Optimists and pessimists confront ‘climate change’

I said I might write a piece about optimists and pessimists, and here it is; it has been great fun finding out much more than I originally knew. With respect to ‘climate change’, optimists on the whole seem to feel that there’s not much risk of future climates being any worse than our present one, and if that proves to be wrong, then we just have to adapt, and grin and bear it, for it wasn’t our fault. They see bad weather as bad weather, not climate, and remember earlier instances of it.

Pessimists are pretty sure that much worse climatic conditions are ahead for humanity, and that we should have been doing something about it yesterday. They see optimists as failing to act responsibly, when all the evidence is there for them to see. They see all bad weather as ‘consistent’ with ‘climate change’, or (the stronger form) actually caused by it. The optimist sees the world we live in as about the best it could be, while the pessimist is sure that that is so.

Where does all this come from? The words themselves come from Latin: optimus means ‘best’, while pessimus means ‘worst’. Optimism is a philosophical system originated by Leibniz, who saw the world as being the best possible, provided by God for man because humans could do the most good in it at the cost of the least evil. Voltaire had a great go at this perspective in Candide, whose hero of that name goes through terrible adventures and privations while nonetheless believing, until near the end, that the world is the best of all possible worlds

Pessimism is much more attractive to the intellectual mind, and many philosophers and writers have couched their writing in a pessimistic mode, or developed a pessimistic attitude towards life. Interestingly, the self-help psychologists seem focussed on how to get you out of being pessimistic, to see the glass half-full, and not to dwell on how bad things are.

How do we get to be that way? There seems no real knowledge. You can see both nature and nurture in the formation of a person’s outlook, and you can find many good counter-examples of pessimists who ought to have been other, given the circumstance of their birth and their upbringing. You can find optimists who came from the most disadvantaged circumstances. Like so much else in life, it’s all a bit of a mystery and a puzzle.

I raise the subject at all because there seems such a lot of it in the ‘climate change’ debate. Since I am most of the time and in most respects an optimist, I look at the argument and evidence and see nothing there to really frighten me. The AGW argument is all so contingent, and the data so rubbery. Yes, maybe there’s trouble ahead, but we’ll know a lot more in another twenty years, and there’s no warming of any significant kind occurring at the moment or for that past decade and more.

But for the pessimist, the true pessimist, it’s already too late! We should have been dealing with this years ago! What will our grandchildren say to us? And so on. We are looking at exactly the same data and — to a degree — the same arguments. But the pessimist goes to Skeptical Science, the optimist to WUWT or Judith Curry. They come away with reinforcement. This is in part why it is so hard to have a real debate about the issues. The optimist looks at the glass and says,’Look, there’s still a lot there!’ while the pessimist moans ‘Half of it’s already gone!’ And of course they’re both right.

What can be done about it? I can’t think of anything much. My fondest hope is that the issue will go away because it just loses public and media attention, and the pessimists move on to something else to agonise about. The problem is that there is an immense amount of scientific and political capital built up in and around the AGW scare — that the planet is in danger of heating up catastrophically, and it’s all our fault. I don’t want that to be replaced with a freezing scare. Indeed, what I would like is for both weather and climate to be much less in the news than they presently are.

I leave this little essay with a reference to Lord Stern, he of the report. Like Ross Garnaut, he of another report, Lord Stern simply accepted what he was told about the science of global warming ten years ago, and he is still doing it, though a great deal has happened since he published his report in 2006. So here he is, talking about the recent flooding in England, which he says is … a clear sign we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change. But it is not just here that the impacts of climate change have been felt through extreme weather events over the past few months — Australia has just had its hottest year on record during which it suffered record-breaking heatwaves and severe bushfires in many parts of the country. And there has been more extreme heat over the past few weeks. (I have slightly edited the news paper story.)

Now, the flooding in England is not a clear sign of anything other than a lot of rain (though not more than has fallen in the past), and Australia’s hot weather isn’t especially unusual. So what drives Lord Stern to make such claims? He hasn’t been following the science and the data, on the face of it, because there is no evidence to back up his claims.

