A photo of a pro-climate action sign.
A pro-climate action sign. Credit: Tobias Rademacher / unsplash Credit: Tobias Rademacher / unsplash

We live in the age of the climate doomer.

The news about our warming planet isn’t reassuring—and it hasn’t been for a while. 

Climate change is increasing the frequency and size of forest fires across Canada and the United States. Polar ice caps are melting at an astonishing rate, as are the world’s glaciers. Declining ice levels mean less heat is reflected away from the earth’s surface, leading to more extreme heat waves and destabilizing fresh-water supply here in Canada. Just this year, India experienced sustained periods of extreme temperatures so hot they caused birds to fall from the sky; while a recent heat model projected that within 30 years, more than a quarter of the United States could see felt temperatures exceed 50 degrees. 

It’s bad.

And without urgent action by the global community, the situation is only going to get worse. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change bluntly put it in its February 2022 report: “To avoid mounting loss of life, biodiversity and infrastructure, ambitious, accelerated action is required to adapt to climate change, at the same time as making rapid, deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.”

In other words, there’s still hope that humanity can stave off the worst—but we need to take action.

But for a growing number of people, the news is so bleak that there’s simply nothing to be done. For these climate nihilists, disaster has become inevitable: the world has already passed a tipping point and nothing more can be done to avert the most extreme warming scenarios, or the resulting end of civilization and life on this planet as we know it. All that’s left now is to eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.

Climate doomers are young and gloomy

Unsurprisingly, Gen Z’ers and Millennials, raised on a steady torrent of scientific warnings about disaster scenarios and impending ecological collapse, seem to be the most receptive to climate nihilism. 

A survey published last year found that a third of 18-to-34-year-olds in the United States and United Kingdom agreed that “there is no point in changing my behaviour to tackle climate change because it won’t make any difference anyway”. By comparison, only 18 per cent of British and 29 per cent of American 65-to-79-year-olds agreed with the same statement. 

A 2020 study further found that a quarter of childless adults cited climate change as among the reasons they haven’t had children. 

Pew Research data, in turn, shows that overall, a majority of Canadians lack confidence in the international community’s ability to “significantly reduce the effects of global climate change”.

The doomist narrative is alive and well. 

The problem?

It’s wrong.

The new climate apathy

Doomism assumes that climate change is all-or-nothing. Either we limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (for example), or we might as well not limit global warming at all for all the good it will do. 

The science says something quite different, namely, that when it comes to climate change small differences matter tremendously. As retired professor SueEllen Campbell recently wrote for Yale Climate Connections, “Every year we delay, dropping emissions will make the job harder, but this job will never suddenly become impossible.” 

The difference between 1.5 degrees of warming and 1.6 degrees is one that we will pay for in lost lives and livelihoods, and, yes, some irreversible changes to our environment. And we shouldn’t make light of these costs. But nor should we exaggerate them by turning them into the literal end of the world. 

The latter is exactly what climate doomism does, and the result is climate apathy.

After all: If our world is beyond saving, then we don’t need to fight for a livable future. 

There’s a political dimension to this sort of thinking, which is highly desirable for corporate and national polluters because it breeds helplessness and climate inaction. 

Environmentalist Michael Mann makes this point in his brilliant book The New Climate War. “Climate doomism can be paralyzing….That makes it a potentially useful tool for polluting interests looking to forestall or delay action. With many on the political right already opposed to meaningful climate action for ideological and tribal reasons, doomism provides a means for co-opting those on the left. It’s a brilliant strategy for building a truly bipartisan coalition for inaction.”

In other words, climate doomism and climate change denialism end in the same place—with people doing nothing to stave off climate disaster. Only, now, the coalition of the inactive spans the political spectrum. 

Against climate individualism

Combating climate doomism means combating the helplessness so many people feel in the face of a warming planet. 

That’s no easy task. 

The climate crisis is so huge, and our ability as individuals to make a difference so small, that it’s only natural that people feel there is no point in doing anything at all. 

Natural, but unhelpful. So what’s the antidote?

Collectivism and a hefty dose of hope.

To be sure, the climate crisis will only be solved through systemic solutions that target corporate and national polluters. Unless we end our global reliance on coal, oil and gas extraction, warming will continue. Which means we need to enact plans of climate action, both on national and international levels, and not wait for people to voluntarily choose veganism or recycling. But we denigrate such personal actions, which risk fostering inaction. 

The missing link in the conversation about systemic solutions to climate change is the power individuals have to act in collectives. When we take action, we rarely do so alone—even if we aren’t always aware of how many others are acting alongside us. And that gives us tremendous power to effect change. 

I’m not the only one recycling, voting for politicians who support green policies, signing petitions demanding climate action, or choosing earth-friendly transportation options. None of these things would mean anything if I was the only one. But the fact is, people around the world are ready and willing to do them, too. As a Pew survey of 17 advanced economies found last year, 80 per cent of respondents were willing to change the way they live and work in order to counter climate change’s effects. 

Climate doomism relies on a perverse form of individualism that says, unless I, personally, can save the world, nothing I do matters. 

The climate crisis may require systemic solutions, but we cannot passively wait for those solutions to manifest. The sort of activism that will bring about those solutions will require individuals to act, as activism always does, not alone but together. Because I may not be able to do much by myself, but it’s never just me. 

And that is reason enough to hope in humanity’s future.

Why I have to hope in the future

In the end, hope is what will motivate people to take action. Hope is what will turn people’s willingness to act into actual activism. Hope, not doom-and-gloom fear mongering about the end of the world. 

People need to believe in themselves and their ability to change the world. And climate activists need to give them reasons to do so. 

Speaking for myself, I have more and more hope these days. Let me give you one reason why. 

In my dreams, I don’t see raging wildfires or endless glacial melt. I see snow on Kilimanjaro rising high above the savanna. I ski across the polar ice cap, the Aurora dancing overhead. I dive amongst healthy coral; hike through lush rainforests; and, one day, teach my children to fish the glacially fed waters of my hometown. 

Thanks to earth’s changing climate, all of this, and more, may soon be possible only in dreams. 

But I have to believe enough people recognize the earth as the theatre of nature’s glory that collective action on the scale necessary to preserve that glory is inevitable—and imminent. I have to hope and, bit by bit, I have to do my part to make that hope a reality. 

Charlotte Dalwood

Charlotte Dalwood (she/they) is a JD student at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law. Their previous publications include articles in CBC News Online and the Edmonton Journal. Find them on Twitter...