Citizen Action Monitor

The heated rhetoric of climate deadlines and threats of human extinction exaggerates what science actually says

Climate change is not a black and white issue, and there’s no absolute truth of what climate change means or demands of us.

No 2542 Posted by fw, November 7, 2019

In an Editorial Commentary, Mike Hulme, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Cambridge,  outlines Wiley’s Online Library’s Climate Change Special Collection of nine essays, each answering the question, “Is it too late (to stop dangerous climate change)?” Given the rising sense of urgency — and for some despair — to arrest climate change, the nine invited authors were asked to develop their own answer to this question, or indeed to challenge its framing. What might “too late” mean? Too late for what exactly, or for whom? What effect might the language of “too late” have on the public imagination, on political discourse, and on academic research? This collection of essays reveals a diversity of ways of thinking about the relationship between climate and humanity, different modes of analysis, and different prognoses for the future, ranging from qualified pessimism through pragmatic realism to qualified hope.

Today’s repost focuses specifically on Hulme’s Introduction to his Editorial Commentary.

Here is my synopsis of his Introduction —

Mike Hulme

Hulme begins his introduction to the collection of nine essays by noting that the idea of time running out for action on climate change first gained significant attention during 2018-2019. The appearance of two new voices on the public stage — Alexandria Ocasio‐Cortez and Greta Thunberg – captured the public’s attention. As well, there has been no shortage of climate-threat warnings from other established voices. For example, one scientific paper in 2018 warned of risk of “hothouse Earth” within decades. Another paper, by IPCC, warned “we have only 12 years left.” But there’s a long history of climate deadlines having come and gone without incident. And there’s a long history of portraying the climatic future in fearful and apocalyptic terms. What’s different about the predictions now is the increasing precision of the deadlines and the heightened level of fear unleashed. This accentuated rhetoric of deadlines is exaggerating what the science actually says. Moreover, the rhetoric of climate deadlines and threat of human extinction does not help psychologically, politically, or morally. Despite what some activists like Thunberg claim, climate change is not a black and white issue. There is no absolute truth of what climate change means or demands of us.

Mike Hulme is Professor of Human Geography in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge. His research interests are concerned with representations of climate change in history, culture and media, and with the relationship between climate and society.

Below is my repost of Mike Hulme’s Introduction to his Editorial Commentary. The repost features my added subheadings, text highlighting and inline citations in place of endnotes.

Alternatively, read Hulme’s complete Editorial Commentary, including links to the nine essays, by clicking on the following linked title.

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Is it too late (to stop dangerous climate change)? An editorial by Mike Hulme, Wiley Online Library, October 23, 2019

School children protesting about climate change in Erlangen, Bavaria, Germany. [Credit: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash].

Many recent civic protests have used the idea of ‘limited time’ in order to call for urgent new climate policies. This editorial introduces the WIREs Special Collection of articles that reflect on the question, ‘Is it too late (to stop dangerous climate change)?

Nine Opinion Articles address the question, “Is it too late (to stop dangerous climate change)?”

This editorial introduces a WIREs Climate Change Special Collection of nine Opinion Articles, each answering the question, “Is it too late (to stop dangerous climate change)?” Given the rising sense of urgency—and for some despair—to arrest climate change, the nine invited authors were asked to develop their own answer to this question, or indeed to challenge its framing. What might “too late” mean? Too late for what exactly, or for whom? What effect might the language of “too late” have on the public imagination, on political discourse, and on academic research? This collection of essays reveals a diversity of ways of thinking about the relationship between climate and humanity, different modes of analysis, and different prognoses for the future, ranging from qualified pessimism through pragmatic realism to qualified hope.

1 INTRODUCTION

The idea of time running out for action on climate change first gained significant attention during 2018-2019

Something happened to the climate of public discourse about climate during the year 2018/2019. A new sense of urgency began to be promulgated by new political actors and social movements, at least in Europe and North America. The idea of “time running out” gained increasing salience, of there being only “12 more years remaining to save the future,” of feeling that “panic” was a needed and appropriate response to the unfolding changes occurring to the world’s climate.

