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It's all around us—and it isn't helping
I’ve been thinking a lot about doom.
Last month, The Washington Post published an op-ed by Georgetown’s Dagomar Degroot titled “Our planet is not doomed. That means we can, and must, act.” As someone who has long preferred a less catastrophist flavor of climate advocacy, I was inclined towards much of Degroot’s argument:
New research suggests that if we stop releasing more greenhouse gases than environments—and perhaps new technologies—can absorb, the Earth will soon stop warming. How soon would depend on whether we also stop emitting aerosol pollutants and on natural variability in the Earth’s climates. Yet we are not committed to a much hotter future.
But how prevalent is the “climate doomism” that Degroot describes, and what are its effects?
One the one hand, I agree with climate blogger David Roberts, who gently criticized Degroot’s piece, writing that “‘doomism’ is similar to ‘degrowth’ in that I encounter people criticizing it FAR more often than I encounter the actual thing.” And it’s true that arguments like that of Jonathan Franzen, who wrote in 2019 that “We need to admit that we can’t prevent [the climate apocalypse],” are relatively rare.
On the other hand, I think Roberts (and, to an extent, Degroot) draw too tight a circle around the concept of doomism. One need not throw up their hands and resign to inevitable climate cataclysm to engage in doomism. On the contrary, if you look for it, doomism really is all around us.
It is a form of doomism to systematically rely on implausible worst-case emissions scenarios in climate impact assessments and activist campaigns.
It is a form of doomism for U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry to declare that the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) at Glasgow is “the last best hope to do what the scientists tell us we must which is to avoid the worst consequences of climate by making decisions now and implementing them now.”
It is a form of doomism to continue to entertain the notion that “having a child in a developed nation is among the most environmentally unsound decisions you can make.”
It is a form of doomism to assert that “If Manchin isn’t stopped, climate destruction is assured,” a sentiment many climate hawks are amplifying in response to Senator Joe Manchin’s objections to parts of the Democrats’ reconciliation package.
One of the more pernicious forms of doomism, in my view, is the goalpost-shifting that occurs when signs of progress become too obvious to ignore. Even if the worst-case RCP8.5 emissions scenario leading to 5 or 6 degrees of warming can be ruled out, it is suggested, any warming above the novel and equally improbable 1.5 degree threshold is now considered apocalyptic.
Now one might argue that these attitudes are merely pessimistic rather than doomistic, correctly observing that climate change carries large and, at the tail-end of the probability-distribution curve, existential risks to at least large swaths of human and non-human existence on Earth. And of course the Franzen shade of doomism differs from the Kerry shade which differs from the anti-natalist shade, indicating some spectrum of doom.
What might distinguish true doomism from run-of-the-mill environmental catastrophism is a kind of millenarianism, a sense that apocalypse is assured unless sweeping and wholesale societal transformations occur in time to avert it. This is the political work that the cryptic “climate emergency” concept does in the world. As I wrote a couple years ago:
Rather than mobilizing support and generating political buy-in for what is sure to be a decades-long effort to cope with rising emissions and temperatures, a national emergency or ‘wartime mobilization’ is imagined to solve our problems cleanly and suddenly.
If climate change really were an asteroid on a path to wipe out human civilization, then radical, world-altering actions would indeed be a reasonable and even necessary response. But that is usually where the doomists give the game away. The climate cataclysm is imminent, we are told, but the reaction must align with certain highly ideological commitments. Any response that allows continued use of, say, nuclear energy, genetically modified agriculture, or personal vehicles is verboten.
Understood this way, doomism does not merely take the form of apathy or nihilism. Indeed, it more often manifests as utopianism, a smuggling of allegedly scientifically-based catastrophe for the purposes of advancing radical political ends.
We can debate what effect all this doomism has on our discourse and on climate action. Doomism has clearly not fully “derailed” the very progress that continues to make doomier outcomes less and less likely. But I do think, for instance, that climate hawks are somewhat correct when they argue visions of the climate apocalypse are intensifying anxiety and depression in adults and especially children. To me, that’s reason enough to tone down the doomism.
I also think attachment to implausible climate scenarios and targets weakens policymakers’ ability to advance pragmatic climate progress. Demanding global agreement on the 1.5 degree target is threatening to upend negotiations at COP26. I would expect Democrats to pass the reconciliation package with all the climate provisions originally included, but attachment to arbitrary emissions targets have been the primary sticking point for progressives in Congress. Making fantastical assertions the center of our scientific understanding of climate change does and should degrade the credibility of the side that professes to “believe in science.”
None of this is to suggest that climate change is not a serious problem worth addressing. But as my colleague Zeke Hausfather likes to say, “warnings of literal human extinction is an absurdly high bar to apply to outcomes of aggressive mitigation.”
And on both the definition of doomism and the proper responses to climate change, your mileage may vary. But that’s the point. There are important personal, social, scientific, and policy debates over the proper responses to climate change.
Doomism is an attempt to usurp those debates.
So I find it important to recognize and understand doom, not just among the disengaged and the apathetic, but, even more importantly, among the most highly motivated and influential climate advocates. It is in their hands that doom can do the most damage.