LET’S NOT HAVE THE NEW CLIMATE WAR BE…BETWEEN US
In your important new book ‘The new climate war’ you call for an overcoming of the ‘tribalism’ that has come to shadow the debates around climate. In that spirit, I’m writing to you today in a vein of open and civil discussion. I hope earnestly for your response in the same way.
In your book, while praising Extinction Rebellion [XR] in some important respects, you also criticise them for allegedly adopting a ‘soft doomist’ frame at times. Here is what you say, citing a quotation from XR as alleged evidence to back up that criticism:
I really want to understand why you think this constitutes a kind of ‘[soft] doomism’, Michael. It seems to me, by contrast, simply a plain telling of the terrible truth, virtually indistinguishable from (say) David Attenborough’s recent remarks that “If we continue on our current path, we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security: food production, access to fresh water, habitable ambient temperature, and ocean food chains…and if the natural world can no longer support the most basic of our needs, then much of the rest of civilization will quickly break down.” https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/02/1085452 You don’t take Sir David to be ‘doomist’ in his framing; so why use this epithet of XR?
By ‘soft doomism’ you mean distortion of the climate science that makes it sound as if we are doomed. The only bit in the statement from XR that you call ‘doomist’ that could conceivably match that description is ‘abrupt climate breakdown’. You leap to the conclusion that this must mean something like the ‘Methane dragon’, which you take to be a non-existent threat. But why not assume instead, what I take the phrase ‘abrupt climate breakdown’ to mean, namely: simply a ramping up of what we have already been experiencing in the past few years. Dramatic actual/potential shifts in weather and climate, such as a worsened form of the scary disruption in Arctic weather systems that we have been seeing recently. If the climate chaos we have been seeing in the last few years gets significantly worse over the coming decade, that may well, tragically, deserve the moniker ‘abrupt climate breakdown’.
And after all, roughly this is just what the situation in the Arctic etc. has been called, in papers in recent months and years of which I am sure you aware. Consider this piece from Nature Climate Change: https://www.geo.umass.edu/climate/papers2/Jansen_Nature2020.pdf / https://phys.org/news/2019-10-abrupt-shifts-arctic-climate.html .
The word “abrupt” is hardly XR’s invention. What XR are seeking to do, with science as the basis, is to raise the alarm about the direness of the emergency we are in, to help motivate action. I comprehend that, as a practicing scientist, you might prefer to use a slightly different, ‘calmer’ rhetoric yourself, but it is unfortunate if you couch such a preference by way of using epithets such as ‘doomist’ to mis-characterise those who are actually engaged on the ground, at the grassroots, in the brave and vigorous effort to shake populations and Governments out of their complacency.
Moreover, your preference for less mobilising rhetorics itself requires justification. You appear in your book to be concerned that by discussing potentially very bad outcomes and mobilising emotions on the back of those discussions, Extinction Rebellion et al may in fact create a sense of hopelessness. But the question of whether you are correct in that assumption is of course a question of psychology (and of contemporary political history), not of climate science. The remarkable success of Extinction Rebellion, especially in the country from which I am writing, the UK, suggests that forthright framings (such as the name ‘Extinction Rebellion’ itself, which many initially assumed would doom the organisation to failure) can succeed in galvanising. And the psychological evidence does not appear on balance to support your assumption; rather, it suggests that frank truth-telling and the mobilisation of difficult emotions can be more effective at fostering real action than a calmer turn of phrase. This is perhaps why some in the scientific community take a very different view from you about the appropriateness of stark truth-telling about our predicament: see e.g. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcosc.2020.615419/full .
In sum: it seems divisive of you to assume that the XR statement above is ‘doomist’, rather than being a courageous and effective warning of the clear risk of the climate chaos we currently face becoming significantly worse. Especially given that XR exists in order to warn of and forestall the doom that, as Attenborough remarks, awaits us unless we change everything fast.
