The False Hope Nostrum

(Adapted from The Climate Pandemic: How Climate Disruption Threatens Human Survival)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, then-President Trump notoriously touted the antimalaria drug hydroxychloroquine as an antiviral treatment. It was unproven for that purpose. Similarly, “false hope nostrums” are being promoted by many advocates in the climate pandemic. They promote these nostrums with little proof that our species can “cure” the climate pandemic by inventing new technology, vanquishing anti-climate forces, marshaling political will, and/or having an optimistic outlook.

Author George Marshall dubs these people “bright-siders” in his book Don’t Even Think About it.[1] Marshall wrote that the bright-siders believe that:

Climate change is a challenge, but it is also a great opportunity. Humans have always triumphed over adversity and come through stronger. Our ingenuity, technology, and capitalism have created unbelievable progress and will continue to do so. We can be anything we want to be, so the real enemy is negativity and despair, which must not be allowed to poison this positive vision.

Bright-siding, wrote Marshall, “replaces uncertainty with confidence . . . And it compensates for the taint of failure and self-doubt that hangs around climate change with an overstated confidence in technology and economic growth.”

Scientists have been among the most prominent proponents of the false belief that we can invent our way out of a climate disaster. In part, they are inclined to false hope because of their innate professional optimism (see Why the Scientists Failed).

Another motive may have been their reluctance to be the bearer of tragic news. As with all of us, they may have been reluctant to face the hard reality of our future as a species. For some there even may have been an element of disingenuousness behind their promulgation of false hope.

Hope springs infernal

Many climate scientists have asserted that there is “still time left” to avoid climate disruption’s most catastrophic dangers—prime examples of their blind acceptance of the false hope nostrum. For example, after release of a 2022 IPCC report on climate disruption mitigation, climate scientists declared in concert that there was still time left to avoid major impacts.[2] [3]

However, climate scientists are neither engineers, economists, nor political scientists. They discount the massive technological, economic, and political barriers to stopping the massive momentum of our fossil-fuel-driven society. Whistling past a graveyard does not mean the graveyard is not still there.

Evidence of this false hope is evident in the multiple lines in the sand scientists have drawn in past years—deadlines for averting a climate crisis. These past deadlines were:

Only more recently have climate scientists begun to contemplate the possibility of climate catastrophes. For example, in a 2022 paper, a group of climate scientists declared:

Prudent risk management requires consideration of bad-to-worst-case scenarios. Yet, for climate change, such potential futures are poorly understood. Could anthropogenic climate change result in worldwide societal collapse or even eventual human extinction? At present, this is a dangerously underexplored topic. Yet there are ample reasons to suspect that climate change could result in a global catastrophe. . . It is time for the scientific community to grapple with the challenge of better understanding catastrophic climate change.[7]

“Disney version of environmental science”

A key belief of the false-hopers is that technology will rescue society. A prominent proponent of this belief is Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who authored the book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need.[8]

The book is a contradictory mix of realism and false hope. On the one hand, Gates does realistically present the massive barriers to implementing decarbonizing technologies. He covers renewable energy, nuclear power, industrial processes, agricultural practice, carbon capture, and geoengineering. His conclusions, in fact, closely track those found in this book. Nevertheless, he hopefully declares:

We need to accomplish something gigantic we have never done before, much faster than we have ever done anything similar. To do it, we need lots of breakthroughs in science and engineering. We need to build a consensus that doesn’t exist and create public policies to push a transition that would not happen otherwise. We need the energy system . . . to change completely and also stay the same. But don’t despair. We can do this [emphasis added].

Gates admits, “I think more like an engineer than a political scientist, and I don’t have a solution to the politics of climate change.”

Nor does he have economic solutions, only saying offhandedly, “we know it will require a massive investment.”

