climate change media climate emergency
(Image: Unsplash/Anqi Lu)

According to a policy paper published by the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, an independent think tank based in Melbourne, there is a “high likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end” by 2050 if immediate action is not taken.

Vice published an article about the paper on Tuesday with the headline “’High likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end’ in 2050, new report suggests”, which was later edited to read “starting in 2050”. The initial headline led to understandably panicked reactions on social media.

Climate messaging is critical at this time, and there have been moves to “rebrand” it. The Guardian recently announced a shift to using the terms “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown”. Editor-in-chief Katharine Viner explained that “climate change” sounded too passive when scientists are talking about a “catastrophe for humanity”.

Climate scientists and journalists face a dilemma of how to share information without promoting a sense of inevitability, fatalism and nihilism.

The pros and cons of doomsday messaging

Brian Kahn, senior reporter at Earther and lecturer in Columbia University’s master’s program in climate and society, told Crikey “the report raises a lot of questions for me”.

“I think scenario planning has its uses, but the idea that there is a ‘high likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end’ by 2050 seems to rely on some tenuous assumptions about the climate system and human behaviour.

“A bigger issue, though, is that the hubbub about whether civilisation will end or not detracts from the very real issue that we’re in for a very rude surprise if carbon emissions aren’t curtailed soon. Society doesn’t have to come crashing down for a world that’s 1.5°C or 2°C warmer to be a very dangerous, challenging place to live.”

Considering all that, I asked Kahn whether the media using language like “climate emergency” is helpful.

“Whatever gets people to act on climate change and push for systemic change is useful. For some, thinking about climate change as an emergency will spur them to redouble their efforts. Doomsday scenarios can shake people from the reverie to understand the gravity of humanity’s current predicament.”

However, while doomsday scenarios spur some into action, they can have the opposite effect. Kahn explained that for some people, and particularly conservatives, framing the issue as a crisis or an emergency can “trigger a backlash or boomerang effect, entrenching their belief that action isn’t necessary”.

Costa Avgoustinos, an academic and PhD candidate researching climate change and the Australian constitution at the University of New South Wales’ law faculty acknowledged that doomsday messaging can be harmful if it stops people from acting. He also added, “if thinking about doomsday scenarios is the kind of thing that compels you into action, then great! Keep thinking those dark thoughts! I want more people treating climate change as the emergency it is. We’re all too quiet for people running for our lives.”

For climate messaging to be effective, more collaboration is needed between researchers and the media. “The media needs to be honest about climate change and the challenges we face while also having a critical eye,” Kahn said. “And perhaps most importantly, it also behooves any journalist to find an opening to talk about climate change in their daily beats. It’s not just an environmental story, it’s an everything and everywhere story.”

Avgoustinos agreed. “It affects infrastructure, travel, national security, food, agriculture, public transport, etc. It should be weaved into all of these discussions,” he said.

Both argue now is the time for the media to promote climate action, not climate inevitability. I asked Kahn what this should involve. “Vote. Organise. Take to the streets. Talk openly about climate change with family and friends.”

Are words like ’emergency’ and ‘catastrophe’ accurate?

Professor Penny D. Sackett of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute, and former chief scientist for Australia, responded to the policy paper’s findings by saying “the bleak, and indeed possible, scenario the authors present for 2050 is one in which ‘climate change provokes a permanent shift in the relationship of humankind to nature’. I would phrase this in a different, more confronting way: humankind has shifted its relationship to nature in a way that has provoked climate change, with possibly permanent consequences for both”.

“Some may call this alarmism; exaggerating a danger to cause needless worry. In fact, it is an alarm, a word that has its roots in the call ‘to arms!’ when an enemy threat is imminent.”

Sackett described the challenges that scientists face in generating sufficient action to hold climate change to safe levels. “As scientists, we have assumed that climate change understanding is lacking, and focused our attention on increasing that understanding. But in spite of stronger evidence and local, real-time examples of climate disasters, the institutions on which we have relied to take appropriate action: politicians, business, and international governance, have not done so.”

Professor Hilary Bambrick, the head of school of public health and social work at Queensland University of Technology, and a Climate Council councillor, said “For decades scientists have resisted telling it like it is regarding climate change, instead couching every projection within bounds of statistical uncertainty. But over the years we’ve become much more certain about how things will play out, and we’re already seeing the devastating effects of climate change around the globe as extreme weather records tumble time and again and once rare and dangerous events become the norm. Meanwhile Australia’s emissions continue to increase every quarter and to keep on this path will most certainly bring climate catastrophe.”

Bambrick added, “It’s not a stretch to think that — unless we urgently and meaningfully reduce our emissions — we are heading into the endgame. We actually have a choice right here and now as to whether that’s where we want to go.”

While Sackett does not believe that the human species will be extinguished by climate change, she said that we “are at a crossroads demanding that we face our own ‘humanity'”.

“‘Humanity as we have known it’ is not doing us any favours in this climate emergency. Individuals the world over could define and demand a new future, embracing our common humanity and rejecting proposals that place private, isolated profit over the common, unified good.”

I asked Kahn whether climate inevitability is as dangerous as denialism. “Denialism and alarmism aren’t remotely comparable,” he said.

“Denialism comes from a place of entrenched special interests looking to get the last few bucks out of the fossil fuel industry. It’s completely driven by an adherence to a radical free market ideology that completely blocks out science.”

While climate inevitability, alarmism and denialism may have very different consequences, the media has an obligation to avoid misleading headlines and scaremongering tactics. Instead, outlets should use appropriate language and provide information that is well supported by evidence.

This needs to be implemented now, for the years leading up to 2050 and, hopefully, beyond.

Peter Fray

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