Do green movements play the doom card too frequently? And, if so, does it matter?

These questions have been on my mind lately, particularly in relation to an article entitled “The Uninhabitable Earth” (link) which recently caught fire on social media. This post briefly considers these questions and related questions about human action on climate and energy issues. The questions are not simple or straightforward to consider, but topical high-profile articles like “The Uninhabitable Earth” provide useful moments in which to consider and reflect on them.

One of the reasons this article is interesting is that some climate scientists critiqued the article, including at least one prominent scientist that was interviewed by the author. For example, Michael Mann, a prominent and influential climate scientist at Penn State University in the USA (of the “hockey stick” diagram fame), stated on his Facebook page that “the article paints an overly bleak picture by overstating some of the [climate] science”, and further asserted that aspects of the article exaggerated near-term threats (e.g. from climate “feedbacks”). Mann also criticised what he described as the “doomist framing” of the article.

I also reacted quite strongly to the article. Whereas in the past I might have reacted differently and been supportive, perhaps even shared a link to it via social media, on this occasion I reacted more negatively. In part I thought “here we go again…”, some folk will get really fired up by the article (i.e. further alarming the already alarmed), others will dismiss it as alarmist nonsense (and perhaps become more dismissive than they were previously), aspects of the article will be fiercely disputed, and such debates will go on for days or weeks and then everyone will move on. I wondered about what the net effect of this would be, other than stimulating yet more debate about the science of climate change and the urgency of addressing it. It also reminded me of countless other similar articles and books, none of which have produced the widespread sense of emergency that the authors are seeking to stimulate. Why would time be different?

One key issue that was top-of-mind is that I know that many climate scientists get accused, to their dismay, of alarmism. Some of them also further worry (as I saw expressed on Twitter) that worst case scenario style speculative writing – like “The Uninhabitable Earth” – can feed into, and perhaps reinforce, existing narratives that the climate issue is just ‘alarmism’ which can therefore safely be largely ignored. This would be a bad unintended consequence.

An additional thing that was different for me this time around is I’m now more aware of the emerging literature on climate change communication and climate change psychology. Some studies have found that ‘doomsday’ style writing and related messages mostly engender apathy and related feelings of hopelessness as well as sometimes backfiring in other ways (e.g. see link, link, link, and link). Such findings are counter the intended instrumental logic (or causal expectations) that informs such writing, given the typical focus on using appeals to fear to (try to) spark greater social action and the associated assumption that the main barrier to change is that people are insufficiently scared.  The findings are also counter-intuitive to those environmentalists and scientists who find such worst case scenarios to be highly motivating.

One related thing that I observed about “The Uninhabitable Earth” (link) is that many people who are already alarmed about climate change flocked to the article, defended it (when people critiqued it), shared it, and passionately discussed it, but few others seemed to pay it much (or any) attention. I don’t know if this is reflective of broader engagement with the article, but it’s not encouraging.

In sum, effective climate change communication does appear to be a non-trivial problem which has become more difficult as the climate problem became a more partisan issue in many countries (e.g. Australia, USA).

What is clear is that research suggests that playing the doom “card” can be risky in a number of ways – psychologically, strategically, and epistemologically. These risks suggest that green movements often do play the doom card too frequently. However, many activists continue to see stimulating a wider sense of alarm as the correct (or most effective) approach to climate advocacy and campaigning and seem to downplay (or avoid entirely) the psychological complexities of such strategies.

However, on deeper reflection, I think an underlying issue that really annoyed me is my general sense that environmental politics has become incredibly stale and this article appeared to represent (to me, at least) more of the same at a time when we need innovation and greater reflexivity. Linked with this, back in 2011 I published an article entitled ‘Environmentalism in transition?’ in which I discussed whether environmentalism and environmental politics were evolving in the 21st century in socially significant ways which could also result in more successful and socially impactful green movements (link). What is now clear is that I was overly optimistic about the potential for such change, though I presciently included a question mark in the title!

It would be great to see some greater reflection in green movements and related academic fields about the above issues and related challenges in human action on climate and energy issues. Here’s some related top-of-mind issues that also need greater thought:

Environmental arguments (e.g. those made to justify climate policies and action) and their effectiveness: One aspect for reflection is the role of science and the extent to which science actually in-practice bolsters the ‘green case’ for change and action. This may seem like a strange line of inquiry given that science is typically viewed by environmentalists as a key ally and scientific research and evidence is regularly mobilised in environmental debates and policy-making. But sociological research has found that science is often less of an ally than hoped and that it tends to be an “unreliable friend” to green movements (Yearley, 1992; 2014). This implies a need for greater reflexivity regarding the role of scientific evidence and science more broadly, and a need for greater consideration of alternative ways of justifying environmental action.

The politicisation of science and the obscuring of underlying political issues: across numerous issues we frequently see politically motivated actors taking a stand on an issue and claiming that their position is primarily science-based (rather than primarily political). Folk on all sides of issues do this, though activists tend to falsely deny that they are doing this and tend to allege that the other side is the main culprit (for an example consider the claims made by climate change activists about their opponents whom they see as primary politically motivated). Whilst this can be an effective rhetorical and campaigning strategy, it can have unintended consequences. For example, often we see the following: (i) the political issues that need to be the focus of discussion (e.g. in order to enable action to address a problem) tend to become obscured; and (ii) the underlying science becomes the focus of disputes and greater debate because of such strategies (e.g. where the science is used as, or becomes, a “proxy” for related political battles), which can lead to the science being seen as more contested/controversial and can consequently hamper the development and implementation of policy solutions. Such consequences should be of concern to environmental advocates.

This politicisation of science can be particularly insidious because it can be generated by actors who want science to be a source of authority in society (typically so that their advocacy efforts will be more influential) but who unintentionally contribute to greater contestation of the science which often reduces its authority. The recent March for Science is probably also a recent example in terms of how the underlying political issues can be problematically obscured by such activism.

Social and cultural influences on human cognition and learning: interpretations of scientific evidence and beliefs about the environment are strongly influenced by social and cultural factors (e.g. see Sloman and Fernbach, 2017, particularly Chapters 8 and 9 which discuss the influence of cultural values and the communities which a specific human actor is a member of). Such factors need to be better recognised and addressed in both environmental communication and change strategies more broadly (e.g. in science communication on climate change and related campaigning), rather than ‘broadcasting’ the same messages to all people and expecting them to be persuasive.

The complexities and realities of policy-making: rather than only making simplistic arguments about the need for greater “political will” or making simplistic arguments about policymakers ignoring science, both of which are commonly made by climate activists, there is an urgent need for research and advocacy work that better addresses the realities of the policy process and policy-making. Studies by scholars in the field of policy studies have found that too little research and advocacy on issues like climate change adequately addresses the specific political problems and questions that policy-makers are concerned about or are trying to solve (Cairney 2016). I also identified this issue in my PhD research.

Many of the above topics and issues also apply to other important issues related to science and society, including in the areas of health policy and energy policy.

References

Cairney, P. 2016, The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making, Palgrave Macmillan, London, UK.

Sloman, S. & Fernbach, P. 2017, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, Riverhead Books, New York, NY.

Yearley, S. 1992, ‘Green Ambivalence about Science: Legal-Rational Authority and the Scientific Legitimation of a Social Movement’, The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 43, no. 4, pp. 511-32

Yearley, S. 2014, The Green Case: A Sociology of Environmental Issues, Arguments and Politics (2014 Reprint), Routledge.

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