Exaggerated climate claims erode public trust in science and hinder efforts to address genuine environmental challenges.
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Climate in crisis: The deceptive call of the apocalypse

Exaggerated climate claims erode trust in science, hindering genuine environmental efforts. Accurate communication is key to progress.

Climate change, long sidelined, is now central to politics, media, and popular discourse. This is well-justified; the Earth is warming at an unprecedented rate. Natural disasters are exacerbated by climate change. Humans must curb carbon emissions and remove carbon from the atmosphere to slow global warming. Within climate hawk circles, there is consensus that humanity should move towards net-zero emissions as soon as possible. These are monumental challenges demanding action.

Media often portrays climate change as an impending apocalypse, with headlines warning of catastrophic tipping points. These narratives, rooted in the idea of total destruction, evoke fear and urgency, aiming to spur action. However, such portrayals rely on quantifiable thresholds, which, once crossed, are said to spell doom. Accompanied by dramatic imagery, these stories activate fear and anxiety, driving a call for climate action. But this characterization of climate change is simply wrong. Humanity is not inevitably headed toward a climate-fueled apocalypse, and fear-based appeals do not generate the type of action needed to address climate change. Rather, they breed solutions out of urgency, sometimes resulting in ineffective outcomes, can cause counterintuitive behavior, and risk sidestepping the democratic process.

Credit. Midjourney

“Planetary boundaries” are problematic

Much of the apocalyptic rhetoric is based on the idea that quantifiable limits, once breached, signal the end of life on this planet. Johan Rockström and colleagues coined the term in 2009. It defines nine biophysical factors—land-use change, biodiversity loss, nitrogen and phosphorous levels, freshwater use, ocean acidification, climate change, ozone depletion, aerosol loading, and chemical pollution—which are “hard boundaries”. The appeal of the Planetary Boundaries hypothesis lies in its clarity and clear directives.

But like so many scientific theories, the concept of planetary boundaries does not emerge objectively from science; rather, it is the product of a number of methodological—and sometimes prescriptive—decisions made by very human scientists at a particular place and time.

Rockström clearly stated that the Planetary Boundary hypothesis was a normative project. But science is infused with problematic assumptions. For one, planetary boundaries are determined using the global scale. Assuredly, one of the nine factors—climate—is global in scope. However, the other eight factors vary at the local and regional scale. Some, like biodiversity, have no global tipping point at all. Despite appearing as hard science, the Planetary Boundaries hypothesis is part of science and advocacy.

Portraying climate risk as apocalyptic may backfire, inducing fear and anxiety instead of spurring action. Research suggests such framing can fuel climate denialism by contradicting beliefs in a fair world. Additionally, it may bolster support for maintaining the status quo, discouraging climate action altogether. If humanity is perceived as doomed, motivation to address climate change diminishes.

The risks of climatism

In his book “Climate Change Isn’t Everything,” Mike Hulme critiques the trend of viewing all environmental issues solely through a climate lens, which he terms “climatism.” He argues that this approach can divert attention from important issues and hinder climate goals. Hulme highlights an instance in Sumatra where EU efforts to reduce carbon emissions through palm-based biofuels inadvertently led to increased deforestation and carbon release. He cautions that prioritizing urgent action over thoughtful deliberation, driven by apocalyptic narratives, risks undermining the democratic process.

Another problem with apocalyptic narratives is that scientists lose public credibility when dramatic claims are overstated. The proclamation “Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6 degrees Celsius by 2100 and call for action ahead of the UN meeting in Paris” is untrue. Environmentalists invoke similarly dramatic declarations with respect to other environmental problems; “There are only 60 years of farming left if soil degradation continues”, “We will see virtually empty oceans by 2048” and “By 2025, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans, study says”. All around, the sky seems to be falling. 

Claims such as these are exaggerated or simply untrue. Some of this is due to subjective and occasionally questionable interpretation of data, as well as normative objectives. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) uses RCP’s (Representative Concentration Pathways) to model alternative climate scenarios. But the most regularly used scenario, RCP8.5, models the future as though humans were to take no action on climate. While this generates dramatic headlines, it simply doesn’t match reality. Not only does it deny the huge strides being made in the climate world, it denies the ability of humans to take charge and create a better future.

The world is getting better

There are many reasons to think that we are, and can continue, to change our climate trajectory. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol included pledges by the other 50 nations to reduce Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s). Peaking in the late 1980’s, global CFC emissions are down 95%. As countries industrialize, living standards rise, and carbon emissions are reduced. One example is the transition in the developing world from fuelwood to cleaner cooking oils. The Paris Agreement constituted global commitments to emissions reductions and transparency.

The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act has already doubled the US emissions reductions. Carbon emissions per-person have peaked and are decreasing due to technological progress; an individual in the developed world emits far less carbon than they would have 100 years ago. While climate change undoubtedly influences extreme weather events, death from said events has been dramatically reduced. The list goes on. Humanity is already adapting to and mitigating climate change and will continue to do so in the future.

Paul Hoggett stated, “The quandary we face is how to sound the alarm without being alarmist”. There are a number of actions that can be taken to address climate, from the large-scale—improving crop yields, aggressively pursuing Net-Zero emissions, increasing agricultural yields—to the individual—forgoing an SUV or a car altogether, reducing or eliminating flying, and moving to a plant-based diet.

It’s not too late

Climate change will rightfully remain the central issue of our time. But the end of life on earth is not inevitable. We are not barreling on a crash course towards the destruction of humanity. We can make choices. We can broaden the range of tools in our toolbox through continuing research on carbon capture and storage and advanced nuclear reactor technologies. Gratefully, managing climate change will be relatively banal, not a sudden fiery collapse.

There are many things we can do as both decision-makers and citizens to curtail the negative impacts of framing climate apocalyptically. The first, of course, is to recognize how apocalypse risks lead to implementing solutions that do not match squarely with the issue at hand. Sometimes, the dire framing of climate change is used to justify accelerated decision-making, squelching alternate voices.

Another space in which climate apocalysm can be addressed is in the media. While scorched forests, barren deserts, and empty reservoirs illustrate dramatic stories, they sometimes minimize scientific uncertainty or compromise science altogether. Dramatic claims are often made based on no-action scenarios, but a no-action scenario is wrong; humans are already proactively addressing climate change, and emissions are dropping significantly. On the other end, readers must be critical of overstated climate claims, especially when climate apocalysm is used to increase or agitate a readership.

Conclusions

Apocalyptic framing of climate change, driven by normative goals, may hinder climate action, evoke despair, and promote ineffective solutions. However, it’s inaccurate to suggest that a climate apocalypse directly leads to negative psychological effects. While some may envision an apocalypse as a fresh start, the reality demands proactive efforts to address our challenges. We should not assume that optimists are climate change denialists or somehow minimizing the severity of the climate crisis. Humanity’s ongoing climate change mitigation offers reasons for optimism, not apocalysm, underscoring that it’s not too late to take action.

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Journal reference

Bernstein, J. (2024). Mike Hulme. Climate change isn’t everything: liberating climate politics from alarmism: Polity Press, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-023-00870-5

Dr Jennifer Bernstein is Editor-in-Chief of the academic journal, Case Studies in the Environment, Senior Fellow Liaison at the Breakthrough Institute, and adjunct faculty at Tarleton State University. Her research employs interdisciplinary methods to better understand American environmentalism. She is the author of Sustainable Consumption and Production: A Revolutionary Challenge for the 21st Century, and the University of Southern California 2022 Undergraduate Mentor of the Year.