Is the current effort to combat climate change a utopian project?

Why the changes to human behaviour necessary to ease climate change will have to be directed by government

Further indication of how climate change is intensifying storms; the remnants of Wilson’s Bridge in Swan Park, Buncrana, Co Donegal, after extreme floods in August. Photograph: Peter Murtagh

Mainline science emphatically tells us that global warming is largely driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases and that, unless we take urgent and effective action to drastically reduce our emissions of these gases, the consequent climate change will trigger disastrous environmental consequences.

Strenuous efforts are under way to persuade governments worldwide to agree to significant reductions in emissions but actual progress in reducing emissions is very slow. A fascinating article by professor of political science Carson Holloway, explains this tardy progress by proposing that the battle to combat climate change, in its current form, is a utopian project and therefore climate activists must learn to moderate their expectations.

Holloway argues as follows: human beings must change their behaviour in order to combat climate change, but these behavioural changes are bothersome and call for sacrifices to be made. However, all political experience tells us that people will not voluntarily change behaviours they believe to be in their short-term interest or to which they are long accustomed. The changes to human behaviour necessary to combat climate change will therefore have to be directed by government.

But action to tackle climate change must be effected on a global scale and there is no world government with authority to command change. Holloway concludes therefore that the battle as currently waged to effectively combat climate change is a utopian project, ie it cannot succeed in the real world.


Current actions to tackle climate change must rely on the voluntary and co-ordinated efforts of numerous national governments, eg the 2016 Paris Climate Accord. This effort requires all governments to co-ordinate their economic regulations and, in some cases, to sacrifice their short and medium-term interests for the sake of the global common good. Holloway points out that such a thing has never been achieved in all of human history and it is noteworthy that US president Donald Trump recently withdrew America from the Paris Accord.

Another aspect of the problem is that the full negative effects of unbridled climate change will not emerge until about 80 years from now. Holloway cannot think of any government that has ever adhered to an awkward long-term policy in order to achieve a result eight decades into the future – nor can I.

And, of all forms of government, democracies are least capable of sustaining a difficult plan or policy over a long period of time. Citizens in a democracy are largely concerned with the present and at best think no further than five to 10 years into the future. So it seems the current fight against climate change requires foresight and consistency beyond not only the capabilities of democracy but beyond the capabilities of human beings themselves.

Nevertheless, Holloway concludes that accepting the utopian nature of current calls for action on climate change need not be a counsel of despair nor an acceptance that nothing can be done. He believes that accepting the utopian nature of current efforts to mitigate climate change would stop activists from labelling all opposition to their ideas as perversity and selfishness, encouraging a spirit of rational temperate debate.

I think Holloway’s analysis is useful but doesn’t go far enough. Assuming scientists are correct about the effects of unchecked climate change, the problem remains that Holloway’s “rational and temperate debate” must still reformulate an action plan to be implemented now and that will achieve payback 80 years into the future. How can people be motivated to take inconvenient action when they are so conditioned to make awkward decisions only about the near-term future?

But there is one exception to this “near-termism” and that is the deep-seated willingness of all parents to make sacrifices to ensure the long-term wellbeing of their children. Well, unchecked climate change is the “daddy” of all considerations about the long-term well-being of our children. Do we want our children to inherit a ruined world? Of course not and therefore this angle should be energetically promoted when campaigning for action to mitigate climate change.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC