This Ironic World: Does Climate Hope Encourage Climate Inaction?

Jerri-Lynn here. Positive climate change stories give us hope. But does that hope spur indifference? Tom Neuburgur considers the conundrum.

By Thomas Neuburger. Originally published at God’s Spies

I recently did a piece, “Everything New Is Old Again,” about the strange world of climate news we currently inhabit, a world “tucked between the start of a world-historical collapse and stories about it so old they sound not special at all.”

This is another tale of disconnect. A number of recent climate articles have reinforced the dissonance between predictions of coming catastrophe on the one hand (though perhaps, in readers’ minds, too far off to be taken seriously), and stories that offer hope and renewal, in particular energy renewal and transformation.

The Warnings Just Get Worse…

Recently the IPCC released the latest findings of its Working Group 2, the scientists who evaluate our potential for climate adaptation and resilience. Working Group 3, whose report is due shortly, looks at the potential for mitigation of the crisis. (“Mitigation” means making the crisis less serious. “Adaptation” means dealing with how serious already is.)

From the FAQ section, part of the answer to FAQ 1 says this (emphasis mine throughout):

FAQ 1: What are the new insights on climate impacts, vulnerability and adaptation from IPCC?

Climate change is affecting nature, people’s lives and infrastructure everywhere. Its dangerous and pervasive impacts are increasingly evident in every region of our world. These impacts are hindering efforts to meet basic human needs and they threaten sustainable development across the globe. 

The continued explanation includes phrases like “extreme events are increasingly impacting nature and people’s lives everywhere” … “magnitude of climate change impacts are larger than estimated in previous assessments” … “severe and widespread disruption in nature and in society”. In short, “the impacts of climate change are affecting billions of people in many different ways.”

And worse is coming:

Climate change impacts are expected to intensify with additional warming. It is also an established fact that they are interacting with multiple other societal and environmental challenges. These include a growing world population, unsustainable consumption, a rapidly increasing number of people living in cities, significant inequality, continuing poverty, land degradation, biodiversity loss due to land-use change, ocean pollution, overfishing and habitat destruction as well as a global pandemic. Where trends intersect they can reinforce each other, intensifying risks and impacts, which affect the poor and most vulnerable people the hardest. [emphasis added]

Contrary to most people’s (understandable) beliefs, the climate crisis in its early stages is here now. (That belief — in a falsehood — is understandable since the world of the wealthy and its media is doing everything possible to delay most people’s full appreciation of the crisis they’re facing now.)

Other commenters are much more dire than the stoic (and government-financed) IPCC.

Yet as we watch, no one is acting on any of this, no one with any real power, which makes the nearly unstoppable even worse.

…While the Good News Just Keeps Coming

At the other end of the spectrum are stories like the following:

A Norwegian technology company has found a way to stop livestock slurry from releasing methane — by zapping it with artificial lightning. …

A manure scrapper collects all the excrement from the barn floor and deposits it in a pit where it is then moved through the N2 machine, housed in a standard-sized shipping container. Nitrogen from the air and a blast from a 50 kilowatt plasma torch is forced through the slurry ‘locking in’ both methane and ammonia emissions.

“When we add nitrogen from air to the slurry, it changes the environment to stop methanogenesis basically. So it drops the pH down to just below six and we’re catching that early. So it stops the breakdown of those methane microbes that then release the gas to the air,” Puttick said, adding their patented technology is the only one of its kind.

What comes out of the machine is an odorless brown liquid, called NEO — a Nitrogen Enriched Organic fertilizer.

An excellent idea, and nicely implemented. Stopping methane from agriculture matters a lot. This doesn’t address directly emitted methane, but cheaply removing methane from dung is a considerable accomplishment.

There’s also this:

A team at Harvard University made news in May 2021 when they published findings that their lithium-metal cell held its charge over an astonishing 10,000 cycles.

At 10,000 cycles, we could reset our expectations for battery life, says Xin Li, Ph.D., one of the Harvard researchers behind the battery. “[It] could be as long as 25 years or even half a century.” …

“This new technology could mean recharging a car in the same time required to fill a gas tank.”

Fewer batteries producing significantly more power — the inverse of planned obsolescence. And this:

Industry uses a god-awful amount of heat, which typically used to be delivered through natural gas. … As [traditional energy] prices started creeping up, the cost of renewable power — solar and wind, primarily — started plummeting. In some parts of California, this has gotten so extreme that during parts of the day, generation outpaces demand and the grid’s capacity to absorb it all by quite a bit. The result is that there are parts of the day where electricity is so cheap it may as well be free — but it has nowhere to go.

