Curb your catastrophism

How are we getting the message about climate change across? The use of apocalyptic language prophesying imminent ecological catastrophe and social meltdown is something that unites activists, journalists and, increasingly, politicians. But it is uncertain whether this generates action or defeatism among the public, argues Stefan Skrimshire

July 5, 2008
7 min read

A glance at some recent headline reports reveals a typical trend in climate reporting. ‘The collapse of civilisation: it’s more precarious than we realised,’ prophesies the New Scientist. ‘Global warming past point of no return,’ laments the Independent. ‘Be worried. Be very worried: the climate is crashing, and global warming is to blame,’ browbeats Time magazine. Media imagery is also shifting perceptibly, whether it be classic environmental iconography (the iceberg- stranded polar bear) or more generic disaster pictures (environmental refugees, sun-bleached deserts, flood-stricken victims, satellite footage of swirling tornados).

Nor is this fixation only a media trend, as film-makers, activists and, increasingly, politicians rush to adopt the language of catastrophe. The idea that the planet is on a downward spiral to ecological catastrophe and social meltdown is as attractive to Hollywood producers (The Day After Tomorrow) as it is to those encouraging direct action or fighting an election on green credentials (‘Ten years left to save the planet!’).

Apocalyptic conclusions

Perhaps there is some historic inevitability to this. An obsession with an approaching end, or at least a cataclysmic unravelling, arguably lies at the very roots of western ideas about history. Anticipating an apocalyptic conclusion to human history is partly inherited from Judaism and Christianity. But its influence extends far into secular ideas as well, and survives perhaps as the acceptance, fear and even desire that our days on this planet are numbered. Do we simply look to the sky, therefore, as much as our ancestors did, for signs of that eventuality?

The comparison is tempting but a little too simplistic. For one thing, our latest fears bear one disturbing difference. They appear to do little to bring about a sense of moral transformation or re- awakening. Commenting on a December 2007 MORI poll, the Observer noted that ‘although 70 per cent thought “the world will soon experience a major environmental crisis”, virtually nobody [interviewed] said they were prepared to do anything about it beyond trying to reuse plastic bags and recycle some rubbish’. In the US almost half the population is convinced that climate change is ‘very serious’, yet it remains several places lower than gay marriage on a list of national priorities. Some suggest that this sense of disconnection is due mostly to the magnitude of the problem. We seem to be incapable of connecting individual actions to problems that are planetary in scale.

These prophecies of doom are disseminated to us much in the manner of Guy Debord’s notion of the ‘society of the spectacle’. In other words, we consume the news of our approaching end as spectators. Watching and hearing repeated scenarios of disaster taps into our mesmerising love for

horror through what the Institute of Public Policy Research has dubbed ‘climate porn’. Indeed, there are important lessons to learn about the

‘mediatisation’ of disaster since the birth of the ‘war on terror’.

As Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, has argued, in both cases ‘the discourse of catastrophe is in danger of tipping society into a negative, depressive and reactionary trajectory’. The looming of a ‘point of no return’ in global warming, little understood by the majority of people, can create fear as ambiguous and ubiquitous as ‘terror’. Without knowing what it is, its threat renders us powerless as individuals. Consequently we become ever more willing to defer power to those above us, through whatever form of political, technological or military control is on offer.

The language of catastrophe

But how, if we are to accept scientific consensus, can we avoid the language of catastrophe?

Some would argue that we have a duty not only to reveal the truth but to amplify its seriousness. We must let it speak above the daily clutter of trivia that passes for daily news. When the Network for Climate Action claims that climate change will be ‘catastrophic’ unless people take radical direct action, the intention is not to frighten but to raise the stakes of the game. It is to make action perceived by many as ‘extreme’ not only normal but necessary.

Hulme’s response is that the reality of climate change is bad enough without sensational rhetoric clouding the issue. The problem is that public perception of climate change is a complex one, and it is far from clear which types of language are most heeded or understood. The very language of ‘tipping points’, for example, repeats references to a ‘two-degree warming threshold’ or so many ‘parts per million’ of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But beyond these abstract scientific concepts, more subjective factors need to be considered. What is a critical threshold and for whom? Is it only the loss of our own species that warrants radical change? And who decides when a tipping point is ‘policy relevant’?

Addressing these questions cannot be left to the physical sciences alone. ‘How do we understand the situation we are in?’ is fundamentally an ethical question, one about the foundations for action. It addresses not only the avoidance of catastrophe but the affirmation of the ‘good life’ under the shadow of catastrophe itself. And assessing exactly what that good life looks like is of course highly contested.

Is only a change in individual behaviour required, or do our commitments to social life also need to be challenged? Some clearly feel that recycling our rubbish and changing our light bulbs is sufficient. Others encourage mass direct action against the fossil fuel industry. In a climate predicted to displace millions from their homes and isolate entire regions and nations from natural resources, our received ethical notions of individual rights, nationhood and duties of ‘citizenship’ may well require radical re-evaluation if societies are to become truly sustainable.

Beyond climate despair

Once this ethical dimension is emphasised, reporting on ‘catastrophic’

climate scenarios ceases to be a compromise of the truth in the interests of protecting each other from climate despair. But it does mean moving beyond

the shallow moral formula of ‘X years to save the planet’. We must, to be sure, do all we can to alert ourselves to the seriousness of the present challenge. But we must also challenge our obsession with final, ‘once and for all’ points after which, if crossed, all will be lost.

As NASA scientist Gavin Schmitt has pointed out, neither a cavalier nor

a fatalist outlook is warranted from the evidence of tipping points. We are required to act, instead, in the knowledge of multiple tipping points of greater and lesser magnitude, from the level of the ‘smallest ecosystem’ (such as the extinction of certain species) to that of the entire planet (such as the irreversible melting of Arctic sea ice, triggering further negative effects). Threshold points demand our continual striving and vigilance. We must both mitigate the worst to come and adapt to those already upon us.

If the mediatised language of catastrophe is problematic it is because

it is ‘apocalyptic’ only in the Hollywood sense: it is devoid of ethical content. It says nothing of who we are and where we are going.

This is something of a paradox: ‘apocalypse’ is derived from the Greek word for revelation, or the unveiling of divine truth to mortal man. To many people apocalyptic literature (including biblical texts) represented the imaginative attempt to portray the corruption of the present in order to inspire radical social transformation. In contrast, populist catastrophism today represents a form of veiling, or clouding, of the ethical and political question of climate change.

Perhaps what is needed, therefore, is more, not less, of the imaginative apocalyptic. This would frame climate change as an unfolding story in which we continue to play a part. And it would mean affirming the permanent ethical task of responding to the most despairing of situations.

Stefan Skrimshire is postdoctoral research associate in religion and politics at the University of Manchester, and author of Politics of Fear, Practices of Hope (Continuum, 2008). He is currently organising a workshop series, \’Future Ethics: Climate Change, Political Action and the Future of the Human\’

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