Apocalyptic predictions only feed fear, despair, and skepticism. Liam Glen writes on why environmental activists should not misrepresent the science.
In 2018, a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested global warming of more than 1.5C will be unavoidable if greenhouse gas emissions do not decline by 2020.
Recently, the BBC reported on this with the headline, “Climate change: 12 years to save the planet? Make that 18 months.”
These types of apocalyptic predictions are red meat for self-proclaimed “skeptics.” In March, Fox News’s Maxim Lott wrote on “10 times ‘experts’ predicted the world would end by now.” In May, he felt the need to follow it up with “Five most over-the-top climate warnings.”
According to this argument, environmentalists are just alarmists. They have been predicting the end of the world for decades. There is no reason to think that they are right this time around.
Do the skeptics have a point? They are still laughably in error, but a broken clock is right twice a day. The world is not ending, and it is not particularly helpful to claim that it is.
Science Is Complicated
Many of the talking points around climate change portray a binary set of outcomes. Either we take dramatic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and everything will be okay, or we do nothing and we all drown.
The truth is more nuanced. Very rarely does all the research point in the same direction (which is why in the rare cases it does, such as human activity changing the climate, it is essential to listen), but it is generally safe to see climate change as something that happens on a spectrum. The less we act, the worse it gets. In any scenario, however, it is unlikely to be an existential threat to human civilization.
Still “not the literal end of the world” is a low bar to meet. Rising sea levels and changing weather patterns will fuel poverty, starvation, epidemics, and mass displacement.
Scientists tend to be cautious, not advertising any claims that they cannot back up with rigorous evidence. Meanwhile, activists see it as their job to drive change by emphasizing the problem’s urgency. But when they do not take the time to do their research, this can create embarrassing situations.
In 2006, Al Gore predicted that 2016 would be Earth’s point of no return. More recently, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was criticized when she said, “Millennials, and Gen Z, and all these folks that come after us, are looking up and we’re like ‘the world will end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change.’”
According to the BBC, Prince Charles says that he is “firmly of the view that the next 18 months will decide our ability to keep climate change to survivable levels and to restore nature to the equilibrium we need for our survival,”
Needless to say, none of these people are experts on the subject. Prince Charles, in fact, is notorious for his scientific illiteracy. But when they make claims like this, it is only more ammunition to those seeking to discredit the scientific consensus.
Moreover, many of those who believe these apocalyptic predictions are too overcome with despair to take meaningful action. Pessimism about the future of humanity has even led some to neglect saving for their retirement or refuse to have children.
Hopelessness is not useful for mass action. Instead, those who care about the issue (especially affluent people in developed countries, who will be the least affected but have the greatest ability to act) need to remember that things will be bad, but it is never too late to stop them from getting worse. They should not mourn for a lost future, but organize for a better one.