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May 15, 2024

The antidote to doom is doing

Workers at a resort prepare to dump blocks of ice in a swimming pool amid extreme heat in the Philippines. provinces
Workers dump blocks of ice in a swimming pool in the Philippines, which has been suffering a record-breaking and dangerous heatwave this month, along with other south and south-east Asian countries © Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Michael Mann is presidential distinguished professor and director of the Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book is “Our Fragile Moment: How Lessons from Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis”.

Katharine Hayhoe is a Horn distinguished professor and endowed chair of public policy and public law at Texas Tech University, and chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy. Her most recent book is “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Guide to Hope and Healing in a Divided World”.

We can, and must, use our voices to advocate for change through voting, advocacy, activism and informed dialogue

The planet is warming and climate impacts are worsening. Last year was the warmest year on record, with the greatest number of recorded weather and climate disasters. Canada’s wildfire season, which already smashed records in 2023, began in February this year.

This past month, much of southern and south-east Asia has been enveloped in a record-breaking heatwave, shutting schools, decimating crops and leading to thousands of deaths. In the US, a recent poll found that nine out of 10 Americans had been personally affected by extreme weather.

There is no escaping the repercussions of human choices on the climate system: and these serve as a warning. But our future is in our hands, and our decisions matter, today more than ever.

As climate scientists who study the past and the future, we are intimately familiar with the unfolding disaster and we have had to wrestle with the frustrations of inaction, with policymakers’ denial and delay, with the growing urgency of action and lack of public response.

For decades, we were attacked by fossil fuel companies and their abettors. Two years ago, though, we started to notice a shift in the attacks. Today, amid an intensifying crisis and increasing public disengagement, and as we seek to paint the path forward on climate, it is nearly as common for us to be vilified as “hopium peddlers” by ostensible climate advocates as to be labelled venal money-chasers by climate dismissives.

Doom and gloom get the most clicks on social media, research shows. This week, a trending topic on X is “record CO₂ surge: climate crisis accelerates”. What is actually happening is that we have gone through a major El Niño event that contributed to the global heat of the past year and to a temporary release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, leading to a spike in atmospheric CO₂ concentrations.

Misrepresenting every observation as an “acceleration” of the climate crisis reinforces the false notion that the problem is spinning out of control.

Falling climate concern

Unadulterated bad news catches our attention — but lacking any guidance on what to do about it, social science shows it is the worst way to motivate people to act.

For many years, as the effects of climate change became more visible, awareness and concern increased. By 2020, public concern over climate change reached record highs.

Yet now, amid an increasing litany of disasters, there are indications that climate concern is falling. A recent poll found a “noticeable dip”, particularly among younger people who have always recorded higher-than-average levels of concern. Nearly half of Americans feel “helpless” and do not know what to do about climate change.

Polluters could not be happier — they love the division and the doomism. As one of us (Mike) has emphasised, denial, as a tactic, has largely been replaced by delay, division, deflection and doomism. If there is nothing we can do about it — or if actions are too expensive or too difficult — then why do anything? Let us carry on and wait for a “silver bullet” solution. But if that is what we decide to do as a society, then we truly are doomed.

We are concerned how well-meaning journalism is perpetuating this narrative of doom and despair. Consider the recent piece on the Guardian’s survey of climate scientists, titled “Hopeless and broken: Why the world’s top climate scientists are in despair”.

The implication of the article — and especially the social media promotion of it — is that there is a scientific consensus that we are headed towards 2.5C warming. If that amount of warming is inevitable, that would be devastating. Exceeding 1.5C would be bad enough, and 2C would be even more dangerous and damaging.

But that is not what the survey showed or what the scientific consensus is.

Existing policies and actions already in progress are estimated to limit warming to between 2.5C and 2.9C. Adding in current pledges and targets would limit this to around 2.1C. If the net zero goals of 140 countries were achieved, warming would be around 1.8C. Only a path of rapid societal decarbonisation at this point could keep warming below 1.5C.

Political and economic barriers

What determines the pathway we follow is not the physical science or even technology. We have what we need to reduce emissions. Our barriers are entirely political and economic, and such obstacles can be overcome.

The Guardian survey also asked scientists what actions they should take. While “voting” was top, stopping flying came second. For scientists in high-income countries like ours, flying is often the largest part of our carbon footprint. However, all the flying in the world is only 3 per cent of carbon emissions and the social science is clear: the most important thing an individual can do to tackle climate change has nothing to do with their personal carbon footprint.

To effect systemic change, we must use our voices to advocate for that change: through voting, yes; but there is so much more. As individuals, we have the ability — and, we would add, the duty — to influence, shape and inform through advocacy, activism and informed dialogue.

Research, and lived reality, show that individuals engaging with and advocating for change where they live, work, study, worship and play has driven massive societal shifts in the past and can do so again.

The results of positive climate action are beginning to be felt. It is likely that carbon emissions will peak this year and begin to drop in the following years thanks to a steady move to clean energy. Yet we do not wish to be Pollyannas either. Substantial additional policy progress is necessary to limit warming to below 1.5C, and that means we need a lot more action from countries, cities and companies around the world.

The facts dictate urgency and agency. Our future is still in our hands. As the French novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry of The Little Prince fame said in a quote chosen by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as an epigraph in its 2018 report on 1.5C warming: “As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.”

A service from the Financial Times