The appearance of two new voices on the public stage — Alexandria Ocasio‐Cortez and Greta Thunberg – captured the public’s attention

This new discursive climate was shaped through numerous interventions, but perhaps most symbolically powerful were two new voices who appeared on the public stage. One of these was the American politician and activist Alexandria Ocasio‐Cortez who, as a House Representative for a New York congressional district, become a disruptive voice from the left of American politics. Early in 2019, she began to champion a reformulated Green New Deal as the best way for a future United States to tackle climate change. This was a necessary and urgent response, she argued, to the existential dangers posed by climate change, “Millennials and people, you know, Gen Z and all these folks that will come after us are looking up and we’re like: The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change and your biggest issue is how are we gonna pay for it?”  A very different voice was that of Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenage schoolgirl. Having started her lone school strike in August 2018, Thunberg rapidly became the voice of a new generation of young people around the world. Not afraid of using blunt imagery, Thunberg claims that climate change is “an existential crisis,” that “the house is on fire,” that “panic is an appropriate response” and that climate change is “an emergency.” Starting during the late autumn of 2018, climate emergencies have indeed been declared within numerous jurisdictions operating at different scales, including by the UK Parliament in May 2019.

As well, there has been no shortage of climate threat warnings from other established voices

But there is also no shortage of more established voices, or voices of hardened environmental journalists, making similar claims. For example in September 2018, the UN secretary‐general, António Guterres, made the bald claim, “We face a direct existential threat” from climate change. “If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us.”  The veteran American commentator Tom Engelhardt has placed humanity on a suicide watch for itself. “Even for an old man like me,” he says, “it’s a terrifying thing to watch humanity make a decision, however inchoate, to essentially commit suicide.” And the octogenarian UK academic Meyer Hillmann has claimed that it is too late to stop climate change. “We’re doomed,” he says, “because climate change will decimate life on earth.” A few years earlier, in his book Reason in a Dark Time, environmental philosopher Dale Jamieson had already explained “why we have failed to stop climate change” (Jamieson, 2014).

It would seem therefore that, at least for some, it is already too late.

One scientific paper in 2018 warned of risk of “hothouse Earth” within decades

Two scientific publications published during 2018 seem to have been significant in shaping the narrative for some of these commentators. In August 2018, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper titled, “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” which became the fourth most‐mentioned published article of 2018 across all of science. The authors speculated about the risk of what they termed a future “hothouse Earth.” “Where such a threshold [to trigger such an outcome] might be is uncertain, but it could be only decades ahead at a temperature rise of ∼2.0°C above preindustrial and thus it could be within the range of the Paris Accord [sic] temperature targets” (Steffen et al., 2018, p. 8257).

Another paper, by IPCC, warned “we have only 12 years left”

And then, a few months after this, the IPCC published their Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (IPCC, 2018), an assessment that had been requested in December 2015 by the Parties to the UNFCCC. This IPCC Report would appear to have been the origin of the slogan “we have only 12 years left.” The IPCC claims that “global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate” (IPCC, p. 6); so if 1.5°C is the threshold of climate danger then reaching it, according to the IPCC, in fact lies between 12 and 34 years away. The IPCC Report also estimated that “In model pathways with no or limited overshoot of 1.5°C, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030…reaching net zero around 2050…” (IPCC, p. 14); so maybe this reference to 2030 is the origin of the “12 years” claim.

But there’s a long history of climate deadlines having come and gone without incident

There is a long history of climate deadlines being set publicly by commentators, politicians and campaigners …and then of those deadlines passing with the threat unrealized. For example, back in October 2006, the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that “…we have a window of only 10‐15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points.” And Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation think‐tank set his climate clock ticking on August 1, 2008, claiming that there were only 100 months left to prevent global climatic disaster. In his own words, Simms shouted “fire” in claiming that by December 1, 2016 “we could reach a tipping point for the beginnings of runaway climate change,pre‐empting Thunberg’s “house on fire” by more than a decade. This metaphor of the countdown clock has been reinvigorated over the past 2 or 3 years with new on‐line climate clocks being established at the Mercator Institute in Berlin and at the Human Impact Lab in Montreal, counting down by the second to “the end” (Asayama, Bellamy, Geden, Pearce, & Hulme, 2019).

And there’s a long history of portraying the climatic future in fearful and apocalyptic terms

There is an equally long history of portraying the climatic future in fearful and apocalyptic terms (Boia, 2005; Buell, 2003; Killingsworth & Palmer, 1996). This trope did not start with Wallace‐Wells’ recent book, “The Uninhabitable Earth: a Story of the Future” (Wallace‐Wells, 2019)—although he certainly aligned himself with the new climate zeitgeist expressed by Ocasio‐Cortez and Thunberg. In the years following 9/11 climate change was frequently compared with the threats of weapons of mass destruction and global terrorism and claimed to be much greater (Hulme, 2008), while Risbey (2008) more than a decade ago suggested that the language of urgency, crisis, and catastrophe was indeed appropriate to use for climate change.

