The first 20 years of this millennium, 2000-2019, has seen a sharp increase in major recorded natural disasters, a report by a UN agency on 12 October has found. 7,348 recorded events killed 1.23 million people, affected 4.2 billion (many multiple times), and caused roughly US$2.97 trillion of global economic losses. In the 20 years previous, 4,212 recorded natural disasters killed roughly 1.19 million people, affected 3.25 billion, and caused approximately US$1.63 trillion loss.
“ While better recording and reporting may partly explain some of the increase in events, much of it is due to a significant rise in the number of climate-related disasters”, they report. Climate related disasters make up the overwhelming majority of these natural disasters.
As greenhouse gas levels rise, and the world heats up, invaluable but scary reports of different impacts of climate crises come out at ever-increasing frequency. The continued failure of governments and institutions to shift adequately make it tempting for environmentalists to hype the worst-case calculations, evoke apocalyptic spectres, and prophesy ever-more alarming scenarios of ultimate doom. Surely this will motivate people to make the change we need?
It’s notable that despite many exciting and groundbreaking things being done at CERN, the one thing which first catapulted it into the popular limelight was unfounded concerns that the LHC may accidentally create a black hole which would gobble up our whole planet.
David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, as reported by Todd Hamer in Solidarity 563, falls into a long tradition of such environmental doom-mongering.
Understandable and tempting it may be, such doom-mongering can badly back-fire.
The Uninhabitable Earth’s page of contents reads like an itinerary for the day of judgement: “Elements of Chaos”, “Heat Death”, “Dying Oceans”, “Unbreathable Air”, “Plagues of Warming”, “Economic Collapse”, “Ethics at the End of the World”, and more.
A cross examination of some of Wallace-Wells’ claims convinced me that I should take his claims with a bowl-full of salt. More damningly, a science-reviewing website, looking at the original article the book was based on, states: “Seventeen scientists analyzed the article and estimated its overall scientific credibility to be ‘low’. A majority of reviewers tagged the article as: Alarmist, Imprecise/Unclear, Misleading.”
We know, on the basis of rock-solid science, that the impacts of climate change will be very severe. Exaggeration and cherry-picking are not only unnecessary, but undermine our case. It creates a chink in environmentalists’ armour, undermining trust in science and climate activists.
While Wallace-Wells may be a stark example, these certainly aren’t unique issues in the environmental movement, or in communication about science more generally. It is for this reason, not a particular gripe with one author, that I’m taking up this issue.
More damaging, though, is the double edged sword of the apocalypse narrative. On the one hand it can feed a sense of urgency and importance. On the other hand it can feed a sense of despair, of impotence. This is particularly true with descriptions of climate change as a “hyperobject”. Not only may things become bad, but — as with the prophesies of the bible — you can’t even hope to understand them.
Todd’s review rightly critiques Wallace-Wells’ lack of political strategy, and instead Todd places front and centre “the urgent task” of “developing working-class agency and power.” A sense of agency, of the dangers but also the possibilities, and what is necessary to bring about those possibilities, is what is most needed. This is also a more rational assessment of our predicament.
It is emphatically not the case that — as is often asserted in the climate movement — beyond a specified date, if we have not reduced greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum proportion, then Game Over, The End of the World is nigh, we will face an Inexorable Doomsday in which first human civilisation collapses, then humanity itself goes extinct, perhaps even followed by all advanced life on earth.
There can be positive feedback mechanisms, which we don’t adequately understand, and can’t fully predict. But we do know that the greater, and the faster the warming, and the less the adaptation, the worse the outcomes. Failing to limit warming to 1.5°C would be catastrophic. But limiting it at 2°C would still be better than 2.5°C, 2.5°C better than 3°C, and even 5°C better than 6°C. There is no point at which we may rationally pronounce that we’ve failed, better luck next time, the best we can hope for is a quick death for humanity and for life on earth.
There is no point at which working-class environmental activism becomes useless because it is completely overwhelmed by doom.