The situation is perilous but it is neither too late nor too expensive to reign in climate change. For decades action to combat global warming was delayed by climate change deniers, while such denial is in decline it is being replaced by “doomers” who say we are beyond the point of being able to do anything about it. While we may be dangerously close to tipping points from which we may not be able to recover, the best science we have suggests that there is still time to act. There is no doubt that acting on climate change at the required scale is a massive undertaking, but we will have no chance of succeeding if we subscribe to defeatism.
Climate scientist Michael Mann said doomerism and efforts to shift responsibility to individuals is the new face of climate denial. In a Guardian article, Rebecca Solnit quotes Mann who calls those who feel it is too late to reign in climate change “inactivists” and “doomists”. In his book “The Climate Wars” Mann says defeatism is the successor to climate denial and he describes it as, “the great obstacle to addressing the crisis.”
As explained in an article by Bryan Schatz, Mann is a scientist who has been viciously attacked for exposing climate denial from the fossil fuel industry and the GOP, now he is fighting doomers who think the climate fight is futile. Mann refers to “doomerism” as the other “D” and explains that doomists are the ‘other force of inaction’. The cult of doom is represented by the writings of people like David Wallace-Wells and Jonathan Franzen.
Solnit wrote “amateurs and newcomers tend to be more alarmist and defeatist than the insiders and experts.” and this gives them an excuse to do nothing. Those who believe we can address these challenges are derided as “techno-optimists” by doomers and they are dismissed as being high on “hopium”. Like climate deniers, doomers cherry-pick evidence and ignore contradicting evidence.
David Romps, Goldman Distinguished Chair in the Physical Sciences, Professor, Department of Earth and Planetary Science, Director, Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center echoed Mann’s sentiments:
As reviewed in 2019 by Business Insider, climate experts railed against the inaccuracies of Jonathan Franzen’s ‘climate doomist’ opinion column published in the New Yorker. In an essay titled “What If We Stopped Pretending,” Franzen wrote that the destruction of the planet by human-induced climate change is inevitable and that environmentalists and climate change activists are delusional for trying to stop it. Climate author Alex Steffen called Franzen’s essay, “the worst piece on climate change yet published this decade” he went on to say it is “flawed in both concept and execution, morally cowardly, and lavishly self-indulgent.”
Franzen’s article was also criticized by academics including Leah Stokes, assistant professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara; and Gernot Wagner, climate economist and professor at New York University professor, and Jonathan Foley, environmental scientists and a director of Project Drawdown.
“It’s hard to imagine major outlets publishing essays declaring efforts to reduce poverty hopeless. Or telling cancer patients to just give up,” John Upton, an editor at Climate Central, wrote on Twitter. “Yet this Climate Doomist trope flourishes — penned, best I can tell, exclusively by older, comfy white men.”
It’s not too late but it will be if we fail to act
The situation is indeed perilous but there is still time to avert catastrophe. While sensationalism may garner headlines, the defeatist testimonies of the prophets of doom do not stand up to scrutiny. Ben Piven recently wrote that those who fear it’s too late to change the planet’s future should heed the views of experts who think humanity still has time to turn things around. The data indicates that as of 2021 there is around 419 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) the primary greenhouse gas (GHG) driving climate change. In 2018 the IPCC indicated that humanity has until 2030 to avoid potentially irreversible climate disruption. By this time we will need to draw down emissions by at least 45 percent compared to 2010 levels. A more precise estimate suggests we have just over 6 years to cut atmospheric emissions in half.
A notion related to the defeatism of doomers is that it is too expensive to address the climate crisis. This is another ruse. Economists suggest that if we act now we could fix climate change with less than 1 percent of world GDP. What makes the situation even more urgent is the fact that the longer we wait the more it will cost. An array of economic assessments provide cost-benefit analyses that overwhelmingly support the logic of immediate climate action. There are also a host of economic opportunities associated with building out a green economy.
There is no point at which climate action becomes pointless. While we cannot stop climate change, we can minimize some of its most serious impacts. Climate action is not an all-or-nothing proposition, we can limit warming through mitigation efforts and minimize adverse consequences through adaptation. However, as explained by the U.N. Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, we need urgent action to address the climate crisis. Time is of the essence and the sooner we act the better our chances.
What would happen if climate change continues unchecked?
We are already in the midst of a global disaster, the question is how bad will it get? The seriousness of the threat we face was reviewed in a 2020 perspective article published in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science that warns of a “ghastly future” of mass extinction and perhaps even the end of humanity.
Even if we slash emissions today, the GHGs are baked into the atmosphere and as such will have lingering impacts for decades. So while we may not be able to stop the melting of Antarctic glaciers, if we act now we can stave off some of the worst climate impacts and avoid the collapse of civilization.
We are already more than 1℃ above preindustrial norms which is edging perilously close to the 1.5 – 2℃ upper threshold temperature limit contained in the Paris Agreement. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that will be released on August 9th is expected to state that climate change is getting worse and we are now very unlikely to be able to keep temperatures from breaching the 1.5 ℃ above preindustrial norms. However, baring black swan events keeping temperatures below the 2℃ mark is still within reach.
