Are you breaking cultural glass? - "Stubborn Optimism" Postponing Needed Climate Action??

Marc Lopatin
HSBC building

Feb. 1, 2024

Last month, global bank HSBC was accused of duping the public for helping to raise £37 billion for companies investing in new oil and gas fields. It shines an urgent light on why meaningful climate action remains largely illusionary.

Not least because the bank’s lending seems to contradict its own energy policy – announced in late 2022 – which contains a bold pledge to end funding for new oil and gas fields. Except it doesn’t. Well, not really. HSBC pledged to end direct funding of fossil fuel projects, as opposed to the indirect financing of corporations funding such projects.

The news must be particularly galling for the nine climate activists who drew the public’s attention to HSBC’s funding of fossil fuels by shattering the windows of its London headquarters in April 2021. But rather than dwell on whether such acts of nonviolent civil disobedience are effective or not, there is a more compelling question to ask.

And it is this: assuming HSBC’s energy lending policy is more about reputation management (i.e. greenwash) than a meaningful corporate contribution to keeping 1.5°C alive, why aren’t HSBC’s ‘climate concerned’ corporate – and indeed retail – customers threatening boycotts unless the bank ends indirect lending for fossil fuel expansion?

It is a question that I and my colleague, Helena Farstad, attempt to answer in a recently published report entitled: How a fixation with implausible climate targets is postponing required action The report puts forward a counterintuitive hypothesis that the mainstream consensus on climate action would actually have encouraged HSBC executives to tell themselves that indirectly funding fossil fuel expansion was genuinely okay. The bank can rightfully cite top-tier IPCC messaging that the 1.5°C goal remains in reach, and that the world will still need fossil fuels while making the mid-century transition to net zero. It’s a message repeated ad infinitum by world leaders and mainstream media outlets.

Except it is of course a ‘load of bullshit’ – the words of James Hansen, the godfather of climate science, when describing the story told by the United Nations about 1.5°C being alive – with the acquiescence of its scientific advisory body – the IPCC.

Hansen is not alone in his stinging criticism of the mainstream consensus of climate action. One of the UK’s most respected climate scientists and former IPCC chair, Sir Bob Watson, effectively put the temperature goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement into history’s rear view mirror, when writing the foreword to our report:

“By implausible”, he wrote, “I refer to cutting global emissions almost in half by 2030, and limiting average temperature rise to either 1.5°C or ‘well below 2°C’. Insisting publicly that 1.5°C is still alive is no longer defensible since it is tantamount to giving polluting industries and policymakers a free pass for resisting rapid decarbonisation.”

Jonathon Porritt, a doyenne of the UK environmental movement, made similar noises in a biting new year blog. Not only did he write that 1.5°C is “definitely dead” but also that the IPCC be “put on notice” and that the advisory body’s Assessment Reports (and occasional Special Reports) “do not tell the truth”. But most importantly, Porritt branded stubborn optimism a “massive barrier to forcing today’s politicians to narrow that science-policy gap for real”.

And there’s the rub… stubborn optimism, however well-intentioned, is an inadvertent backfire when it comes to encouraging a more urgent and meaningful response to the climate and ecological crisis. This is because stubborn optimism – emanating from both trusted messengers (climate scientists & green NGO leaders) and less trusted messengers (journalists, business leaders & politicians) – is consumed as subconscious permission to tell ourselves things aren’t that bad.

It is why, I believe, what Messrs Hansen, Watson and Porritt are really saying, is that as long as implausible climate targets are culturally framed as immutable, civilisation stays wide awake in dreamland when it comes to climate action. And in dreamland of course, anything goes – such as a ‘climate concerned’ global bank being perfectly willing to flout the raison d’etre of its own energy policy.

So what about an unequivocal public admission from trusted messengers that the world is already the other side of 1.5°C – and most likely – ‘well below 2°C’? This would surely break some cultural glass by further reducing societal permission to resist meaningful carbonisation. A recent editorial about missing the 1.5°C goal, published by the Washington Post, picked up on this theme. Alongside elevating the role of technology, the editorial also acknowledged that “if failure spurs the world to double down on its climate goals, it might provide the needed incentive to take the challenge as seriously as it deserves”.

It is not as if the UK public doesn’t know the score when it comes to the world’s response to the climate crisis. As part of our report, we commissioned market insights company Ipsos to conduct a nationally representative survey of the UK public. Our own assessment of the data is that the UK public are realists – as opposed to despairing doomers – and want to be told the truth by those they trust. Here’s some of what the survey uncovered:

  • Less than a third (28%) of UK adults believe global average temperatures are likely to, or definitely will, be limited to 2°C by 2100.
  • While optimism is held as important by half of UK adults (51%) when being given ‘bad news’ by trusted messengers about climate change, significantly more – nearly seven in 10 (68%) – said it is important ‘bad news’ is shared whether there are solutions or grounds for optimism or not.
  • Those UK adults who believe it is now too late for urgent climate action to secure a liveable future for all (21%), still judged a range of examples for climate action – undertaken by governments or individuals – to be effective in reducing the rate/impact of climate change.

A quick thought experiment to close: would HSBC still make the same lending decision within a more realistic consensus of climate action? Perhaps. But I’d like to think it might be harder to justify given ‘Paris compliant’ would be more gallows humour than credible benchmark.

If the HSBC debacle tells us anything, it’s that shattering the windows of corporate headquarters is not enough. An uncomfortable question follows – not just for radical climate activists – but for anyone telling themselves they’re fighting the good fight: if you’re not breaking cultural glass, might you be double glazing the status quo?

 *Download the report at

Marc Lopatin is a former journalist-turned-communications expert who has advised Royal Dutch Shell, the Labour Party and Extinction Rebellion. For a deeper dive into cruel optimism and climate change, see Marc’s long form essay from January 2022. He is also, along with Helena Farstad, a co-founder of which seeks to encourage a citizen-led reality check of major climate targets.