climate change
(Image: Unsplash/Brad Helmink)

Among the many challenges facing climate change activists is what climate scientist Michael Mann calls “soft doomism”. In this extract from his latest book The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet, he looks at soft doomism, how far it has spread, and what it means for climate change action.

If outright doomism is generally too shrill to gain much currency in mainstream climate discourse, what we shall henceforth refer to as “soft doomism” has found its way to the very centre of the conversation.

Soft doomists don’t quite argue for the inevitably of our demise as a species, but they typically imply that catastrophic impacts are unavoidable and that reducing carbon emissions won’t save us from disaster.

It’s doomism dressed up, you might argue, in more respectable clothing.

Soft doomists tend to use terms like “panic”. “Time to Panic” was the headline on a 2019 New York Times op-ed by David Wallace Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth. According to Sheril Kirshenbaum, executive director of the non-profit organisation Science Debate and host of the National Public Radio podcast Serving Up Science, “stoking panic and fear creates a false narrative that can overwhelm readers, leading to inaction and hopelessness”.

“Panic” is a word that conjures images of people running screaming through the streets with their hands over their heads. It evokes irrational, desperate, rash behaviour rather than considered, well-thought-out, deliberate action. The latter is helpful. The former is not. And it can lead us to very strange and uncomfortable places.

Let’s concede that the “p” word is appropriate in some contexts. Consider, for example, Greta Thunberg. In her message to world leaders gathered at Davos, Switzerland, in January 2019 for the World Economic Forum, she chastised the crowd for having failed to act meaningfully on the climate crisis, telling them: “I want you to panic.”

In that context, it is reasonable to interpret her comments as suggesting that the attending politicians and opinion leaders deserve to feel the scorn of young people like herself calling for action.

Indeed, her subsequent statement was: “And then I want you to act.” But unfocused and diffuse “panic” messaging can lead to counter-productive actions. As we have seen, it has led to support for potentially dangerous geoengineering schemes, which have been sold as a necessary last-ditch means of averting climate devastation. Read no further than the headline of the December 2019 Washington Post op-ed: “Climate politics is a dead end. So the world could turn to this desperate final gambit.”

Soft doomism has become increasingly widespread. Its basic tenets have been adopted by groups like Extinction Rebellion, which takes the position that “we are facing an unprecedented global emergency. Life on earth is in crisis … [W]e have entered a period of abrupt climate breakdown, and we are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making.”

In mid-January 2020, a curious online article was making the rounds, ironically well-titled “Climate fatalism”. While the article was unsigned, it was sponsored by an organisation called the Freedom Lab, which describes itself as an “innovation hub” and “think tank” that produces “actionable insights” which it shares “through regular publications and public events”.

The article embodies the ambivalence and internal contradictions that have come to characterise soft doomism.

“Last year,” it begins, “several alarming reports made it clear that immediate and radical action is needed to prevent disastrous levels of global warming.” It’s a promising start, acknowledging the problem and entreating the reader to action. However, in the very next line, the author writes: “Action is nowhere to be found and we are bound to hit the tipping points of global warming that will render any further action irrelevant.”

It’s an abrupt turn towards doomism and futility that is made even more confusing by the sentence that follows, which warns of the threat of the very sort of fatalism that the article is promoting: “As this notion spreads, 2019 could see many of us falling prey to climate fatalism and a shift in political focus towards climate adaptation.”

Despite the contradictions, the piece has an agenda. It concludes with a prescriptive statement masquerading as a predictive one: “We will see a shift from preventing climate change to adapting to (and battling) the effects. Much of this will entail engineering, to build dams and extreme-weather-proof buildings, for instance. It’s likely that governments will shift funding from preventive measures to these kinds of adaptive solutions.”

The message is that climate change is bad, very bad, but we will fail to act to solve it so we might as well just adapt, be more resilient and, oh yeah, explore technofixes. We’ve heard this story before. It is the “non-solution solution”.

Soft doomism in a sense plays the same role among progressives that soft denial plays among conservatives. That is to say, it is a form of doomist rhetoric that is tolerated in polite company. And unsurprisingly, some prominent progressive climate and environment pundits have engaged in its rhetoric. 

Michael E Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of several books including his most recent The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet, which is published by Scribe and available now.