Rondo Energy to the rescue. It has developed a new way to store all that power; not in the form of electricity, but in the form of heat. Heat has the benefit of being extremely fast — you don’t have to worry about the speed that a Lithium battery can absorb electricity. Essentially, you just throw the electricity through a massive resistor, which heats up to ridiculous temperatures. Now all you need to do is to capture the heat for later.

“We’re storing heat as very high-temperature energy in solid materials. The truth is, my coffee thermos holds more energy than a laptop battery, a lot more cheaply. For the heating — there’s no magic there: your toaster and hairdryer uses the same technology for generating heat as we do. We developed a new combination of materials for the storage. You can then deliver heat continually by circulating air into the stack of that material and getting superheated air out,” explains O’Donnell. “Then we either turn that heat into steam in a conventional boiler or we deliver directly to users with high-temperature needs, such as making glass or cement. This is a technology that operates at a small fraction of the cost of an electrochemical battery and maybe more significantly, roughly twice the efficiency and half the cost of any hydrogen system. [emphasis added]

Another fine idea and implementation. Why spend the money — and carbon — making heat from methane when it could be captured from the grid when supply exceeds demand, stored as heat, and then redelivered to customers, in many cases directly as heat without further conversion?

There are a great many stories like these; I’ve featured some of them myself. They inspire hope — and not unwarranted hope in light of the accomplishments they detail.

A World Awash in Irony

So why do we see such a disconnect between the two sets of stories, the tales of hope and despair?

I would suggest, first, that as encouraging as the hopeful stories are, the accomplishments are either (a) not significant enough to affect meaningful climate mitigation, or (b) significant but unimplemented at scale because, frankly, no one with power sees any urgency in implementing them.

Or both.

It’s even possible that the existence of the positive stories, accurate as they are, helps continue the climate apathy that works against their implementation. In other words, the solutions aren’t implemented simply because they do offer solutions and comfort, so they demotivate the comfortable, including those in charge (of making sure they make money no matter what).

It’s an interesting dilemma. Are positive climate stories a cause of their own ineffectiveness? Or in Shakespeare’s phrase, can an organism be “consumed with that which it was nourished by” — eaten by what feeds it?

In some cases, yes — an overpopulation of lab mice in a confined space, fed by successful breeding, accelerates all of their deaths. Is that true of positive climate stories as well, that their success in creating hope delays their implementation?

If so, it would be one more irony in a world flushed full of them.

For example, is mankind’s supreme gift, our social adaptability, the reason this generation won’t free itself from the pathological spiral forced by the rich who rule us? If true, this would be the first case I know of where a species’ adaptability caused its own inaction in the face of danger.

The Greatest Irony

Of course, the greatest irony of all is the “gift of fire.”

The titan Prometheus, bringer of fire, as heroic figure. Here the artist emphasizes the gift, not the crime.

Prometheus gave us fire, which made us dominant. Now we have to give it back or die, consumed by that which fed us.

Another irony for an ironic world.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    I saw somebody bring up an interesting point about climate change today in connection with the Ukrainian war. So you had muppets like George Takei say this on his twitter account-

    ‘Americans: We can endure higher prices for food and gas if it means putting the screws to Putin. Consider it a patriotic donation in the fight for freedom over tyranny.’

    And he is typical of a lot of well-off people who will not be effected by rising gas prices. Point is, if they had suggested a slight rise in gas prices only a month ago to help America transition to renewable energy sources, these very same people would probably have raised hell about it as it infringed their freedom or something or other.

  2. TomDority

    In the US as well as other countries – most people do not have the extra money to put into new tech aimed at getting to net zero or below – why? IMHO .. it is the very way financialization or (finance capitalism or financial imperialism) has sucked out any economic surplus for these things.. combined with taxation being favorable to finance capitalism and against the vast majority who have been put into debt peonage and taxed for doing productive work and un-taxed for doing predatory work. Bring back some industrial capitalism and a just tax system – should we go on believing the cowardly words of our congress critters (we can’t afford that) while they continue to monsoon money upon the FIRE and MIC with it’s concurrent largesse funneling into same critters pants or pantsuits – nothing will fundamentally change. Just toss up some hypocritical fight for freedom bullsh&t and let the press do the chicken little cries….go USA.
    Well a few words from the past

    “The tyranny of the legislatures is the most formidable dread at present, and will be for long years,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison on March 15, 1789. “That of the executive will come in its turn, but it will be at a remote period.”