Such optimists “have failed to grasp the nature of either Earth systems or the political economy that bears upon them,” wrote journalist George Monbiot. “These men are not climate deniers; they are politics deniers.” Monbiot charged that they spin “a simple story with a happy ending, telling power what it wants to hear, this is the Disney version of environmental science.”[9]

Battling dark forces

Other false-hope advocates believe simplistically that mainly dark forces of politics and greed stand in the way of overcoming climate disruption. These false-hopers include climatologist Michael Mann.

In his book The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Climate, Mann wrote that climate progress requires overcoming “the forces of denial and delay—the fossil fuel companies, right-wing plutocrats, and oil-funded governments that continue to profit from our dependence on fossil fuels.” Those groups are “engaging in a multipronged offensive based on deception, distraction, and delay. This is the new climate war, and the planet is losing.”[10]

While these forces are indeed at play, as this book shows, far more important are the massive momentum of the fossil fuel industry and of greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmental groups have adopted the “overcoming-dark-forces” theme for both financial and philosophical reasons. Financially, they find it a productive fundraising strategy to warn of climate enemies, but to declare that generous contributions will fuel their success in thwarting those enemies. And philosophically, lack of hope undercuts the groups’ optimism that activism will yield success. Apocalypse doesn’t sell.

Hope-filled, uncritical media

Optimistic false-hopers have included some media. Many media stories have uncritically reported scientists’ “just a little time left” declarations without questioning their basis.

Other uncritical media stories have touted advances in technologies such as solar panels and batteries, but downplayed key caveats (see Renewable Energy Hype). They mentioned only deep in the story that an advance was only laboratory-scale, or that it faced major technical and economic barriers to commercialization.

Other such stories have hailed record increases in solar energy deployment without mentioning that the increase was from a very small base. Similarly, many stories declaring solar energy to be cheaper than coal did not mention the major barriers to its massive deployment.

Some media have published breathlessly Panglossian articles such as “Our Amazing Clean Energy Future Has Arrived,” by Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever. The authors declared that “the evidence of a great green wave is now overwhelming,” but failed to credibly analyze that evidence, as this book does (see  Renewable Energy Hype). Nor do they appear to have the professional credentials to do so. Neither author is a science or environmental journalist or has a scientific education. The former holds an MBA, and the latter a degree in political science and Russian language and literature.[11]

Even as false-hopers promulgate positive views of the climate future, they denounce articles and books that paint a less-than-rosy image. For example, a largely negative reception was given a portentous article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” by David Wallace-Wells. The article’s opening lines:

“It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible.”[12] (The article has since been expanded into a book.[13])

The article was roundly criticized by scientists—for example, in an article quoting climatologist Michael Mann in The Washington Post:

“The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now, is overwhelming on its own. There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.”[14]

Hopeful politicians

Politicians are major purveyors of optimistic false hope because hope is a fundamental ingredient of a successful campaign. Bill Clinton was known as “The Man from Hope”—only partly because he was from Hope, Arkansas. George W. Bush’s campaign slogan was “A Safer World and a More Hopeful America.” And, of course, Barack Obama’s presidential slogan was that one word, “Hope.”

Like other bright-siders, Gore typically picks the ripest cherries of good news—citing positive statistics without providing the proper context. For example, in a New York Times op-ed, he declared that wind and solar energy are becoming cheaper than fossil fuel plants. However, he failed to include that they remain a minuscule percentage of overall energy sources, and that their advantage disappears as that percentage grows (see  Renewable Energy Hype).

