Misplaced Positivity on Climate is Harmful

By Stella Nyambura Mbau

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 had mixed feelings this summer 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.

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.

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. Four consecutive failed rainy seasons means that more than 18 million people across the three countries are now struggling to find enough food to eat.

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.

Even if humanity achieved net zero carbon emissions globally, heating would likely continue for decades. Many studies tell us there is ‘committed warming’ over land no matter what important emissions cuts and carbon drawdown is achieved.

An anticipation of societal collapse is not unusual anymore amongst experts working on environmental issues. But the reasons for any collapse of consumer societies will not be due to climate change acting alone. Two hundred scientists 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.”

Part of that conversation in the Global North could include what specialists in climate policy call ‘transformative adaptation’ and ‘deep adaptation’. Over 200 of us 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; we must learn how to adapt to a difficult present and worsening future.

Furthermore, 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.

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; 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.

A longer version of this article was initially published in July 2022 by Resilience. Read the full article here.

Stella Nyambura Mbau is a scientist from Nairobi, Kenya. She is the founder and CEO of LOABOWA, an initiative that forms coalitions between climate activists and organisations across Africa that explore climate resilience, such as risk management through adaptation. 

She is also project coordinator for the Abundant Earth Foundation and the Agroforestry Regeneration Communities, where they reach and equip grassroots communities with syntropic agroforestry, permaculture and other adaptive practices. She holds a PhD in technology and specialises in climate resilience. She is a member of Polluters Out, a global youth coalition demanding the exclusion of fossil fuel companies from COP negotiations. She volunteers for the Mother Earth Project and Career Girls. She wants to reach African scientists in order to increase ambition for climate action. She is part of the global scientist action @scientistrebellion @scholarswarning on twitter. She also curates a blog Much To Do that’s committed to climate resilience in Kenya, and in Africa.

Resilience.org aims to support building community resilience in a world of multiple emerging challenges: the decline of cheap energy, the depletion of critical resources like water, complex environmental crises like climate change and biodiversity loss, and the social and economic issues which are linked to these.

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