Your book contains not only the criticism of XR that I seek to have rebutted above, but also a specific criticism of me. I have argued for some time that our society is fragile, vulnerable to shocks cascading from wholesale habitat destruction and from climate disasters, and that therefore we are at risk of worsening climate-/eco-disasters causing societal breakdown, within a generation or two. I think that such a warning is prudent as well as truthful. Because I do this, and because it appears that you assume (falsely) that I am relying on something like the ‘methane dragon’ hypothesis to back up my concern about the fragility of our food systems etc in the face of a rising tide of climate chaos, in your book you go on to call me out as allegedly a ‘doomist’. I assert the painful truth that societal collapse as a cascading effect of climate chaos and ecosystems-destruction, within a generation or so, can no longer be ruled out. Here is part of what you say about me :
It is pretty astonishing to find myself accused of ‘endorsing intergenerational inequity’, when, for the last twenty years, central to my academic work has been a series of arguments both logical and passionate against the vicious generational inequity that we are all now complicit in. It is even more astonishing, for the same reason, to be libelled as totally dismissive when it comes to the interests of future generations! This is the polar opposite of what my life’s work has been about. Perhaps it is just possible that you didn’t familiarise yourself with what I actually do and say before making the claim against me in your book, Michael.
I have spoken passionately repeatedly on national TV in favour of our taking the strongest possible action to safeguard future generations. I fight tooth and nail [non-violently] for my nephews and nieces and all the children of the world, and of the future. My personal philanthropy too has been almost wholly devoted to this cause. I recently got arrested for criminal damage for protesting against the lies and distortions of climate-denialism. If I am a ‘doomer’, I have a funny way of showing it!
Yet you call me “a messenger of doom”. That is quite literally turning the truth on its head. Every single talk I give (including when I speak to kids) is a rousing call to radical action: to an emergency programme of mitigation and to transformative adaptation to the impacts that are already here. You also describe my talks as “fatalistic”. I am NEVER “fatalistic”; I am always completely the opposite. (I can only assume that you have never heard/watched me speak.)
It is incredibly painful to feel obliged to say to children that they are not being kept safe, and that their future is no longer assured. That only if we rise up to protect them, to mitigate on an emergency basis and to adapt transformatively, will they have a modicum of security again. But I do it because it is true, and because I have been inspired by their uprising of the last few years. When I speak to youth climate strikers, they tell me to carry on telling the truth as I see it; because they are fed up with false reassurances from adults that everything is going to be fine.
The concern that societal collapse within a generation or so can no longer be ruled out is hardly the marginal view of cranks or ‘doommongers’ any longer. Consider this piece from Nature Scientific Reports: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-63657-6 . Or consider the recent warning from 500 scholars that it is time to contemplate the possibility of societal collapse: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=f0frHoqXLB0 . Or the reportage by Nafeez Ahmed about hard-headed militaries preparing for such possible eventualities: https://www.climatedepot.com/2019/10/24/claim-pentagon-commissioned-report-u-s-military-could-collapse-within-20-years-due-to-climate-change/ . Or the work of the Melbourne-based Breakthrough Institute: https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/climate-change-global-warming-end-human-civilisation-research-a8943531.html .
As I see it, my job — our job — is to seek to stop these possibilities from becoming actualities. But it won’t help us stop them, to refuse to even think about them or talk about them.
As I see it, anyone who claims to know for a fact that our civilisation will collapse within a generation is over-stepping what we can deduce from what we know, and risks fatalistically undermining our sense of agency. But equally, anyone who claims to know for a fact that our civilisation will not collapse within a generation or so is over-stepping what we can deduce from what we know, and risks undermining our sense of urgency.
So I put it to you, Michael, that my position and my framing is the antithesis of ‘doomism’.
But what I say does have the consequence that we can no longer blithely assure our children of a future, regardless. Instead, we have to fight like hell to make sure that they have a future.
Let’s remember here that climate decline is already killing hundreds of thousands per year: https://www.greenmatters.com/p/climate-change-death-toll . Far more than that, if one includes the deaths from eco-driven and probably climate-driven pandemics such as Covid. This tide of deaths is certain to rise for some time to come. How do we somehow assume that our own children are immune to it?
‘Front-line’ states such as Bangladesh are clearly vulnerable to climate-overwhelm within a generation or so. But we complacently assume that the USA or the UK are not. Why do we assume this, when the evidence from Covid-19 throws into stark relief the fragility of the systems in these ‘advanced’ (over-complex, and politically-deeply-troubled) countries of ours?
