The U.N.’s yearly climate summit COP27 kicked off this week in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt with a shockingly bleak message from Secretary General Antonio Guterres: “We are in the fight of our lives, and we are losing. Greenhouse gas emissions keep growing, global temperatures keep rising, and our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible.”
To underscore his dire point, he added, “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”
If that weren’t bleak enough, in the lead up to COP27, the U.N. also released a report that plainly stated that there is now “no credible pathway” to achieve the lofty goal of keeping global temperature rise below 1. 5 degrees Celsius (though the 2 degrees C goal is still within reach). According to the report, this would require a fundamental transformation in society.
So, we’re all on the Death Star right now. We all know about the vulnerability with the exhaust port but nobody seems to want to fix it–and the Rebels are on their way.
If you think that this represents a stark shift in climate messaging–from one of optimism and hope to one of unavoidable death and destruction–you’re not alone. The trend of climate doomerism has been on the rise in recent years, typified by a bleak outlook and general hopelessness when it comes to climate change news. Instead of believing that we can do something to prevent climate disaster, doomers believe that there’s no hope–especially since world leaders have shown time and again they’d rather kowtow to the fossil fuel industry.
There is even an entire internet ecosystem dedicated to doomerism, from podcasts and Twitter communities to blogs, as well as the old-fashioned blogosphere. Geoffrey McFarlen happens to be involved in all three branches. The self-described climate activist is also the founder of the Doomer’s Cafe blog and podcast of the same name. He said that both are intended to bring “unpleasant truths” into public discourse about climate change.
To him there are two types of climate change conversations. There are two types of conversations about climate change. The first is the one that conservatives and right-leaning politicians have. They deny the existence or minimize the severity of the crisis. Liberals and left-leaning activists say there is plenty to be concerned, but they believe the problem can be solved by a shift from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. The other conversation was more serious: McFarlen said that a small, but growing group of people realizes that any policy that is based on either the mainstream or alternative view will lead to social collapse and/or extinction. “These are the climate alarmists, pejoratively referred to as doomists or doomers.”
“There is no doomerism, simply realism.”
— Bill McGuire, University College London
It’s easy to see why doomerism has been so pervasive when it comes to discourse surrounding climate change. Scientists have been harping on the exact same issues for decades only to see their warnings decried as a cynical political ploy in order to scare up votes for Democrats. A misinformation industrial complex of climate denialism has emerged dedicated to maligning and discrediting facts and data provided by scientists.
Now, in 2022, a whole new generation of people are growing up seeing that–no matter how hard they try and how much data they provide to show that climate change is here and wreaking havoc–the powers that be simply do not care. These leaders’ efforts to demonstrate that they may care fail miserably.
Take COP27 for example. Not only do many climate activists like Greta Thunberg see the conference as cynical, virtue signaling greenwashing event led by wealthy nations, but the event is also rife with hypocrisy. For example, the summit drew a lot of criticism due to the fact that it’s sponsored by Coca-Cola—the world’s leading polluter of plastic.
It makes perfect sense, then that people seem to be getting more doomer. But climate scientists, thick in the muck of the data that tells us things are getting worse and worse, have historically also been some of the more optimistic voices emphasizing that it’s not too late for us to act. It means that experts are now uttering the silent part loudly: Climate change is a serious problem.
They’re not likely to admit it–at least not publicly. McFarlan stated that McFarlan was not aware of any scientist who would like to be called a “doomsday” scientist. Most will instead point out that renewables can avoid most of the most serious problems facing Earth. McFarlan says they are feeling the same.
In fact, the doomer label might really just be a matter of perspective, even when it comes to to problems that are putting us on that proverbial highway to climate hell. “There is no doomerism, simply realism,” said Bill McGuire, a climate scientist at University College London, and author of Hothouse Earth: An Inhabitant’s Guide. “A 1. 5 degree C global average temperature rise is rightly equated with the dangerous climate change guardrail.”
Though he bristles at the doomer label, that doesn’t mean McGuire minces his grim outlook of the future. It might not be full-blown doomer but it’s certainly doomer adjacent. “In order to stay below 1. 5 C, emissions need to fall by 45 percent in the next seven and a bit years,” he explained. “This is now practically impossible, so the world is now committed to dangerous, all-pervasive, climate breakdown.”
Much of doomer discourse could also be seen as an evolution from climate misinformation into another cynical way to create excuses for ravaging the Earth. If everything seems hopeless, then why not just keep razing the forests for cattle grazing, and drilling for oil in the Arctic? The risk is that people will feel helpless and on the “highway to hell”, so if they really believe there’s no way to go, then why bother? Just let it all burn it all, baby.”
— Andrew Dessler, Texas A&M
This can create a sense of complacency. It’s learned helplessness at its most extreme and consequential. It’s good for fossil fuel executives, but it is life-threatening for everyone.
“Anecdotally, I have noticed a pretty sharp shift in the comments I receive in response to climate change communications from the usual climate misinformation and trolling remarks to now climate doomerism,” Zachary Labe, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Program at Princeton University.
If you ask any climate scientist they will all tell you that while it is possible for things to get worse, there are still many ways to prevent total and utter catastrophe. In fact, doomer messaging obfuscates the reality that we can do something about this–but we all have to do it together. Doomerism can lead to everything burning down without any good reason.
“The risk is that if people really feel like there’s nothing to be done, and we’re already on the ‘highway to hell,’ then what’s the point of doing anything? The Daily Beast was told by Andrew Dessler (director of the Texas Center for Climate Studies, Texas A&M University). “That’s clearly the risk. It’s reasonable when people say that that kind of rhetoric doesn’t motivate people to act in ways that are effective at reducing emissions.”
Dessler also doesn’t believe that such a pessimistic approach is accurate either. Things are not as dire as they seem. We’re going to Hell now, and it is becoming more difficult, but we have the ability to keep our hands on the wheel.
” I am convinced we have control over how terrible it will be,” he stated. We can decide if we are on the “highway to hell” or not. There’s a lot of positive news in the energy world, and that we just need to build on that.”
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