Gore wrote that “several American utilities have announced plans to close existing natural gas and coal generating plants.” But he did not include that huge numbers of such new plants are being constructed. He cited a 450% increase in the number of electric vehicles without noting that this increase is from a minuscule base.[15]

Gore has moderated his bright-siding somewhat as the tragic consequences of climate disruption have unfolded. Nevertheless, he still exudes a determined optimism, declaring in an interview with The Atlantic:

“We just have to be clear-eyed about it—and we have to be brave about it—in acknowledging that for some of these consequences, it’s already too late, but for the most serious of them, it is not too late.”[16]

De-nihilist false-hopers

Even de-nihilists have bought into the optimistic false hope nostrum in their own way. They espouse “an unlimited faith in technological development . . . to overcome any potential resource limits and readily solve any (minor) environmental problems,” wrote sociologists Riley Dunlap and Aaron McCright.[17]

De-nihilists’ false hope is also driven by the frightening specter of climate disruption’s dire implications. As psychologist Per Espen Stoknes wrote in his book What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming:

“The concept of denial is reserved for those issues that are emotionally and morally disturbing and therefore—if not dealt with—generate an uncomfortable inner splitting.”[18]

Corporations indirectly propagate optimistic false hope, motivated by their profit orientation, limited time horizon, and innate inertia. Corporate executives focus laser-like on profits in the next quarter, not survival of the human species in the next centuries. And, they focus on the technology required to successfully create a new product, not to create a sustainable society.

Finally, we readily buy in to false hope because of what psychologists call our “optimism bias.” That is, we overestimate the likelihood of positive events and underestimate the likelihood of negative events. This trait reduces our stress and anxiety about the future, wrote psychologist Geoffrey Beattie: “Some argue that optimism bias may help explain why we don’t do anything about the threat of climate change. It’s not personal, it won’t affect us, it’s others that need worry.”[19]

Given this false hope, and our institutional and psychological shortcomings, it is no wonder that our society has downplayed the profound obstacles to overcoming climate disruption.



[1] Marshall, George. Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. Bloomsbury, 2014.

[2] IPCC. Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers. From: Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change (April 4, 2022).

[3] Borenstein, Seth. “No Obituary for Earth: Scientists Fight Climate Doom Talk.” Associated Press (April 4, 2022).

[4] The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. The New Climate Economy: The 2018 Report of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate (August 2018).

[5] Figueres, Christiana, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Gail Whiteman, Johan Rockström, Anthony Hobley, and Stefan Rahmstorf. “Three Years to Safeguard Our Climate.” Nature 546, no. 7660 (June 28, 2017).

[6] International Energy Agency. World Energy Outlook 2011 (November 2011).

[7] Kemp, Luke, Chi Xu, Joanna Depledge, Kristie L. Ebi, Goodwin Gibbins, Timothy A. Kohler, Johan Rockström et al. “Climate Endgame: Exploring Catastrophic Climate Change Scenarios.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119, no. 34 (August 23, 2022).

[8] Gates, Bill. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need. Knopf, 2021.

[9] Monbiot, George. “We Need Optimism—but Disneyfied Climate Predictions are Just Dangerous.” The Guardian (May 13, 2022).

[10] Mann, Michael E. The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Climate. Hatchette Book Group, 2021.

[11] Wadhwa, Vivek, and Alex Salkever. “Our Amazing Clean Energy Future Has Arrived.” Foreign Policy (January 23, 2021).

[12] Wallace-Wells, David. “The Uninhabitable Earth (annotated version).” New York (July 9, 2017).

[13] Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. Penguin, 2019.

[14] Mooney, Chris. “Scientists Challenge Magazine Story about ‘Uninhabitable Earth’.” The Washington Post (July 12, 2017).

[15] Gore, Al, “Al Gore: The Climate Crisis Is the Battle of Our Time, and We Can Win,” The New York Times (September 20, 2019).

[16] Dovere, Edward-Isaac. “Al Gore: America Is Close to a ‘Political Tipping Point’ on Climate Change.” The Atlantic (January 3, 2019).

[17] Dunlap, Riley E. and Aaron M. McCright. “Challenging Climate Change: The Denial Climate Movement.” In Dunlap, Riley E. and Robert J., Brulle, eds. Climate Change and Society: Sociological Perspectives. Oxford University Press, 2015.

[18] Stoknes, Per Espen. What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015.

[19] Beattie, Geoffrey. “Optimism Bias and Climate Change,” British Academy Review, Summer 2018.