Present atmospheric GHG concentrations commit the world to an additional 0.3 to 0.8 ℃ warming this century If left unchecked we are on track to see a 3 -5℃ temperature increase this century. We will experience more heat, more melting ice, more sea-level rise, more floods, more storms, more droughts, more desertification, more fires, more agricultural failures, more famines, more conflicts, more climate refugees, and more mass migrations. Coastlines around the world will be inundated, we will be battered by extreme weather, geopolitics will be destabilized and the global economy will collapse. The dynamics of climate change are complex and include numerous feedback loops like methane hydrate releases from permafrost melting. that may trigger tipping points that make it impossible for us to recover. So it is not hyperbole to say that what we do in the next six years will determine the fate of civilization.
Many climate activists and scientists have indicated that they believe billions will perish in the coming decades if warming is allowed to continue. This includes Roger Hallam, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Professor Kevin Anderson of the U.K.’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, and Robbie Kaiviti, GPEAA Science Committee Projects Leader.
That which we cannot know with certainty at present may represent the greatest threat. As reviewed in a Bloomberg article the late Harvard economist Martin Weitzman argued that what we don’t yet know and can’t yet quantify is cause for concern. The absence of data makes these unknowns and unknowable low-probability events, but they could end up being high-impact catastrophes that are the stuff of nightmares.
This is not just another failed apocalyptic prophecy
There have been prophets of doom dating back into prehistory. Thus far all of their dire predictions have not materialized, but climate change science should not be confused with the musings of soothsayers. In 1972 the Massechutesttes Institute of Technology (MIT) published a study called, “The Limits of Growth,” which employed a systems dynamics model. This research concluded that rapid economic growth will lead to the collapse of industrial civilization this century. The apocalyptic prediction of this study has been corroborated by other studies including a recently published article titled “Update to limits to growth: Comparing the World3 model with empirical data“. It was authored by Gaya Herrington, the Sustainability and Dynamic System Analysis Lead at KPMG in the U.S. Her research confirms the MIT study’s prediction that the overexploitation of planetary resources will lead to the collapse of civilization. The Herrington study says we are heading toward the “terminal decline of economic growth within the coming decade” which could trigger societal collapse by around 2040 (other studies predict societal collapse could occur by 2050). According to Herrington the most important implication of her research is that it’s not too late to create a truly sustainable civilization that works for all.
However, if we continue with business as usual, scientific modeling suggests that we can expect to see the complete collapse of global ecosystems, the end of the global economy, a breakdown of order, and the unraveling of the fabric of society. Kaivitti expects governments will fall, healthcare will become inaccessible and basic sustenance will grow scarce. Those who survive will need to guard against dangerous marauders. According to Kaiviti it will all happen faster than you might think. However, unlike the prophets of doom people like Kaivitti write about a dystopian future to encourage people to demand change that could avert catastrophe.
Are we doing enough to stop climate change?
Despite the Paris accord, Greta Thunberg, and mass public protests governments, businesses, and civil society are not doing enough to address the global emergency. Our species is rushing head-long towards oblivion and we are taking a host of other species with us. However, we are seeing progress. More than 120 countries have committed to net-zero emissions by 2050 (China by 2060) and more than 70 countries have put forth solid plans to get there. Consistent with the goals laid out in the Paris agreement, the US, EU, and Japan have all committed to cut emissions in half by 2030. The UK promised to cut its emissions by more than three quarters by 2035.
The business, financial, and investment communities are inculcating sustainability into their operations. The fossil fuel industry is dying and its social license to operate is being revoked. The industry has lost its financial allure and those who are still holding on have seen just how costly stranded assets can be. The courts and investors are challenging dirty energy while the banking and the insurance industries are backing away from fossil fuel projects.
Economics is driving the adoption of renewable energy with ever-increasing intensity. Clean energy and storage cost declines are accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels and helping renewable energy implementation to consistently outpace expectations. This trend has been reinforced by the Covid-19 pandemic which has helped renewables and hurt fossil fuels.
As confirmed by the latest IPCC report there is no avoiding the fact that we are not moving quickly enough. As explained by Guterres, we are losing the race against climate change, and if this continues it could have catastrophic consequences.
Eighty-four percent of the world’s primary energy today is still derived from fossil fuels and this is contributing to the 37-50 billion tonnes of C02 we pump into the atmosphere annually. Despite the prodigious growth of renewables, they are not keeping pace with increasing energy demand and this is compounded by legitimate concerns about the resources required to build out renewable energy at the required scale. Renewable energy output will grow by 8 percent in 2021 but this will meet only half of the anticipated increase in global energy demand.
It is not just that we are not doing enough to transition away from fossil fuels. We are not doing anywhere near enough to decarbonize and electrify our economies. Nor are we doing enough to combat deforestation, manage soil oxidization and decrease emissions from agriculture. We are also not seeing sufficient action to address biodiversity loss and resource depletion. Even though we are failing to do what needs to be done, this does not mean that it cannot be done. If we choose to act in earnest over the next few years there is still time to avert an apocalyptic future.