Misplaced positivity on climate is harmful. Preparing for breakdown could help.

July 26, 2022

People living urban consumer lifestyles notice the climate breakdown when it immerses us in its new extremes. For instance, looking at British media this July I saw the shock as the country experienced temperatures over 40C degrees for the first time in recorded history. Some people were puzzled by the heat. Likewise, an eerie feeling of something strange happening was also being experienced by many of us here in Nairobi. We recently experienced some of the coldest weather on record, with evenings dropping below 15C. In a recent visit to Tanzania, the same held true. Although this is the opposite effect, it is all part of the same phenomenon. As air moves around the planet in unusual ways due to major climatic shifts, it causes both cold and hot extremes.

I have mixed feelings watching the international media sound the alarm on climate change in response to the extreme heat in the Northern Hemisphere. As the new Greenpeace report notes, in many countries across Africa, we have been experiencing weather extremes that are primarily caused by historic emissions from the Global North. Although any deaths from fires and heat exhaustion in these countries are terrible, the suffering of hundreds of millions across the Global South has not hit the international headlines in the same way. Neither is the growing risk of food insecurity due to droughts, catching the attention of the international media, or motivating brave policies in response.

My country Kenya – together with neighbouring Ethiopia and Somalia – is facing the worst drought in more than 40 years, which is hitting households hard, especially pastoralist families that have lost millions of animals due to the drought. It is the already-changed climate that produced four consecutive failed rainy seasons, meaning more than 18 million people across the three countries are now struggling to find enough food to eat. In Kenya, more than 4.1 million people are severely food insecure. Although international conflict never helps, the production of key crops in Kenya is about 15% to 20% below the five-year average because of climate breakdown. Many living in the city like me, escape some of the worst impacts, for now, but have been facing rising food prices – over 9 percent inflation long before the war in Ukraine added to our problems. That hike in the cost of food is now triggering protests amidst an election year.

Here lies the difference between how climate change is experienced in the Global North and how it is here. Because here it is already disrupting lifestyles and threatening starvation for many. Communities in rural Africa are mostly made up of smallholder farmers, and as we know, they are the first to be impacted by climate change. Of these communities, women shoulder more of the burden. For instance, they must travel further to find water when scarce. This scale of threat to life and livelihoods has not yet been experienced in the Global North. That may be why Western media can stay positive about averting disaster from global warming through technological improvements.  Sometimes their aim is to reassure audiences that disaster is avoidable. To me, that seems like a privilege they shouldn’t afford themselves. Instead, what the extreme weather presents them, is an opportunity to have more sober discussions on the need for everyone around the world to prepare for disruption, as the climate continues to worsen. Both media and scientists could be using these moments of public concern to call for people to organise politically to achieve a fair reduction in richer countries’ consumption of the world’s resources.

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Part of that conversation in the Global North could include what specialists in climate policy call ‘transformative adaptation’ and ‘deep adaptation’. Adaptation that is transformative involves major reductions in both carbon and ecological impacts. Deep adaptation goes even further, addressing psychological dimensions of such massive changes in lifestyle. In the peer-reviewed journal Sustainability, Deep Adaptation was defined by the originator of the term, Professor Jem Bendell, as a way of “describing an agenda and framework for responding to the potential, probable or inevitable collapse of industrial consumer societies, due to the direct and indirect impacts of human-caused climate change and environmental degradation.”  An anticipation of societal collapse is not unusual anymore amongst experts working on environmental issues. Over 500 scholars from around the world signed a public letter stating that clearly.

“As scientists and scholars from around the world, we call on policymakers to engage openly with the risk of disruption and even collapse of our societies… While bold and fair efforts to cut emissions and naturally drawdown carbon are essential, researchers in many areas now consider societal collapse to be a credible scenario this century… Only if policymakers begin to discuss this threat of societal collapse might communities and nations begin to prepare and so reduce its likelihood, speed, severity, harm to the most vulnerable, and to nature.”

I am one of those signatories, because I understand the vulnerability that communities in Africa unjustly face. We must learn how to adapt to a difficult present and worsening future. By providing a framework for such discussions, Deep Adaptation could prove to be useful in helping us reduce harm. That is why over 200 of us also signed a public letter to the UN summit on climate change, calling for recognition and support for “growing community-led Deep Adaptation efforts independently of governments and transnational corporations.” Such a shift is essential for people who already live in precarious situations, such as the millions affected by climate change across Africa.

Rural peoples that experience floods and droughts across Africa are already painfully aware of their changing climate. However, their understanding of the causes of such strife is limited. With the knowledge of floods and droughts alone, it is easy to misunderstand the causes and therefore not understand what could be done in response. Psychological burdens may also arise due to that lack of understanding. In Africa, many rural people relate spiritually to their geographical surroundings, as is the case with many indigenous communities around the world. For instance, the ‘divine’ reward people with rain and not so with drought. With such a perspective, the burden of extreme weather can be accentuated and internalised. But the cause for droughts as we know, has nothing to do with these peoples, and they shouldn’t therefore unfairly burden themselves due to a lack of information. Nor should they be prevented from realising where they should rightly seek more reparations for the loss and damage they will increasingly experience.

