The claim that runaway climate change has made societal collapse inevitable is not only wrong – it undermines the cause of the climate movement.
14 July 2020
As members of Extinction Rebellion and other climate movements, we have been overjoyed at the success of our movement in ringing the alarm about climate and ecological breakdown, and in applying pressure to the UK government, as well as other governments worldwide. As members of the science community, we have also found comfort in a movement dedicated to telling a truth that has for decades been obscured by corporate public relations campaigns and misinformation.
Many scientists support Extinction Rebellion or are active members, lending some immediate authority to our message of climate and ecological emergency. The need for peaceful civil disobedience has been explicitly supported by over a thousand scientists. Arrested Extinction Rebellion activists received support during their trials from high-profile scientists acting as expert witnesses. As scientists ourselves, we support our movement’s goal of halting greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss rapidly and equitably, but we also know that doing so successfully requires clarity about what science can and cannot tell us. Such clarity is especially important now. In the past few years we have seen a troubling trend: a few figures in the climate movement using science — or what looks like science — to justify increasingly dire and prophetic, but ultimately unsupported, claims about the future.
The most influential example of such climate doomism is undoubtedly Professor Jem Bendell’s ‘Deep Adaptation’, a self-published 2018 paper which holds that accelerating climate change has guaranteed social collapse within the next few decades. Hundreds of thousands of people have downloaded ‘Deep Adaptation’ and the paper has significantly impacted the ideology and strategy of climate movement organizations like Extinction Rebellion. People have changed their life plans based in large part on this paper’s predictions. It is therefore past time to show that Deep Adaptation is wrong — not least because Bendell’s brand of doomism relies heavily on misinterpreted climate science that undermines the credibility of his claims. In fact, Deep Adaptation consistently cherry-picks data, cites false experts, puts forward logical fallacies, and disregards robust scientific consensus. Bendell defends himself by offering unsupported reasons for activists and the public to distrust mainstream climate science. In all of these regards, Deep Adaptation mimics the practices that deniers of global warming have wielded for decades.
Why is it important to deconstruct Deep Adaptation now, in the midst of a global pandemic? In short, the fatal verdict handed down by Deep Adaptation brings with it a bundle of personal and strategic implications with the potential to cripple us as a movement. The flawed science of Deep Adaptation supports flawed socio-political conclusions. The pandemic makes the divergence between these flawed conclusions and the ones we ought to draw all the more apparent. Where Deep Adaptation implies that scientific understanding can no longer save us from catastrophe, COVID-19 has shown the critical importance of science-based policy. Where Deep Adaptation backs away from questions of equity and distribution in the face of disaster, COVID has shown that (in)justice only becomes more important under such circumstances. The people who have suffered most under the coronavirus will also suffer disproportionately from climate change. Conversely, the same people who oppose climate justice and malign climate science also bear central responsibility for disastrous COVID-19 responses in countries like the US, England and Brazil. The coronavirus pandemic may open a window for policy shifts to begin an equitable transition away from our carbon based economy — in which case we cannot allow a faulty quasi-ideology like Deep Adaptation to mislead us.
To be totally clear, we argue that all of the following are simultaneously true:
1. There is an unprecedented global climate and ecological emergency. If governments do not undertake enormous measures to mitigate climate change, then some form of “societal collapse” is plausible — albeit in varying forms and undoubtedly far worse for the poorest people.
2. Policymakers and society at large are not treating this grave threat with anything approaching sufficient urgency.
3. The climate crisis is dire enough in any case to justify urgent action, including mass sustained nonviolent disruption, to pressure governments to address it swiftly.
4. However, neither social science nor the best available climate science support Deep Adaptation’s core premise: that near-term societal collapse due to climate change is inevitable.
5. This false belief undermines the environmental movement and could lead to harmful political decisions, overwhelming grief, and fading resolve for decisive action.
6. Respecting the distinction between the coming hardships and unstoppable collapse clarifies our agency to minimise future harm by mitigating and adapting to climate change, whilst freeing us from moral and political blinkers.
Deep Adaptation: unfounded doomism
Deep Adaptation is just one prominent case of a stubborn class of doomist narratives. Doomism has always occupied an influential place within the western environmental movement. It was present during the first Earth Day, fifty years ago, in concern over the coming ‘population bomb’. When one instance of doomism becomes discredited or disproven, another appears, generally following a re-examination of the state of environmental degradation. The resulting dire findings are then used to justify a fatalist ideology or response.