    “We, the People, are the rightful masters of both the Congress and the Courts. Not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who have perverted it.” – Abraham Lincoln

    “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.” – Abraham Lincoln

    “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be … The People cannot be safe without information. When the press is free, and every man is able to read, all is safe.” – Thomas Jefferson

    “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” – Abraham Lincoln

    “A highwayman is as much a robber when he plunders in a gang as when single; and a nation that makes an unjust war is only a great gang.” -Benjamin Franklin

    “No protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic country.” -Alexis de Tocqueville
    . “War against a foreign country only happens when the moneyed classes think they are going to profit from it.” -George Orwell

    “The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labor.” -George Orwell

    “A state of war only serves as an excuse for domestic tyranny.” -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

    “It is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.” -James Madison

  3. rjs

    this is the only climate story that matters:
    February atmospheric CO2 419.28 ppm vs 416.46 ppm in February a year ago..
    that tells you how we’re really doing, rhetoric at groundlevel notwithstanding

    life as we know it evolved with the CO2 concentration under 300 ppm;
    i remember when we panicked after going over 350..

  4. anon y'mouse

    all i know is, when i presented the problem of “peak” oil to my econ101 instructor, he said the typical economic religion mumbo jumbo: “we used to use trees, and then we found something else. we used whale oil, and then we found something else. it won’t be a problem because we’ll find something else.”

    just that attitude, or look over the entire plastics recycling debacle–its as though they dangle these things before the majority so that they believe everything will be alright and we can just press on, because the “smart” ones will have figured things out by then or someone (else), somewhere is already taking care of the issue.

    as for political will, we can’t get that because we aren’t in charge. the owners are profiting from the system. and i’m sure they love to publicize every tech development that holds out the hope that “things will be alright” so that the mass consumers can return to their daily existence in peace. and since the populace knows subconsciously they don’t have the power to change all of this, that suits fine.

    seems like a big and dysfunctional family that likes to foster each other’s illusions so that the dysfunction can continue with few explosions and no rectification or reversal happening to the alphas that benefit from it all.

  5. Jeremy Grimm

    This post is a very strange meditation on Climate Change, the most recent IPCC report, and the “positive news” about Climate Change, presented in the post as a series of happy-talk vignettes relating a few of the latest gadgets and gimmicks touted to help make it all better. I believe the import of the most recent IPCC report is best evaluated through examining “the warnings just get worse.” That is the kernel of news to chew on — that an organization as conservative, as compromised, and as controlled as the IPCC released a report like this latest report. Happy talk stories about new gadgets and gimmicks are very old ‘news’. The disconnect between tales of hope and despair is hardly a mystery in a world of rampant agnotology.

    This post posits climate apathy that works against implementation of the happy-talk and calls that ironic. Is resignation from a position of powerlessness apathy or a manifestation of a simple instinct for self-preservation … even if only over the short term. The post closes bemoaning that “this generation won’t free itself from the pathological spiral forced by the rich who rule us”. Forget zapping dung — how is this generation supposed to free itself from the madness of the rich? Vote?

    Prometheus paid dearly for giving Humankind the “gift of fire”. I prefer the story of Raven stealing fire.

    Raven fire-bringer sees far,
    stole fire, and brought fire to Humankind.
    Did Raven act as benefactor
    or maker of long mischief
    and future feasting for Ravenkind?

  6. Susan the other

    I don’t think capitalism is being used properly. Capitalism should be mitigated because the profit motive pushes us forward in relentless competition and human consumption is the energy that feeds it. Our renewable technology will soon be adequate to even smelt metals – I don’t think we are minimizing the urgency – I think the logistics take longer than we are accustomed to. We might still get there in time. My big worry is wondering if we are always on the road to self deception. What happens when we get our brave new renewable technology up and running and find that it doesn’t help that much to resolve overpopulation and pollution; mass extinctions; that in can never do anything about cosmic particles or even our own sun or our own magnetic field? That natural resources cannot be renewed sufficiently? The Danes are optimistically designing their future cities and manufacturing to coordinate maximum use of energy and resources. That’s as good an idea as renewable energy. But here in the USA we believe in individualism, which is more tragic than ironic. Combined with a mandate for extreme capitalism, it’s our Achilles Heel. That’s gotta be causing a certain amount of ambivalence. And yes, it does look like we are being consumed by consumerism.

    1. anon y'mouse

      the solution is (well, my solution is) that when the Limits to Growth was published, the powers that be should have started paying people annual stipend to not have children. and giving old age/disability retirement to every citizen instead of trying to determine eligibility overmuch or siphoning off people to separate programs. that way the retirement is secure and people don’t need to have a child simply for someone to provide a roof when selling one’s labor becomes impossible.

      this stipend given to women would have probably halved the birth rate. that and free health services and the problem would have largely solved itself by now. of course, there’s still the biological imperative and a culture that (necessarily, of course) ensconces breeding and seems to be focusing more and more of society and its activities around “the children”, which has always mystified me a bit.