What’s different about the predictions now is the precision of the deadline and the level of fear unleashed

But what seems different now is the seeming precision of the new deadline being announced and the wider fears and anxieties about the future which this language has unleashed. As with a student paralyzed by writer’s block as the deadline for submitting her dissertation approaches, panic may set in.

The rhetoric of deadlines exaggerates what the science actually says

The implications of this new climate of deadline‐ism are important to reflect on (Asayama et al., 2019). First, the rhetoric of deadlines and “it’s too late” does not do justice to what we know scientifically about climate change. Climate prediction science is based on probabilistic forecasts which underpin the quantification of risk. There is a range of possible values for future global warming. It is as false scientifically to say that the climate future will be catastrophic as it is to say with certainty that it will be merely lukewarm. Neither is there a cliff edge to fall over in 2030 or at 1.5°C of warming, as indeed the IPCC’s 2018 Report makes clear. There may be many reasons to set a policy deadline, but scientific knowledge alone is not one of them.

Moreover, the rhetoric of climate endings and extinction does not help psychologically

Second, the rhetoric of climate endings and extinction does not help psychologically—which is the main point made by O’Neill and Nicholson‐Cole (2009) in their widely cited article titled “Fear won’t do it.” It all too easily induces feelings of terror, as Ed Maibach at George Mason University exemplifies, “As a public health professional (and as a human), I find the prospect of 3 or 4 degree C of global warming to be nothing short of terrifying.” But inducing a state of terror generates counter‐productive responses in human behavior (Wolfe & Tubi, 2019) and also creates political space for the unthinkable. Just as invoking a state of terror after 9/11 paralyzed people’s critical thinking and made many Americans and others accept the reckless decision by Bush administration to invade Iraq, a state of terror can do the same thing for climate change. For example, some scientists are now advocating to use dangerous technologies such as solar climate engineering to seek to stop global warming. As Lizzie Burns, a director’s of one of these project teams based at Harvard University has said: “Our idea [solar climate engineering] is terrifying…but so is climate change.”

As well, the rhetoric of climate deadlines and extinction do not help politically

Nor does the rhetoric of climate deadlines and extinction help politically. Simply “uniting behind the science” or “passing on the words of science” gets us no further forward. Even if climate science predicted the extinction of humanity, climate change “raises a host of ethical, historical and cultural questions that are at most tangentially connected to any scientific findings” (Evensen, 2019, p. 429). Answering these questions is the hard business of politics that cannot be short‐circuited by simply and repeatedly asserting an artificial deadline.

And, finally, the rhetoric of extinction and “it’s too late” does not help morally

And, finally, the rhetoric of extinction and “it’s too late” does not help morally. Again, even if we took these claims literally, the mere fact of human extinction by no means impels us to conclude that the correct moral response must be to prevent that extinction. There may well be other moral demands upon us which take precedence, and yet which we ignore (Gottlieb, 2019). Why the human species above other species? Why are future generations more morally demanding of us than the dispossessed victims of today? Why is suicide the worst sin of all?

Despite what some activists like Thunberg claim, climate change is not a black and white issue

Despite what some activists like Thunberg claim, climate change is not a black and white issue. It has many shades of gray. By this, I mean that while the fact that humans are altering the world’s climate is absolutely clear, the significance of this fact is not self‐evident. As many have realized for a long time now, climate change is a “wicked problem” (Hulme, 2009).

There is no absolute truth of what climate change means or demands of us

To believe that there is an absolute truth to be told about what climate change means, or what “it demands” of each of us, is misguided. What climate change means to each person is not revealed truth emerging from some scientific script. The political meanings and individual and collective responses to climate change have to be worked out iteratively and in association with those who think differently to us, sometimes radically so. They have to be negotiated within the political structures and processes we inhabit, negotiations that cannot be circumvented by an appeal to the authority of science being “on our side.” (Although of course this “working out” must also include the possibility of renegotiating some of those same political structures).

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This entry was posted on November 7, 2019 by in academic counterpower, climate change, information counterpower and tagged .
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