June 17, 2022 ‘Doomism’ or Reality? Divided Over Its Message, the Climate Movement Seeks Balance

Students, activists and demonstrators hold placards during a worldwide climate strike against governmental inaction towards climate breakdown and environmental pollution on Sept. 27, 2019 in Lausanne, western Switzerland. Credit: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images
Students, activists and demonstrators hold placards during a worldwide climate strike against governmental inaction towards climate breakdown and environmental pollution on Sept. 27, 2019 in Lausanne, western Switzerland. Credit: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

Hope is a scarce commodity these days when it comes to talking about global warming. 

Extreme weather, drought and food insecurity are on the rise in many parts of the world, fueled in part by the climate crisis. Similarly, researchers believe rising temperatures are helping to drive the extinction of plants and animals to levels not seen in the last 10 million years. And despite three decades of scientists sounding the alarm over the consequences of burning fossil fuels, the world’s governments and financial institutions continue to fund new oil and gas development at record levels.

It’s a grim reality that, in recent years, has pushed advocates for climate action to adopt harsh and even apocalyptic language when discussing the issue. But a growing number of researchers, activists and mental health professionals are now urging those in the climate movement to embrace more hope and adopt a softer tone. Too much “doom and gloom” in the news and on social media, they warn, is responsible for surging anxiety among youth and is contributing to a growing sense of climate doomism—the idea that the fight against global warming is already lost so there’s no point in trying.

The debate has exposed a rift within the climate movement over how to best convey the dangers of global warming to the public—a parley made more significant in the light of the pandemic and as political gridlock and an ongoing war in Ukraine threaten to derail the international effort to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.

“I think there’s this schism in the climate movement right now, where there’s this group of moderates who have long said that the most effective way to create change is to not scare the public,” Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, told me in an interview. But “frankly, fear and panic have a very useful function.”

In many ways, fear has helped propel the climate movement into the juggernaut it is today. Climate activists like Greta Thunberg, who’s largely credited with the widespread mobilization of youth around global warming, have used frightful rhetoric as a way to shame adults into taking action.

“I don’t want your hope, I want you to panic,” a then 15-year-old Thunberg famously told a room full of world leaders in 2019. “I want you to feel the fear I do every day, and want you to act. I want you to behave like our house is on fire because it is.”

The speech quickly became a rallying cry for activists frustrated by government inaction and corporate greenwashing, and for a generation of youth afraid their leaders were sacrificing their future for profit. And there’s at least some research that suggests fear is a helpful motivator. A 2020 study published in Nature found that “pessimistic” climate messages can trigger higher engagement from the public than ones focused on “optimistic” messages.

But lately, that kind of language has received criticism from many within the movement. When the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest grim report in April, saying that humanity was failing to keep the planet on a trajectory that would avoid some of the worst consequences of climate change, one of the report’s authors warned that it was “now or never” to act.

Michael Mann, a prominent climatologist and professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, immediately pushed back.

“The combined stresses of the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, and economic troubles stemming from spiking oil and gas prices, inflation, and growing global inequality have pushed us to our limits— geopolitically, environmentally, and psychologically,” Mann wrote in an essay the following week. “The problem with ‘now or never’ is that it implies a hard threshold at 1.5°C that if we fail to achieve, it’s game over. But this game will never be over.”

In fact, Mann—who’s highly regarded within the climate movement for his groundbreaking work documenting the relationship between rising temperatures and increasing carbon dioxide levels—dedicated a chapter of his recent book, “The New Climate War,” to the subject of doomism, arguing that people need to maintain hope or risk sabotaging the movement from within. “It’s great to see the message catching on,” Mann told me in an email.

Kalmus, who says his opinions don’t reflect NASA’s, also caught flak in April when he joined more than 1,000 other climate researchers in mass protest around the world, calling the movement “Scientist Rebellion” and urging others to join them in civil disobedience to pressure governments to act quicker on global warming. Their slogan? “1.5 is dead, climate revolution now!”

Talk of the demonstrations spread quickly on social media, but many youth misinterpreted the message, Alaina Wood, a sustainability scientist and climate communicator, warned in a series of online posts. She soon saw hundreds of messages and videos of children and teenagers expressing anxiety and despair, thinking the world was ending in as soon as eight years—the amount of time scientists say humanity has to reduce global emissions 60 percent in order to keep the 1.5 degree threshold alive.

