbon we put into the atmosphere. And our hands are collectively on those levers. Which means we can write a different story if we choose to. And not just canwill, must.” Then he chastised Canada’s prime minister for continuing to support oil pipelines and suggested we were all “living in denial” about the climate crisis, locked in selfish, nationalistic, hypocritical political structures that only intensified the problem.

“For far too long,” Wallace-Wells said, “we’ve defined our goals in politics through what we considered politically possible. Which means we were always working within paradigms that were established in the past under different conditions rather than building our objectives out of what we knew, morally and scientifically, was necessary. We can’t continue that way. We need to change that paradigm.”

And then he was done, and I sat in the dark echoing conference hall and asked myself: How? But the question was essentially unanswered. It’s not that I disagree with the intent—of Wallace-Wells, of any of the alarm-calling writers and speakers who’ve long kept this apocalyptic story at or near the centre of the climate-crisis discussion. Wallace-Wells’s book was roughly the fifth recurrence of the Armageddon narrative I’d encountered in my twenty years on the climate beat, following books by Tim Flannery (The Weather Makers) and Jared Diamond (Collapse) in 2005, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth documentary in 2006, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything in 2014, and the wave of protest and anguished press coverage in the wake of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2018 special report on the climate impacts of warming beyond 1.5 degrees. (Greta Thunberg’s first humble solo skolstrejk för klimatet—“school strike for climate”—happened that August.) There are surely others, and I don’t mean to dismiss the collective story they tell. The work of activists and anguished authors has been vital in pushing the climate crisis up the agendas of decision makers around the world.

It’s the wishful thinking that I get stuck on. Thunberg hopes that the clear, logical certainty of her arguments will compel the world’s political leaders to act in ways they never have before and direct their institutions to do things they’ve never done. Gore reckoned that, if enough people saw compelling data in just the right format, the debate would end in victory for the forces of science and logic. Wallace-Wells pointed to the Sunrise Movement and the recent surge in youth engagement and protest it emerged from as the source of his optimism, and I agree that the waves of activism by young people around the world who are fighting for their future have generated the most invigorating force in climate politics in many years. But youth activists can’t fully answer how any better than Gore could. In the specific case of the Sunrise Movement, it has helped move the climate crisis very quickly to the top of the agenda for the Democratic Party in Wallace-Wells’s native United States, which is finally attempting, under president Joe Biden, to enact an ambitious federal climate plan. But that plan has already begun its descent into the churning morass of a House of Representatives controlled by much more moderate Democrats and a Senate partially handcuffed by climate-change-denying Republicans. It might change the paradigm a little, but it won’t embed what is “morally and scientifically necessary” into the bedrock of American government.

I see the same wish fulfillment in the slogans and memes that have ignited the climate-advocacy community of late and then fizzled in the swirling winds of the political arena. “Twelve years left to save the planet.” “Just 100 companies responsible for the majority of emissions.” “Stop fossil fuels.” One after another, these reduce a staggeringly complex scientific, economic, and political problem to what might sound like a single decisive step. It’s a compelling rhetorical trick. It’s also fiction.

There’s a similar kind of fiction attached to belief that, with the weight of the latest information or the volume of the street protests or the ferociousness of the most recent natural disaster, a United Nations conference will take dramatic action commensurate to the scale of the anxiety and grief. There is an obvious logic to thinking of the UN as a global solutions agency. It has, after all, convened many important debates on the biggest geopolitical issues of the day. It’s the forum the world’s nations have used to develop rules and consequences for war crimes, to address global poverty, to protect the most valuable pieces of humanity’s collective cultural heritage, to set goals for twenty-first-century development and measure progress in their pursuit. It has been engaged in the climate crisis since the first Earth Summit, in Rio in 1992, and has outlined some of the world’s most ambitious goals for addressing it.

So, if the UN is our largest political body, at least in terms of geographic range, then it makes intuitive sense that it would formulate the response at a global scale. But politics, alas, is a great many things—emotional, reactionary, self-serving, transactional—before it is logical. This is, as the saying goes, a feature, not a bug. Political institutions don’t move rapidly in response to the latest data on any subject, particularly one as vital and lucrative as energy production, because they were never built to do so. At their very best (and political institutions are only occasionally at their very best), democratic political institutions are designed to find consensus among competing interests, not to execute the recommendations of scientific reports. People do not make major decisions about how to live their lives based on a solid understanding of scientific facts well articulated by experts. The way people make big collective decisions, for want of a better mechanism, is through politics. And that is not a realm guided by science. It’s informed by science (sometimes), but not guided by it.

At Paris in 2015, the UN was as near to its best on the climate crisis as it has yet managed. The pledges of the 194 signatories to the Paris Agreement came closer to the scale of the problem than any previous UN summit. But goals are not programs, and the strongest arguments don’t inevitably win election victories. And so, in real terms, the UN process has taken a quarter century to bring the world together in a voluntary, nonbinding agreement with no effective mechanism of coercion and no incentives for compliance. There is only a unified statement of best intentions with a smattering of governance piled around it, in the hope that it will be used to create at least some change. If the UN had any real authority to compel action, it would have tried to exercise it by now.

I don’t mean to suggest that the Paris Agreement doesn’t matter. It was a historic landmark in the pursuit of climate solutions, a clear and unanimous declaration from virtually the entire world’s political leadership that the energy transition underway was inevitable, that the twenty-first century’s energy system would be substantially different from the one that held sway over the twentieth. But the UN process is not driving that transformation. It’s not setting the pace or even articulating the goals most clearly. And it isn’t doing so because it can’t do so, for two connected reasons.

