Though hope plays a central role in activism, as it has in the history of philosophy, there are ethical resources for moving beyond hope. Stoic philosophers, existentialists, some theorists working in the Black intellectual traditions, as well as other scholars, provide grounds for courage in the absence of hope. Environmental philosopher Michael Nelson has argued that combating climate change demands a new motivation—a reorientation and resolve—to work tirelessly towards climate relief without an end-point in sight. For Nelson, the future orientation required for having hope is merely a distraction from the demands for action in the present. Too often the absence of hope is linked to inaction and despair, but it needn’t be—anger and grief, for example, can be genuinely motivating.
Climate activism has often assumed this future orientation. By clinging to the idea that things can get better, and that through intelligent action, environmental uncertainty can be defeated, modestly sustainable practices have begun to take root in American society. However, hope requires one thing no longer available to us: time. We cannot position an end-point of hope to orient our climate protection measures, because the end of existence is disturbingly within sight.
The IPCC report quantifies this threat, calculates probabilities, indexes implications, and maps containment strategies. But for all its statistical particularity, the report cannot begin to capture the profound uncertainties and ensuing fears that hide in data sets. No quantification can offer us an understanding of what life will be like in 2040. We have no idea what such extreme climate change will mean for the institutions and practices that have historically shaped our lives and oriented us in the world.
Disruption and uncertainty will be experienced across the world as the effects of climate change manifest. But the environmental and economic impacts will not be distributed equally. While Tia Marie Hatton, one of the plaintiffs in Juliana v. U.S., faces uncertainty over her future as a competitive skier, someone living on a south-east Asian island is facing uncertainty over the existence of all they have ever known. Climate change will make global inequality worse.
In Oregon, a group of young people have mobilized against environmental uncertainty by suing the government for its lack of responsiveness to climate change. In Juliana v. U.S., the youth argue that unless carbon emissions are effectively reduced, young and future generations will be unable to enjoy the freedoms, pastimes, and activities that older generations have enjoyed.
Tatum Millet is a philosophy major at Wesleyan University who is taking the Calderwood Seminar.
If America commits to the kind of climate protection plan that limits the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we would have to drastically change how we live. The future of a carbon-neutral America, even if scientists succeed in developing carbon capture systems, will look nothing like its coal-burning, highway-driving, beef-eating past. Whether we wait passively for climate change to disrupt our activities or alter our own habits to reduce carbon emissions, the American “way of life” will be fundamentally altered.
If today’s young people are serious about navigating the tumult of climate change, they shouldn’t be suing to hold on to the individual freedoms that defined the past, they should be working together to create new ways of surviving when the future is uncertain.
By abandoning the idea that the future will be anything like the past—by abandoning hope­­—we can shift our perspectives so that effective climate activism might take root in America. Claiming the right to continue to live as “beneficiaries” of the natural world will not provide certainty for America’s youth. But it will spell disaster for the world’s vulnerable populations in no uncertain terms. We owe it to them and to ourselves to resist.
The United Nations’ Paris Agreement, which went into effect in 2016, set a goal of containing global temperature increases between 1.5 and 2° Celsius over pre-industrial levels. Though this 0.5-degree margin might seem relatively small, an alarming report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published in October revealed just how devastating such a difference will be. Millions more people will experience food scarcity, particularly in poor countries. Communities living on the brink of poverty will be pushed over the edge. Species extinction and biodiversity loss will be exacerbated. The number of extreme weather events, droughts, coastal flooding, and massive fires will increase.
The American assumption that we are entitled to the same “use” and “enjoyment” of the environment as generations before us takes for granted that the environment can sustain our habits. It also prioritizes our claims over the well-being, and perhaps the very lives, of people around the world. By dismantling any hope of environmental stability, and detailing the way climate change exacerbates global asymmetries, the IPCC report makes clear that the individualist orientation expressed in Juliana v. U.S. is no longer appropriate or just.
No previous study has offered such an explicit bottom line. Serious planetary changes will occur within the next 20 years, and if we don’t take action within the next decade, there will be little hope of warding off calamity. In light of these findings, there can be no more pretending that climate devastation is a problem only for future generations. Unless immediate mobilization to limit greenhouse gas emissions is undertaken on a global scale, today’s children and young adults will bear the full force of climate collapse. This monumental task requires a completely different sensibility for addressing climate change than we have previously imagined.
Efforts to manage environmental destruction cannot be focused on preserving the individual rights of the environment’s “beneficiaries.” Benefitting from access to clean air and water looks more like a bit of moral luck rather than a right that can be demanded. Moral rights should not depend on where one happens to be born and whether one has access to creative community resources in the face of calamity.
The lawsuit attempts to establish the harm that the government has caused the plaintiffs. It highlights the different ways individuals “use” and “enjoy” the environment to demonstrate how environmental degradation deprives young people of their individual rights as the future “beneficiaries” of America’s environmental resources. But are “use” and “enjoyment” the right terms for thinking about the coming environmental catastrophes?
Lori Gruen is the William Griffin Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University. She is the co-editor of Reflecting on Nature:  Readings in Environmental Ethics and Philosophy, and editor and author of nine other books. This semester she is teaching a Calderwood Seminar in Public Writing for Social Justice
By Lori Gruen and Tatum Millet
And all of this will happen sooner than predicted. When efforts to manage the harm caused by climate change fail to address the dramatic disproportionality of economic resources across nations, global inequities become more pronounced. As the IPCC report points out, the gravest consequences of climate change will be borne by those with the fewest resources to adapt to the turbulence of environmental extremes. Though these regions are often the most vulnerable, they are also likely to be the most overlooked in efforts to manage climate fallout.
There are many philosophical traditions hold that through intelligent action, we can make things better. Discussion of hope, going back to Plato, either explicitly or implicitly analyze it in terms of the future. Within the American Pragmatist tradition, for example, William James argues for the practicality of hope. Even if we lack certainty, he contends, we are justified in believing a better future is possible.

Similar Posts