“I get at least a dozen messages/comments daily from children and teenageers asking me if the world will truly end in 10 years or less because of the climate crisis,” Wood wrote in an April 22 tweet. “Our messaging has failed if this is what they believe.”

Psychologists, too, have pushed for a more hopeful tone. In March, the American Psychological Association published a 64-page report about rising climate anxiety, offering guidance for how mental health professionals can address the issue. Gale Sinatra, who led the report, said in a press release that “too much doomsday information in media coverage about climate change” was causing people to “tune out” rather than “engage.” 

Research shows that a growing number of adults, and particularly young adults, are choosing not to have children because of global warming—another sign that people are losing faith in their future and succumbing to doomism, Wood and others have argued. One in four childless adults cited climate change as a reason for not having children, a 2020 Morning Consult poll found.

“People are having panic attacks, suicidal thoughts” and “giving up plans for their future because of this,” Wood wrote on Twitter, urging those in the climate movement to adjust their tone and focus instead on solutions. “There needs to be some sort of distinction between ‘I’m scared but won’t give up’ eco-anxiety and ‘I’m giving up and having mental breakdowns’ eco-anxiety.”

But Kalmus said he and others involved in Scientist Rebellion are, in fact, focusing on solutions—namely that the world needs to rapidly switch from using fossil fuels to renewable energy. It’s government leaders and global financiers that are refusing to pursue that solution quickly enough, he said.

One recent report found that 60 of the largest global banks have consistently increased their financing of fossil fuels over the years, pumping a record $4.6 trillion into the industry since 2016. “I don’t think it’s helpful to sugarcoat things and tone things down,” Kalmus said.

“The truth,” he added, “is scary.”

The world certainly isn’t ending in eight years, nor will it in 2100. But scientists say it does face serious ecological damage if more isn’t done to slow climate change. The planet has already warmed nearly 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and research now estimates that there is only a 6-10 percent chance of keeping it below the 1.5 degree threshold. Once that is crossed, sea level is expected to rise by 10 to 30 inches, 14 percent of the world is predicted to face more extreme heat, 90 percent of all coral reefs could die out and about 7 percent of the Earth’s land could shift into a new biome—meaning grasslands turn into deserts and tundra into forest.

At 2 degrees Celsius, which is what many believe the Earth is on track to hit by 2100 under the latest commitments of the Paris Agreement, those climate impacts are projected to be twice as bad. Earlier this month, an analysis of those pledges found that only a handful of nations are on track to meet them.

That is leading some in the far fringes of the climate movement to declare any efforts to slow climate change futile. Known as the “Deep Adaptation” movement, academics like Jem Bendell and Rupert Read argue that humanity has no chance of stopping global warming and should instead begin preparing for societal collapse.

Kalmus rejects that his movement is like Deep Adaptation, which he “strongly disagrees with,” but admits that more could be done to help people understand that being afraid shouldn’t mean giving up. “If you’re really worried about this, and you’re working around the clock to do everything you can to create social change and to fight for the coolest possible future, I don’t think that you’re a doomer—despite what the climate moderates might say,” he said. “I think we’re really on the same side.”

Wood, too, has said she agrees with the message of Scientist Rebellion, and only wants more to be done to help youth from misunderstanding, or worse, believing credible science that has been co-opted by bad actors and skewed into disinformation.

That’s a fear that Mann shares as well. “Fossil fuel interests have actually weaponized doomism, as they recognize it leads climate advocates down the path of despair, hopelessness and disengagement—which is actually what they want,” Mann told me. “They want climate advocates on the sidelines, not the frontlines.”

In an interview with Bill McKibben, the prominent climate activist and founder of 350.org told me that, ultimately, what’s important is honest balance. “My sense over time is that it pays simply to be honest, neither trying to scare people nor trying to soothe them,” he said. “It’s been important to me that at least we knew what we were doing, so we didn’t sleepwalk over the cliff.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading. The newsletter will be taking a break next Tuesday in honor of Juneteenth, but I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

Today’s Indicator

7 million

That’s how many acres burned in wildfires last year, up from 3 million acres in 1993, according to a new report from the Congressional Budget Office. That led to the U.S. spending $2.5 billion to fight wildfires between 2016 and 2020, the agency said.