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…