Is humankind and many other forms of life on Earth doomed in the face of climate change?

As temperatures continue to increase and a growth-obsessed world shows little appetite for enacting the changes needed to severely limit carbon emissions, it is temping to think that, yes, we are about to fall over a cliff with only ourselves to blame.

And at the first of the Philosophy Public Lecture Series 2018 at the UEA, John Foster, associate lecturer at Lancaster University and author of books including The Sustainability Mirage and After Sustainability, did not pull his punches when it came to describing the challenges we face.

In a talk entitled Where should one find hope, in the face of a deteriorating climate?, he warned that the current upheavals caused by the large-scale migration of people fleeing problems at home “will look like a holiday” compared to what’s to come. The Arctic icecap will not survive the 21st century. Global carbon emissions are running at about 1,300 tons per second and last year total emissions went up, not down

“You cannot help but be overwhelmed by the gigantic scale and the frenzied intensity with which people are spewing out these climate-changing (gases) worldwide,” said Foster.

There are likely to be wars over resources and it will be “a miracle” if at least some of these do not involve the tactical use of nuclear weapons.

Humankind has not remotely taken the action needed to deal with climate change, suggested Foster, so why should we expect people to act any more responsibly in future?

Nevertheless, in the face of such concerns, Foster looked for reasons to be optimistic.

“The odds against us succeeding [are] beginning to look not just enormous, but decisive. But even against these odds, one must find a way to go on fighting, which means going on hoping,” he said.

The basis for this view was not an analysis of the technical aspects of carbon emissions and their effects on climate

Instead, Foster looked to major transitions in history as evidence that discontinuous change creating a new set of possibilities can happen. So although until now we haven’t been doing what’s necessary, this could yet happen.

“We might call this the realism of transformation. The concept of the tipping point comes in here. Change quite implausible beforehand can happen once a critical mass of people start to believe in it,” he said.

Examples include the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the ascent to the South African presidency of Nelson Mandela just a few years after he was released from prison, and the shift in gender relations in recent decades.

As the former US vice president and now climate-change campaigner Al Gore has put it, there is a “point at which the moral issues become so stark that entrenched habit becomes unable to hold out against them”.

Yet is such hope realistic or, as some commentators have suggested, merely an indulgence? Could we simply be reassuring ourselves that we haven’t yet reached the tipping point yet?

Looking to history is difficult, Foster argued, because never before have we faced a challenge of this global scale and complexity. Hope cannot therefore be justified by any empirical appeal to the past.

“We can maybe [retain] hope to avoid climate catastrophe, but not what will impact on us in the coming decades as a series of increasingly grievous catastrophes. It’s in the space between disaster and catastrophe that honest hope can be nourished,” said Foster.

With a climate researcher in the audience saying that she felt she and her colleagues were “documenting the end”, the event perhaps did not ultimately offer great cause for optimism. But, as Foster suggested, there is at least some wiggle room for those who want to retain hope.