"So, Just How Fucked Are We?" Part One: The Language Politics of Apocalypse

We might blow past two degrees. Millions of people will continue to die. That doesn't change the way forward.

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Author’s Note: This post was originally published in May of 2016 as part of The Gate, a undergraduate publication at the University of Chicago. Part Two, which was originally published in The Anthropocene, is available here. Part Three is available here.

On January 27, I sat in my apartment and watched Al Gore’s Climate Armageddon Doomsday Clock countdown to zero.

The clock, which had been running online continuously since 2006, was created by right-wing radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh in response to a comment Gore had made that year about the urgency of addressing climate change. According to Limbaugh, Gore’s statement that humanity had ten years to prevent the planet “from reaching a tipping point” meant he was predicting that there was exactly a decade before climate change would bring humanity to a “scorching” end. Limbaugh promised to hold Gore to his word, taking it upon himself to keep time until the moment of reckoning arrived.

When the time came, nothing happened. Florida didn’t go underwater. The Great Plains remain, for the most part, quite different from the Sahara Desert. For millions of people in the United States and around the world, life doesn’t seem all that different than it did ten years ago, and the planet appears to have remained intact.

This, of course, was Limbaugh’s point. For decades, conservative pundits and other global warming skeptics have gleefully pointed out the failure of environmentalists’ ominous predictions to materialize as evidence that climate change is benign or non-existent. On Real Time with Bill Maher last year, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens made the case this way: “We’ve been hearing predictions of imminent environmental destruction for a very long time . . . to say that our number one, number two, or number three priority is climate [when the evidence of its destructive capacity has yet to materialize] may be to misallocate resources that could be better spent on stopping HIV and doing other things.”

As an environmentalist, I tend to become indignant when straw men like these are built. The full effects of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere today won’t be felt for decades, at which point it will be too late to do anything to prevent them. Over the past fifteen years, our understanding of the climate system has gotten much better, and the rate of warming so far has exceeded even the worst projections of previous models. To most scientists, the problem looks more dire than ever, especially as global emissions continue their general upward trend.

So why hasn’t the public grasped this fact? Like many expert historians and sociologists of the issue, including Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes, I think much of the blame falls on the organized climate denial machine that has been attempting to mislead and misinform the public on the issue for more than three decades.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see how the way climate activists talk about the problem lends ammunition to those wishing to discredit their case for action. In 2007, Chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Rajendra Pachari infamously predicted that “if there’s no action [on climate change] by 2012, we’re too late.” Laurent Fabius, the senior French diplomat celebrated for his successful negotiation of the Paris Accords, nevertheless remarked 565 days before the agreement was reached that “we have 500 days to avoid climate chaos.” Perhaps most infamously, in 2009 British PM Gordon Brown stated that we had “fifty days to avoid climate catastrophe” by reaching a comprehensive, legally binding agreement in Copenhagen to keep warming below two degrees Celsius. The talks failed.

I do not think statements like these overstate the issue: at this point, climate change, regardless of whether emissions are substantially reduced, will be morally catastrophic on a heretofore unseen scale. When those advocating drastic emissions cuts say there is “still time to act,” they don’t mean that catastrophes won’t occur: they are simply contending that further, even worse catastrophes than the ones that have already been locked into place by past emissions can be avoided. Thinking like a climate activist is sometimes an exercise in perversities: is the destruction of rare ecosystems viewed as a “success” if, at the same time, emissions are drastically reduced and loss of human life ranges in the millions instead of the hundreds of millions?

To call even the most optimistic scenario in a world with such grim prospects “catastrophic” seems reasonable. But there are two other, more counterproductive ways activists often talk about the problem that contribute to confusion and skepticism about the stakes of climate change. One of these problems has to do with the way climate change is moralized, a concept I’ll discuss more at length in a future article.

For now, the one I’ll focus on is this: activists warning about the dangers of the problem speak in terms of a binary of outcomes. Either action will be taken in time and disaster avoided, or action won’t be taken and a planetary nightmare will ensue. Their rhetoric is peppered with phrases illustrating this logic: emissions must be reduced “before it’s too late,” we have to act “very soon” in order to “save the planet,” etc. Either the Earth and humanity are totally screwed, or we take drastic measures and everything will be just fine.

Language like this can (perhaps unfairly) reduce the credibility of pro-mitigation arguments when the “deadline” passes and effects are not immediately felt, as was the case when Limbaugh’s clock hit zero. But it also reinforces another, much more dangerous idea: that there is a threshold we have already passed, meaning that it is useless to mitigate emissions in an attempt to avoid something that is already inevitable.

It will never be “too late” to reduce emissions. No matter how negligent we have been so far or end up being in the years ahead, it will always be better not to emit than to emit. This truth will only become more stark and urgent as time goes on.

This is not to say that “tipping points” like the one that Gore described in his interview with CBS do not exist. In fact, climate science supports the idea that the relationship between emissions and climate change is not one of linear incremental cause-and-effect but of certain thresholds being crossed, causing sporadic “spurts” of dramatic, cascading change.

But these thresholds are likely numbered, and their location uncertain. As time goes on, it is imperative that policymakers and the public understand that we are constantly faced with the choice to act or not to act. Not every ton of abated carbon will save lives, but many will. No matter how bad we let things get—no matter how many ecosystems collapse, economies shrink, or people die— there will always be things we can still save, and that are worth saving.

Johnathan Guy is a graduate student at UC Berkeley studying wealth inequality, social relations, and decarbonization. He is active in Sunrise Movement and the Democratic Socialists of America. He tweets @johnathanjguy.

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