Because I want to help people who must live in the turbulent times ahead, I wish to invite concerned scientists and environmentalists beyond their misplaced positivity.  Even if humanity achieved net zero carbon emissions globally, heating would likely continue for decades. That was even stated by the overly conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their AR6 report. They wrote:

“Cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond. Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped. This represents a substantial multi-century climate change commitment created by past, present and future emissions of CO2.”

Many studies tell us there is ‘committed warming’ over land no matter what important emissions cuts and carbon drawdown is achieved. Therefore, scientists and environmentalists should avoid implying that the climate crisis can be fixed simply with technology and reform. They should not claim that reaching global net zero emissions means that there will not be increased warming and disruption. The main modelling study on that issue explained it did not include enough temperature-forcing factors other than carbon dioxide, such as “permafrost carbon pools” of methane, to be able to dismiss committed warming. Broader studies which include evidence from the paleontological record offer a clearer basis for understanding the inevitable difficulties ahead.

It is those climatologists who work on the ‘tipping points’ within our complex Earth system who are the most alarmed at our situation. Seven leading climate scientists, including Professor Katherine Richardson of the University of Copenhagen and Professor Timothy Lenton of the University of Exeter, published a review in the journal Nature claiming that:

“If damaging tipping cascades can occur and a global tipping point cannot be ruled out, then this is an existential threat to civilization.”

In their article they said that a collapse of society might be inevitable because 9 of the 15 known global climate tipping points that regulate the planet may have already been activated.

But the reasons for any collapse of consumer societies will not be due to climate change acting alone. Two hundred scientists, from organisations such as the University of Massachusetts, have warned of “global systemic collapse” becoming likely due to the way different climate and environmental stressors can interact and amplify each other through feedback loops. Their report explained that the true situation is not being understood or communicated well enough because “many scientists and policymakers are embedded in institutions that are used to thinking and acting on isolated risks, one at a time.” Professor Aled Jones, of Anglia Ruskin University therefore joined Professor Steffen, in detailing evidence for why “it’s time to talk about near-term collapse.” That is why a lead author of the United Nations global disaster risk assessment, Scott Williams has explained that people working on Deep Adaptation are “closer to the mark” than their critics.

As I witness millions of people newly displaced and in need of humanitarian aid due to the current impacts of climate change, I wonder who has the luxury of staying positive? I have discovered that I am not alone in thinking that more scientists need to stop pretending that the future will turn out fine. Research in psychology and philosophy are finding that highly negative conclusions about climate change can actually be powerfully motivating. One study found that catastrophic imaginaries can radicalise people to make significant changes in their lives. Another study found that we can still be positive about areas of useful work even if we are pessimistic about the impacts of climate change on current societies. “Optimism, far from spurring climate change action, fosters inaction” concluded Dr. Philip Wilson. Writing in a psychotherapy journal, Professor Bendell warned how some ‘anti-doomer’ environmentalists could be delaying necessary work on adaptation that might save lives. Having engaged with many youth activists in recent years, I know there is an interest in what we can do that is in our control, after we have come to understand the forces of nature that we will not be able to control. With the world’s youth comprising about 1.2 billion persons, there is hope for scalable actions that could alter how climate breakdown will play out in the years ahead.

So what are the actions we need to upscale after being released by misplaced positivity? There is much to be done, from a new paradigm which does not pretend economic growth will deliver global sustainable development. We need transformative adaptation such as shifting all transportation away from private vehicles and we need deep adaptation such as locally-owned regenerative farming projects. In Kenya and beyond we continue to develop community initiatives, such as the syntropic agroforestry projects of the Abundant Earth Foundation that enable the regeneration of people and planet. Such initiatives that interface with rural communities could go a step further and increase awareness of climate science and its implications, through education and training. Meanwhile, the environmental leaders in the Global North need to level with their public about how there must be a fair energy and resource descent. This is what the emerging field of ‘degrowth’ is seeking to establish within policy circles, through intellectuals such as Professor Jason Hickel. They promote it as central to climate justice and a decolonial response to the crisis.

Moments of international media attention to climate change have been rare. So let’s not waste them with fairytales. The millions of people being uprooted by climate change do not benefit from the ‘stubborn optimism’ of environmental elites. Instead, they will be better served by the stubborn realism of the experts and activists now brave enough to call for urgent degrowth in rich countries and fair adaptation everywhere.


Teaser photo credit: By Lindsey Nicholson – Flickr: The big and empty Marsabit road, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27720468

Stella Nyambura Mbau

Stella Nyambura Mbau, PhD, a native Kenyan, has studied climate resilience in context of rural sub-Sahara Africa.

Tags: building resilient societies, climate change responses, Deep Adaptation, degrowth perspectives