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Why does the United Nations’ latest assessment report of climate science cling to the promise that it’s still not too late to achieve a sustainable future for all?

  • Jun 13 2023
  • Ingo Venzke
    is Professor of International Law and So- cial Justice, Director of the Amsterdam Center for In- ternational Law (ACIL), and Fellow at The New Institute, Hamburg.

On Monday, March 20, news outlets around the world once more sounded an alarm for the future on a warming planet. The occasion was the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations’ body for assessing climate science. The report confirmed what was already next to certain: through emissions of greenhouse gasses, human activities “have unequivocally caused global warming.” The IPCC fleshed out how the crisis is already real, even if its dry style stands in the way of a real sense of abyss. On any other day, news from around the world would fill in gaps of imagination. The report then called for immediate action: “there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” But that window of opportunity has been closing for a long time. When does it close? Or has it not closed already?

Half a century ago, a group of researchers led by Dennis Meadows, a then-30-year-old professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), already used innovative modeling to show that there are definite limits to growth on a finite planet. Under the aegis of the Club of Rome, a private initiative that started a few years earlier, they published their findings in the best-selling book Limits to Growth (1972). If we ignore the limits, their report averred, civilization will collapse. The text impressed a great sense of urgency on the reader, and portrayed a clear anxiety that humankind had not learned then, and wouldn’t.

Limits to Growth was alarming but also unencumbered in its optimism. Problems were daunting, but “easily solvable if human society decided to act.” If only. A positive future was within our hands. The report sketched out how change could be made possible with stabilizing policy interventions, such as a rate of capital investment equal to the rate of depreciation. If introduced by 1975, those policies would have enabled “the equilibrium state” in which human needs could be met, and the carrying capacity of the planet would be respected. The vision was of a world not addicted to growth, but with people reveling in their newfound freedom and reconnecting to the multiple meanings of life. The authors of Limits to Growth knew that a socio-economic transformation would evoke resistance and would not come about without struggle. But politics was not really their theoretical terrain. Politics remained a placeholder waiting to be filled in. Until today.

In hindsight, Limits to Growth looks prescient, even prophetic. Last year, I met Dennis Meadows over the course of a couple weeks in Hamburg. Now, when he looks back at Limits to Growth, he still sees a degree of naïveté in its hope that new knowledge would lead to transformative action. He now predicts the collapse of civilization, simply because of natural processes that are already under way; out of control no matter what we do. 

Over decades of inaction, not only proclamations of urgency but also claims about the possibility of change have become louder, and far less convincing. The IPCC, and almost all other actors who chime in, still hold steadfast to this messaging: there still is a narrow window of opportunity. The flashy cover of the Carbon Almanac (2022) shouts from its cover that “it is not too late.” The book’s foreword was written by Seth Godin, a marketing guru out of the dot-com avant-garde. What he claims will save us is “the hope that comes from realizing that it’s not too late.” The refrain is a staple of the genre. Another entry stems once more from the Club of Rome, which released Earth for All – A Survival Guide for Humanity (2022) to mark the fifty year anniversary of Limits of Growth. The foreword to Earth for All was written by Christiana Figueres, the former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), who once led climate negotiations from the failures in Copenhagen in 2009 to the Paris Agreement of 2015. Figueres then co-founded Global Optimism, a think tank which proclaims: “Stubborn optimism is a deliberate mindset.”

The trait that ties these interventions together, clearly portrayed by the IPCC, is both the insistence on urgency and on possibility. But while the claims to urgency are grounded in sober analysis, the claims to possibility are fragile postulations. They arise not from analysis but from the fear about what is presumed to be the bitter alternative: plain despair, which would only make things worse than they already are. The belief in their necessity to motivate action stabilizes claims to possibility against all odds. 

 “We are fucked” is Extinction Rebellion’s much better slogan than the worn and tattered “it’s not too late.” There is a paradoxical solace that follows from the realization that we are fucked. The future’s openness is made to rest not on stubborn optimism but far from it: on the inevitability of our fuckedness. Such a slogan inspires, paradoxically, as an antidote to false, even cruel, optimism. The optimism of a continuously closing window of opportunity, it turns out, eventually becomes an obstacle to meaningful action and even a betrayal of freedom. The omnipresent “it’s not too late” misses what “we are fucked” demonstrates: a genuine grasp of tragedy. The condition of tragedy, at least in its classic, Greek variation, was the certainty of fate. Therein lay its wisdom about freedom, as Friedrich Schelling once wrote, that “by allowing its hero to fight against the superior power of fate, … Greek tragedy honored human freedom.”

When Dennis Meadows realized over the decades of inaction on climate change that it would be too late to turn things around, as it were, he was led neither to postures of arresting defeatism nor despair, nor to a vulgar hedonism with Biblical proportions – après moi, le déluge. Instead, he lives a tragic optimism that is nourished not by a sense of possibility, but by faith in humanity and an attitude that looks back at life and aims at having made the right choices. It is not about controlling the future. Even if the future were destined, it still matters what the main characters do. As a theory of action, however paradoxical, tragic optimism is the only real theory of free action.


The present text partially draws on his much longer essay “Tragedy and Farce in Climate Commentary,” published in the European Review of Books (2023).



    Umar Rashid, The iceman cometh and is forced to retreat. The dance on the tundra on Abenaki Prime, 2022.



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