The first is that the UN is not a binding world government. It has never had the authority to oblige a single legislature to do anything at the level of real policy. That’s by design, and it’s a good thing. The world would emphatically not benefit from a binding world government. The complexity and scale of such a body would render it totally incapable of responding to the real needs and desires of people at a community or even national scale. When climate activists arrive at an event like the Paris climate talks and demand stronger targets and an agreement with real power, they are asking an invertebrate to grow a backbone. It’s not that kind of animal.

The UN can give voice to our greatest aspirations and enable sanctions for our worst sins, but it can’t rewrite 194 energy policies or force regulations upon the whole world through 194 environment ministries. The IPCC—the logical arm of the UN climate process, if you will—is a working group of climate scientists. They examine the vast and complex research and data detailing the state of the world’s climates, and they produce reports outlining the status of the current crisis and the range of potential future impacts. It’s invaluable, heroic work. But they are not policy makers or energy experts. They can’t manufacture more and cheaper solar panels or develop public funding models for investment in emissions-free industries. That’s not their focus, and it’s far outside their areas of expertise. And thinking that they or the UN climate process in general could do so represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the UN, the politics of climate change, and the most basic fact of the crisis itself. Which is that climate change is not an environmental issue.

I’ll repeat that: climate change is not an environmental issue. This is the second reason why the UN can’t drive the energy transition. The climate crisis contains a number of massive, global-scale environmental issues, including global warming, extreme weather, ocean acidification, species collapse, biodiversity loss, drought, and desertification. But it is not, at its core, an environmental issue. It is, rather, the biggest, baddest collective-action problem humanity has ever faced. And solving it is fundamentally not about agreeing to reduce emissions but about providing irresistible incentives to accelerate the global energy transition. These might sound like two sides of the same coin, but they are not. They are as different as modelling weather patterns and setting up a factory to produce photovoltaic cells at industrial scale. This misunderstanding is one of the primary reasons why climate politics and climate action have been so prone to frustration and despair.

One of the sharpest observers of climate politics has been an American writer named David Roberts, who started at Grist (one of the internet’s first dedicated climate news sites) and moved on to Vox, the “explainer journalism” pioneer. He’s probably been my most reliable guide in this muddy, churning swamp of advocacy, activism, politics, and propaganda. I wonder if that’s because he didn’t come to the beat as an environmental activist or an in-the-loop political journalist: he didn’t arrive at the topic of climate change with an established narrative to fit it into. And, because of that, he’s been particularly skilful at seeing how the climate narrative got subsumed into old political battles and grudges.

“I’m not an environmentalist and these aren’t environmental challenges,” Roberts wrote about climate change back in 2010. “The solutions that American environmental politics are capable of producing are not commensurate with the scale and scope of the challenge climate change represents. A clear understanding of that challenge renders comically absurd the notion that it can or should be the province of a niche progressive interest group. It’s just too big for that.”

Roberts’s concern was that, by addressing climate change through an environmentalist lens, climate advocates would remain trapped in the constrained world of the “movement politics” launched in the 1960s. Climate change would be seen as a single narrow problem at the margins of mainstream interest, a boutique issue of serious concern only to the usual suspects on the protest-politics left, to be addressed (if at all) well after heavyweight topics like the economy and foreign affairs. What’s more, this long-established narrative is a rigid frame that positions environmental concerns, no matter how grave, as opponents of economic health and individual livelihoods.

Thinking of climate change as primarily an environmental problem is not only imprecise—it is primarily a problem of how human populations make and use energy and how they are organized economically and industrially—it’s also a political trap. Incumbent fossil-fuel producers and conservative opponents of strong climate action have long welcomed and encouraged this framing of climate change as a contest between environmental and economic health. Why? Because it means they can continue to balance their (essential, higher-priority) work of producing energy against the environmental damage it might be causing, reducing the catastrophic changes their products are making to the basic composition of the entire earth’s atmosphere to a “special interest” issue—in the same category, regardless of magnitude, as concern for the spotted owl or the contents of a household garbage bag bound for the local landfill.

Another of the wisest people I’ve encountered on the climate-solutions beat is a British climate campaigner and writer named George Marshall, whose 2014 book Don’t Even Think About It is a vital primer on the psychology driving people to disengage from concern about climate change. I first met Marshall at a symposium for journalists in Germany back in 2005, and he was already obsessed with what he was calling the “psychology of denial”—the way most of the general public failed to feel sufficient urgency and anxiety about climate change. A significant part of his explanation for that phenomenon has to do with the same environmentalist trap that worried Roberts. Marshall has spent most of his working life immersed in the green-activist world, and he’s blunt in his assessment of the movement’s limitations. Environmentalism, he writes in Don’t Even Think About It, provides “no community of belief” and “no social mechanism for sharing it. . . . If climate change really were a religion, it would be a wretched one, offering guilt and blame and fear but with no recourse to salvation or forgiveness.”

Take that and compare it to Roberts’s call for the climate crisis to “transcend the environmental movement—and movement politics, as handed down from the ’60s, generally.” For Roberts, the climate crisis needs to become a shared concern of every American citizen regardless of ideology. “That is the only way,” he writes, “we can ever hope to bring about the urgent necessary changes.”

And how has the movement responded to its years of continued frustration on the margins? Alas, too often with yet more guilt and blame and fear alongside a sporadic pursuit of just the right catalytic event or rallying cry to overcome its own limitations. Magical thinking, in other words.

Excerpted from How to Be a Climate Optimist: Blueprints for a Better World by Chris Turner. Copyright © 2022 Chris Turner. Published by Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Chris Turner
Chris Turner is the author of The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands. He is based in Calgary.