Consider the recent climate-chaos-caused freeze in Texas. This has killed children (as well as adults). In the heart of your country, the USA itself. Surely there shouldn’t be any taboo on saying so any longer, and on warning starkly that unless we get the situation under control, such tragic deaths are liable to increase, exponentially. The graph of such deaths will end up looking like…a hockey stick; unless we manage, even now, at the 12the hour, to turn the situation around, through radical truth-telling, and radical action.
Michael, it goes without saying that you have the best of intentions. And I respect your concern about the possible harmful effects of doomist voices. I agree with you that counsels of despair are harmful. I just want to invite you to think again about whether there is really any counselling of despair in some of those who you have labelled as engaging in ‘doomist’ framing.
My latest book is entitled ‘Parents for a future: how loving our children can prevent climate collapse.’ Michael, does that sound anything like the gospel of a doomer?
I’d love you to read the book, as I am reading yours. I think if you did, you would find that, though we have important differences in rhetoric, and in our level of concern about the possible consequences of climate chaos/breakdown for our societies during the next generation, we are quite clearly basically on the same side. That is why I have sought here to write to you in a spirit of openness and civility. I don’t think your claim about XR using ‘doomist’ framing can be sustained. I think if you knew my record and my work you wouldn’t call me a ‘doomist’ or a ‘fatalist’ either. Those are truly the last things I am.
The situation our civilisation is in is a desperately painful one. It is so very sad that we need to have these kinds of discussions at all. For humans, it’s the worst possible thing, not to be able to reassure ourselves that we can reassure our children that they definitely have a future. My book is called ‘Parents for a future’ because it is centrally about adults stepping up to take responsibility now, to ensure that our children do have a future. I don’t think it should be taboo any more to say these kinds of things, hard though they are to face.
My teacher, Joanna Macy, says that a key reason why she carries on now (she is 92 this May) is that she wants to help us not turn on each other, in these hardening times.
Michael, we in the climate movement need each other. I was sorry when you blocked me (twice) for trying to have this discussion with you on Twitter. Such blocking doesn’t seem very collegial.
Michael, thank you for your new book and for your tireless proactive work to address the existential crisis facing us all. It is really good to see the way that you call steadfastly and powerfully for adequate action, now. I am with you completely in the effort at proactivity and at managing to find a way through this terrible situation that humanity has dragged itself into.
You have put up with completely-wrong deeply-unseemly abuse for many years, from the denialists. At the time of the hack into UEA climate science emails in 2009, which of course prominently included an attack on your vital ‘hockey-stick’ discovery and presentation, I stood alongside the UEA climate scientists and helped behind the scenes with doing PR against the criminal hackers and the liars and the denialists. This included seeking to defend you, your work and your reputation.
Let’s not help out hard denialists or soft denialists (those who are hoping for a reprieve from having to act at speed and radically), who want nothing more than for us to spat among ourselves. So let me ask: How shall we have a dialogue, so that we don’t help them out? We don’t have to be perfectly aligned, obviously. But it makes sense to foreground the vast amounts of common ground between us, rather than indulging in the narcissism of small differences, which is surely an unaffordable luxury at the time of urgency we are in.
Myself (and XR, and David Wallace-Wells, who you also very strangely call a ‘doomist’ in his framing) say, roughly, “The shit is hitting the fan, and unless we change everything fast, we’re fucked”. You say, roughly, “We need to change things fast so that less shit will hit the fan”. The difference between those two positions surely does not deserve name-calling and blocking. There is all the difference in the world between those positions on the one hand and the shitty, siren refrain on the other of “The shit’s not gonna hit the fan; actually, there isn’t any shit”.
I was interested to note, in your recent Guardian interview, Michael, your helpful candid admission that fatalistic doomism is more like a mood, that anyone can fall into at times — including you. Let’s see if we can help each other not be dragged into that dark place. The situation is dark enough as it is.
So: Can we try again? Even: Can’t we all just get along? Let the new climate war not be: between us…