'Climate Doomers' Think It's Too Late Even If The World Listens To Greta
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
That was the indictment from climate activist Greta Thunberg, whose impassioned speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit reflected the thirst for change demanded by the millions of young people who marched for action on climate change last Friday.
But for a certain subset of survivalists, academics and pessimist environmentalists, the fight has already been lost.
For ‘climate doomers’, the coalescing of harmful social and environmental factors mean that global warming, overpopulation and political division are sowing the seeds of societal collapse.
Earlier this month, novelist Jonathan Franzen nicely encapsulated the doomer manifesto when he wrote in The New Yorker that “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.”
But what is motivating these climate pessimists, and do their claims hold up to scrutiny?
PREPPING FOR COLLAPSE
The Subreddit ‘Collapse’ provides a nice window into the doomer mind as anonymous users exchange dire environmental headlines as well as tips for survival when it all comes down.
Their cynicism isn’t without some merit.
Experts have called climate change an ‘existential threat’ to humanity. And the forward to one (controversial) report by Breakthrough Australia’s National Centre for Climate Restoration suggested that there is a “real possibility that human life on earth may be on the way to extinction, in the most horrible way”.
In ‘Collapse’, users share their heartbreaking plans for the future: “I have an escape hatch. I have a plan and method in place to end my life at the time of my choosing,” notes one user.
“I sealed up about 8 months worth of dried foods that'll last 25 years. Six large containers sit on my back deck,” notes another.
What unites doomers is their belief that climate experts are siding too heavily on the side of hope -- whether it’s the hope that the world meets the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s goal, limiting our planet's warming to less than two degrees, or hope that there is a political will to act.
A recent UN report noting that climate change is accelerating and that what is required is urgent and fundamental "socio-economic transformation in key sectors such as land use and energy, in order to avert dangerous global temperature increase with potentially irreversible impacts” seems to add legitimacy to the doom and gloom.
For academic doomers such as Dr Mayer Hillman, Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Policy Studies Institute, University of Westminster, humanity must choose between transitioning to a zero-emissions economy immediately (which will not occur) and the collapse of most life on Earth. Dr Hillman pessimistically told The Guardian last year:
“The outcome is death, and it’s the end of most life on the planet because we’re so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps. And very few appear to be prepared to say so.”
ARE THE CYNICS RIGHT?
Many climate scientists and experts have been quick to dismiss the doomer mindset, labelled ‘de-nihilism’ by some.
In response to Franzen’s essay, Professor Leah Stokes called doomsday climate predictions “wildly out of step with reality”.
Whilst global warming is certainly a threat worth acting on, climate experts are confident that there are achievable goals in emissions reductions that will avoid the most catastrophic of scenarios.
One of the key things doomers seem to overplay is the significance of two degrees of warming.
Whilst exceeding the IPCC goal increases the risk of some of the harms of climate change, the two-degrees number isn’t some threshold beyond which all hope is lost.
As climate economist Professor Gernot Wagner noted on Twitter in response to Frazen’s piece: “Yes, 2°C has its uses. No it's not some God-given bright line.”
Even if cynical takes about human behaviour or the ability for our economic system to deal with global threats is correct, there are at least some silver linings that pure capitalist greed may tilt towards mitigation: the costs of renewable energy continuing to decline; increasing uptake by consumers and businesses; that we are seeing similar shifts in demands towards lower-emissions products such as electric cars.
Even if the ethical case for decreasing emissions doesn’t change hearts and minds, the blunt economics of it all may do the trick.
Global accords such as the Paris Agreement may have their critics, but the ability for the global community to recognise and honour climate change as a problem indicates some willingness for drastic global action. Moreover, calls for a ‘Green New Deal’ in Western countries continue to gain steam, providing political currency to necessary economic and social change.
Thankfully, whilst the doomers would like you to see nothing but darkness when it comes to climate politics, there is some light through the clouds.