Enough with the ruin porn.. It’s time for climate advocacy to move in a new direction.

Karl Burkart
Jul 12 · 6 min read

Forged in the fires of rampant climate denialism, the climate movement came of age at a time when most people didn’t really believe climate change was that big of a deal, or even real. We emerged from the womb, so to speak, playing defense. Our central, defining narrative was a reactive one, and it went something like this:

If only we do a better job of combatting misinformation by explaining how dire the situation is, we will get people to wake up and join the fight for climate action.

Effectively, for the past 15 years or so, we’ve been running on this didactic “knowledge = power” theory of change, which has meant that NGOs, foundations, scientists, and journalists alike have been obsessed with trying to convert the unconverted through facts and figures about the growing severity of the climate crisis.

Fires in Alberta, Canada. Creative Commons: Cameron Strandberg

One should not be faulted for believing that this theory of change was effective, at least in part. Al Gore’s landmark film An Inconvenient Truth woke up an entire generation to the growing threat of climate change. Bill McKibben’s books injected much-needed urgency, leading to the formation of the first dedicated climate NGO, 350.org. Subsequent communications efforts like Climate Signals, Carbon Brief, and Climate Central have given journalists and the general public new tools to better understand the bewilderingly complex IPCC science, helping society connect the dots between fossil fuel pollution and the rising incidence of severe drought, fires, storms, flooding, and other climate impacts.

But it is now clear that climate advocacy needs to move in a new direction. It turns out “speaking truth to power” has resulted in the powerful simply coopting the language of climate activists in order to placate them, while continuing to perpetuate and even advance vested interests in fossil fuel extraction, squeezing out more profits as the world (and even the ocean) burns. As Greta Thunberg said in a recent scathing commentary on the state of climate negotiations, “Eventually the public pressure was too much, you had the world’s eyes on you. So you started to act. Not acting as in taking climate action. But acting as in roleplaying. Playing politics, playing with words, playing with our future.”

Scott Burns, the producer of An Inconvenient Truth recently said, “By 2010 we had already convinced anyone who could be convinced with facts.” In the ensuing 10 years, if anything, we have done too good of a job convincing the world about the severity of climate change. A growing portion of the population now thinks there is nothing that can be done to stop it.

For the past 12 years, Yale University has been tracking America’s changing attitudes towards the climate issue. Since 2009, people have indeed shifted to greater awareness (from 52% to 55%), but this came at a high price. In 2021, the report found that 12% of U.S. population think it’s “already too late to do anything about global warming.” Another study by Futerra shows that for younger generations “climate fatalism” is setting in, with 30% of young people believing that it’s too late to solve climate change.

The “It’s too late” narrative is echoed again and again in a daily drip of ruin porn — with every flood, fire, famine, and storm, every science report, every razed forest, every calving glacial. The climate change community has become its own enemy, inadvertently sowing the seeds of hopelessness and despair around the world. Tragically, the younger generations should be the most animated about the issue, given it is the reality they will be inheriting. Instead, depression and despair have come to roost, and it goes without saying that people who live in despair are not typically motivated to take action.

The emerging attitude of climate nihilism is summed up well by an Instagram post from @hassanthehun, a major woke social media influencer in the U.S. who upon reading a story about the UN 1.5C special report had this to say: “issa wrap on this planet everybody… might as well hit up those crushes now.” Vice recently ran an editorial on the dangers of climate nihilism, and Vox just published a guide to coping with “climate depressive disorder.”

“People who get off on being wet blankets about the coming climate apocalypse are as bad as for the cause as skeptics, if not worse.” — Mike Pearl, Vice

We can all sense the growing zeitgeist of doom and despair. Yet we still just can’t seem to help ourselves in perpetuating it. I was recently in conversations about reprising the “carbon budget clock” — a device that counts down the time we have left before we breach the IPCC limit on carbon emissions to achieve the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s currently at about 6.5 years, and in less than a month (when the IPCC releases its revised carbon budget) that time horizon could get reduced further.

To me, proclaiming to the world that we only have a few years left before an implied apocalypse begins, is not a great idea. I totally understand the motivation given the highly abstract nature of the climate issue. People think this is one way to impart a sense of urgency to motivate decision makers. But this rhetorical approach is rife with problems.

For starters, it’s disingenuous to the point of being misleading. The carbon budget represents cumulative emissions, not gross emissions. We have known for quite some time that there is no pathway to achieve 1.5°C that does not include carbon removal. Leading IPCC author and climate modeler Joeri Rogelj did a great paper on this. The climate model that One Earth funded with German Aerospace and University Technology Sydney is in line with these models, achieving necessary carbon removal to achieve 1.5°C through nature-based solutions combined with an accelerated transition to renewable energy.

Comparison of 1.5°C models by Rogelj et al. 2018 from Carbon Brief.

Secondly, the climate clock reifies the seeming impossibility of achieving what we absolutely can and must do — limit global average temperature rise to 1.5°C. In fact, it seems to suggest that we should settle for the lower ambition target of 2°C target (with its 20-year time horizon), which is decidedly not what we want. The 1.5°C target was (barely) saved at the U.S. climate summit in April, and the last thing we want is to indirectly encourage laggard countries to delay action. We know exactly how we can achieve the 1.5°C target without novel technologies. It’s simply a matter of committing the capital to do so. So let’s focus on the real meat of the problem — money — and not orchestrated theatrics about an abstract number that is meaningless to 99% of the population.

It’s time to shift the focus of climate advocacy away from recruiting people into the camp of the panicked and the forlorn, and towards a vision of what’s possible if we work together. Let’s use the reality of climate change as a springboard to talk about the very real solutions that are available to us right now if we are able to muster the political will and the financial resources to implement them at scale.

As I’ve been writing about in this series, the climate movement is really in a difficult predicament, and we need a new narrative and a new, unifying demand. So I’d like to propose one…

Show me the money”.

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