I think he’s a pessimist, and pessimists feel better if they tell you how bad things are going to be…


Join the discussion 26 Comments

  • Dominic says:

    I completely agree with you, Don. So many people, especially climate change believers, seem so pessimistic these days. It’s depressing…

  • Peter Kemmis says:


    There may be a reason for the glass being half empty for many. My view now is that most people consider that there is much wrong with the world (few of us would disagree), and that we humans have frequently been the cause (and again, few would disagree). A significant proportion believe we should and can act to address those wrongs, and has gravitated into activities that seek to do so, such as welfare, overseas aid, education and journalism. Many are quite articulate and have strong convictions. For them, the glass is indeed half empty, and draining fast.

    This worry becomes self-perpetuating, and clouds their capacity for more objective judgement. Steadily their thinking becomes polarised, and for some, they accept any new radical claim that confirms their pessimistic view. The converse is also true for some on the “optimistic” side.

    With our western society gradually losing confidence in the validity of CAGW models and claims, draining the glass even further, we can expect an increasing level of anxiety from those remaining supporters. John Kerry’s serve the other day is a case in point.

    Curious, isn’t it, that CAGW seems to be largely a western phenomenon? Reminds me of the Y2k scare; I remember at the time the Japanese at the forefront of the IT industry chuckled politely to themselves and just got on with their lives, while we in the west fretted and fussed and redeveloped systems and chased down errant truncated date formats in old computer programs . . . and then rolled over out of bed into the year 2000 and found everything was pretty much as usual after all.

    Sounds familiar?

    • Mike O'Ceirin says:

      I was a analyst/programmer during the Y2K irrational hysteria. Russia decided they could not afford to respond and check their software. When the first day of the new millenia arrived nothing happened! Software bugs happen all the time and are fixed when they found. I know of many serious ones for instance a new IBM database was installed for the Westpac atms with inadequate testing. It was found withdrawals were not debiting accounts! As for Y2K I am disappointed that I did not earn one cent from the scam. I did have a Y2K compatible kettle as a symbol of human folly.

  • Walter Starck says:

    History (i.e., empirical experience) teaches several useful things in regard to optimism vs. pessimism:
    1. In politics things are rarely as good as is hoped or as bad as is feared.
    2. Most people most of the time are wrong, not about everything, but much of what is firmly believd at any time is later looked upon as nonsense
    3. Pessimism is warranted in the short term because much unnecessary suffering is always inflicted by vested interests in the status quo. Optimism is warranted in the longer term as the human condition has always improved over time however erratically.

  • David says:

    This is an interesting post Don.

    The thing about optimism and pessimism is that they are concepts which do have a normative tone. Optimism is seen as a good human characteristics and pessimism seen as a bad human characteristic.

    It is possible though to turn your whole analysis on its head and argue that people who reject AGW are pessimistic about the quality of the scientific evidence and pessimistic about our ability to affect a change in the climate. Whereas people who accept AGW are optimistic about the quality of scientific evidence and optimistic about our ability to mediate change etc.

    David Suzuki for example describes himself as an optimist, because he believes humans will eventually accept the scientific evidence, and introduce measures to control climate change.

  • Mike O'Ceirin says:

    Let us assume the planet will warm due to anthropogenic causes. Could we actually do anything about it? First is there any previous similar hysteria? Yes there is in 1968 Paul R. Ehrlich wrote a book “The Population Bomb” which caused great consternation amongst the pessimists of the time. It contended that most humans would be starving by 2000 and that drastic population controls had to be implemented immediately. There was no way it could be done other than a war of extermination. The situation today with many calling for action on AGW is equally futile. We are not sure if CO2 will cause more than mild heating and it is not possible to get the world population to act in a concerted manner. The pessimists act like Chicken Little running around shouting the sky is falling and offering solutions which are futile in the extreme. Adapting to what comes environmentally is the only possible path the rest is delusional. BTW Ehrlich later joined the AGW bandwagon funny that!

  • Peter Donnan says:

    Here’a an example of an optimist: the pollution haze that is making Beijing ‘barely suitable’ for life represents an opportunity. It is certainly not a sign of our times – that what we pump into the atmosphere will reappear in ugly, malevolent clusters and threaten our very existence – but a business opportunity.

