Ok Doomers: Why you don't need to lose faith in fighting the climate crisis

Climate doomism helps absolutely no one. Here two experts respond to common arguments put forward by those with a fatalistic outlook of the future. Yes you should be outraged, but there's hope too.

by Eilidh Duffy
26 October 2020, 8:00am

Just this year we’ve seen natural disasters of biblical proportions: fires and floods, swarms of locusts and, to top it off, one whopping pandemic. But no, this is not the Wrath of God, it’s the climate crisis. As we live through this ongoing nightmare, depression and anxiety are, unsurprising, on the rise. So too is climate doomism, a growing outlook that sees no hope for avoiding climate catastrophe, and so no point in fighting it.

As Timothy Morton explains in his book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, climate change is something which is so vast and abstract that it is impossible for the human mind to fully grasp. Because of this many people see the problem as too large to deal with on a personal level. Among them is sustainability leadership professor at the University of Cumbria, Jem Bendell who, in 2018, published the paper Deep Adaptation. In this, Jem outlines the latest climate science and finds it so alarming that he sees no hope for humanity, predicting that by 2028 we will see a complete breakdown of human society. It’s pretty gloomy stuff: “You won't know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death,” he has also written.

That’s not to say Jem believes in total apocalypse. The academic believes that this abrupt point, the cliff edge of the climate crisis, will be the start of real action. But when Jem published Deep Adaptation, he unwittingly ushered in the newest cult of the climate crisis, the ‘climate doomers’.

Climate doomers see no hope for the future. They see no alternative but climate disaster bringing war, famine and disease. They have totally given up. And now, it seems, doomism is becoming more mainstream.

A call out on Instagram to see who among my own circle of acquaintances were indulging in doomism showed that a surprising number of people were, or had, or were beginning to consider it.

But two people who don’t think despair is the answer are author and activist Alastair McIntosh and scholar and educator Elin Kelsey. Alastair’s latest book Riders on the Storm: The Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being interrogates the latest climate science and, by weaving together science, politics, psychology and spirituality, discusses alternative ways of dealing with climate change. Elin’s new book Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think Is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis highlights the importance of retaining and harnessing hope in tackling the climate crisis.

Both were kind enough to respond to some common statements made by climate doomers. While doomism is an understandable reaction to the crisis we’re faced with, both Alastair and Elin don’t think it’s particularly useful to humankind.

“Any hope concerning the future of the climate is delusional.”

Alastair McIntosh: Hope about the climate is not delusional. The science does not support the view that human beings are likely to go extinct anytime soon. The science does say that if we act quickly we can start to reduce impact on the planet and adapt to what is coming.

Elin Kelsey: Feelings of hopelessness are caused not only by the seriousness of this crisis but by the way climate change issues are covered in the media. Climate change news is almost exclusively reported as bad news and we are exposed to more of this than at any other time in human history.

To counter this feeling, psychologists say it’s important to see how our individual actions make a collective positive impact. Research demonstrates that when the news focuses on success stories about actions ordinary

people are taking in local contexts we can relate to, we feel more enthusiastic and optimistic about our capacity to tackle climate change.

“Because we're already past multiple tipping points and positive feedback loops have begun, soon there will be shortages of resources and large areas of the world will become uninhabitable. We’ll have more and more extreme weather scenarios, which will then lead to mass migration. Countries will begin to enforce borders in more extreme ways that will look like some form of zombie apocalypse.”

AM: This is partly true [in terms of being past multiple tipping points] but such speculation exceeds the science of the IPCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). There is a danger in exceeding the science and claiming, for example, that migration or conflict is caused by climate change when in fact this is only one factor. By allowing a single issue such as climate change to colour the multiple other issues that drive migration and conflict leads us into unreality.

What is needed in such situations – where multiple factors, of which climate change is one, are driving these threats to our humanity – is a deepening of that humanity. The greatest priority is that as a society we learn compassion for one another so we can support each other in whatever is to come.

EK: Framing climate change as an impending catastrophe stokes the fires of “climate doomism”. Acceptance of what is, is not the same as fatalism about what comes next. Fatalistic forecasts are being co-opted and used for ulterior motives. Climate doom, according to Michael Mann, is the new climate war – and it’s just as dangerous as the old one, which focused on the denial of the science. In a 2019 interview for the Guardian, Mann says that propagating frightening environmental narratives “leads people down a path of despair and hopelessness and finally inaction, which actually leads us to the same place as outright climate-change denialism.”

“People are indoctrinated into a system of capitalism, particularly in the West, which plays on people's greed. Most people don't think about community and the greater good of humanity, only themselves.”

AM: I see capitalism as a system that is imposed upon us but also as an emergent property of our own greed and lack of connection. You cannot blame only the system without looking at the components of the system. We all contribute to capitalism whenever we invest in a pension, have savings in the bank or shop around for the best deal.

We must look at the wider system in which we are held and start to create space for alternatives. This brings us back to our humanity. We must be willing to behave in ways (and adjust our buying behaviour in ways) that ceases to give capitalism what it needs to survive.

We can envisage a world that is different but in order to bring it into being, we must take action. So where do you start? You start by taking action from where you stand. You start by going down and helping out your local food bank. You start by getting involved in your local nature reserve. If in doubt in what to do with your life, feed the hungry – literally, or metaphorically.

EK: This statement simply isn’t true. In response to mounting anger and frustration with social injustice, inequality, economic disparity and inaction on the climate emergency, ordinary people are coming together in unprecedented numbers and are actively changing global political cultures. Many of them are young. Almost 42% of the world’s population is 25 or under. In Asia and Latin America (where 65% of the world’s people live) a quarter of the population is under 15, and in Africa, that figure rises to 41%. Young people are rising up against extreme social and political inequalities to fight together for justice and equality in numbers never before seen. 2019 will be remembered as the year youth-driven climate justice marches spread around the world. Those marches sparked so many climate emergency declarations that by the end of that same year, one in ten people on the entire planet were living in a place that had committed to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Feeling furious and upset at deforestation, coal-fired power plants and politicians who fail to lead urgently needed climate reforms, or angry that you’ve inherited a screwed-up situation from previous generations, is justified. Outrage shows you know what’s going on and you know what absolutely must change. Reaching the point of ‘enough is enough’ spurs us to stand up for the things we believe in.

“To switch over to any energy consuming system that is more environmentally friendly would cause so much pollution that it is pointless to even try.”

AM: Here’s an example which counters this narrative: We live in a Victorian terraced house in Govan, Glasgow and our domestic carbon footprint used to be 5.4 tonnes per year. In 2013 we installed solar panels on the roof and

an air source heat pump to heat the house and consequently our carbon footprint has fallen by 63% over those seven years. We did all of that at a cost of £7,000, the cost of a good secondhand car. That is the kind of thing that is possible if the will and means are there. So no, even on a small scale switching to a more environmentally friendly system is possible and is not going to make the environment less well-off.

EK: This statement lacks specificity and context and without these vital criteria it only serves to make us think the situation is hopeless. It creates the daunting sense that all of the hard work lies ahead. It’s important to focus on specific contexts, time-stamped content and emerging evidence-based trends. We are in the midst of a global energy transition. For example, on 7 October, 2020 Bloomberg Green reported: “NextEra Energy Inc., the world’s biggest provider of wind and solar energy, is now more valuable than oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp., once the largest public company on Earth.”

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