  7. Eclair

    Strolling through an alley in our Seattle (land of the Tesla) neighborhood yesterday, we ran into a gorgeous hunk of shiny new pickup truck. A neighbor, weeding her patch of gravel, informed us it was ‘electric’ and the owners had to wait months for delivery; she thought it was a Chevrolet. An internet search revealed it was a … Rivian. 8,000 pounds of sustainability (putting it in the ‘heavy-duty’ class) beginning at $68,000.

  8. Sailor Bud

    Indifference? Already baked into the cake. The whole world allowed coffee, nuts, chocolate, bananas, manufactured goods, and everything else through international borders during what should have been a global Covid quarantine. Then we got to hear of “crushing lockdowns.”

    We should be lucky, even in normal times, to get these things by sailboat, which would mean dried bananas, when they come, if they come. We aren’t like that. We are consumer-addict babies, and our wonderful leadership, their ad men, and their media normalize every hideous evil to keep us that way.

    If you read Roald Dahl’s book, Going Solo, he tells us that it took five (5!) weeks to get from Cardiff, Wales to China in the 1930s. Now, not even a century later, we are such a spoiled species of babies that we might do the same distance, get there in a day, and yet still complain about the 3-hour layover at an airport on the way, and all for a holiday. The hor-ror, the hor-ror.

    Enlightened Europeans love to flood the beaches of Railay and Puket in Thailand, flying out there and thinking nothing of the giant airplane they took for their little pleasure cruise, as it spews its farty exhaust the whole way. They so obviously take their climate and consumption changes seriously, right? Same with the monied American liberal? The sainted teacher who loves to travel with their summers off, never thinking of doing it by sail or human power, always driving or flying?

    The only schadenfreude I will ever get from this world is watching the entire European species turn into Americans, while still acting the whole way towards us like the elves do to Bilbo in LoTR. “Okay, Bilbo the Renowned, let’s hear the poem that you wrote but don’t understand, and we’ll judge it (lesser than our own poems, but maybe we’ll be amused by your quaint little hick ass)”. The Eurotrash allowed and ate up every Americanism, plus lots of their own corporate and industrialist horrors, while engaging in quiet colonialism (sorry, ‘globalism’) well past its due date. And they soak in it while regularly feigning superiority over ‘dumb Americans.’ Awful people, as a stereotypical group. Shameless.


    I gave up driving twice now, once for over a decade, and now for all of covid so far, and I may make it permanent this time. It’s a pain to bicycle or walk everywhere, and your bicycle will want to be a specialized thing with racks and panniers for shopping (touring & cyclocamping bikes are ideal in most weather; fat bikes for winter use). I don’t get on a soapbox, but spotting others like me in a town of 16,000 who regularly do it out of any other reason but poverty? Looking like I’m exactly all alone. Yep. NOTHING will change.

    “In this house, we believe” in telling people what we claim to believe but don’t take any more seriously than putting up a sign about it.

    The industrialists normalized everything, including driving an F-350 a quarter mile for a six pack. It’s incredible. They normalized that it is acceptable to have giant wooden poles everywhere with transformer buckets and wires, not even trying to make it look nice, because “form follows function,” don’t you know. They normalized giant signs everywhere. They normalized lawnmower sounds all summer long. They normalize every abuse, every hypocrisy, every evil, every depravity – all for a buck.

    Even if I suggest that we slow down and return to a sensible organic world of horses, sailboats, man-made things, plus lots of bicycles – even if I suggest that, the “left” will be the first ones fighting me on it, because everyone is a drug addict to their own convenience. And the number who will even try to go car free on their own will be pathetic.

    It is the same with cocoa-harvesting child slavery in West Africa. “Oh, how terrible, but it won’t stop me from eating the chocolate or handing some to a kid on Halloween.”

  9. amused_in_sf

    We are continually told, but the pundit class and the non-profits, that people don’t respond to negativity and that pessimism breeds inaction. That we need to give people hope in order for them to take action on climate change.

    Well, decades later and we’ve gone backwards in the fight against climate change. Now, I only see potential in a true nihilism that frees us from our illusions of future normalcy. If we tell people that their houses, their incomes, and their families are going to be wrecked at some point, the only question being when, maybe they will stop electing politicians who play to the desire of maintaining the status quo.

    Or we can just keep on hoping…

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