    An agile and well attuned, optimistic business firm can rapidly commence producing all sorts of clothing and apparatus to sell to people during these dark days and generate income. It can even be amusing and can be captioned ‘The Enterprising Entrepreneur’ – like the colonel in ‘How I learning to stop worrying and love the bomb’ who bestrides the bomb, rodeo-style, yahooing with glee, as it commences its poetic nuclear trajectory.

  • Peter Donnan says:

    An allegory of optimism:

    A pessimist might interpret the SMH title – ‘Beijing ‘barely suitable’ for life as heavy pollution shrouds China’s capital’ – as a manifestation of what we pump into the atmosphere as a form of vengeance, clustering in a dark, malevolent form and threatening our very existence.

    An optimistic business firm, finely attuned to sales possibilities, recognises this phenomenon as a marketing opportunity for clothing apparel and all sorts of paraphernalia during the dark days. Such gusto, or foolhardiness from a pessimist’s perspective, has an amusing dimension and could be captioned ‘The Enterprising Entrepreneur’, akin to the colonel in ‘How i learning to stop worrying and love the bomb’ who bestrides the bomb, yahooing with glee, rodeo-style, as he descends in a beautiful, nuclear trajectory.

    There is nothing either optimistic or pessimistic – but ‘thinking makes it so’.

  • John Morland says:

    Recently I discussed weather and climate with a recently retired (very) senior officer in the Australian Bureau of Statitics. Before he retired, the department reviewed the IPCC’s then reports on AGW (possibly AAR 4) Their review showed the IPCC’s data, and the conclusion reached, did not reconcile with established statistical methods. In other words, the ABS’s view was the IPCC’s conclusions and predictions could not be statistically supported based on the data provided.

    I would say the IPCC offered a pessimistic view of future climate. This has now been confirmed by the ongoing 15-17 year pause.which no climate model predicted.

    But, as we all know, fear sells!

      • Don Aitkin says:

        David, how does your reference dispute what John Morland has written? What senior officers think, and what government departments publish can be different things altogether.

        For what it’s worth, Ian Castles, former Australian Statistician, not only disagreed with the IPCC but wrote publicly about his disagreements as well. It is fair to say that he had ceased to be Australian Statistician by then. There are many senior civil servants, and senior scientists known to me who are of like mind. But they have their jobs to do …

        • DAvid says:

          “In other words, the ABS’s view was the IPCC’s conclusions and predictions could not be statistically supported based on the data provided”
          I refer you to the fifth word in the quote above. QED!

          • Peter Donnan says:

            Hi David,

            Where there is a discrepancy between what is on an official website and what is reported as ‘personal communication’ and ‘senior advisor’ my approach is to communicate with the present head of ABS and ask for a ‘reconciliation’ but this is not always forthcoming. The central point is where this ‘very senior officer’ disagrees with published data and in what specific area. John Moreland’s posting calls into question what is on the official site: this is a point worth clarifying.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            Having worked for the Commonwealth myself I can understand what might have happened. The middling to senior officials who worked on the brief wrote a report that had to go to the top level, where it was kicked around for a while, while those concerned put in their comments. If we publish this we are in real trouble… Can we water it down a bit … Why don’t we ask the Academy to have a look at it … Don’t forget, we are biding for the new building this year … And so on. Ultimately, the top level postpones it, and waits for further evidence. Then there is a new Statistician, and new imperatives.

            If the Minister changes his mind, then that’s a new ball-game, and the old report will be brushed up and presented.

          • David says:

            10/10 for effort. 🙂

        • David says:

          Don’t you think if their was a report kicking around the ABS somewhere, that blew underlying statistical methods used by the IPCC’s apart that Greg Hunt would have it post it on the Web by now.
          In my search I found about 10 ABS sponsored pages that support AGW and none that refuted it.
          My comments stand!

  • John Morland says:

    David, the person I talked to was formerly the Australian Statistician. I have no reason to question what he said to me. Just because you don’t agree does not make what he said and my reporting of it, rubbish..

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