Apocalypse now or apocalypse later? How bad is climate breakdown? (An internal Fossil Free SA conversation.)

Last week, we had a conversation amongst ourselves which went something like this:

Q. Not urgent, but when you do have a moment I would really appreciate your thoughts on these articles:

There is no scientific basis for the claim that climate change will be apocalyptic, but there is growing evidence that climate alarmism is contributing to rising anxiety and depression among teenagers.
Climate change is real but it’s not the end of the world. And increasingly extreme statements by activists undermine environmental progress, say climate scientists.

I have been refraining (in my personal capacity) from posting about/commenting on a lot of climate news since the Amazon fires because I feel like some media are creating a bit too much hysteria and are actually catastrophising things, e.g., when they said koalas were extinct / fires were all as a result of climate change. I guess my concern is that over-playing it can play into the hands of denialists and the right who then do not take anything the climate left says seriously.

I would just really appreciate your thoughts on this matter – as some believe society is impending to collapse and humans will die in millions / billions (e.g., Jem Bendell/Leonie Joubert) and others like the above say there is no science to support this.

I believe there is no way to know. And that for me – the reason why I now dedicate my life to environmental justice is actually because of who environmental distruction is (and has been) hurting right now, e.g., communities affected by coal in Mpumalanga.

To which the reply was as follows:

It’s a tricky one. I really don’t love rolling out the apocalyptic visions, but I also don’t trust this writer (Shellenberger) particularly (he’s an apologist for nuclear power, among other things, which makes his priorities suspect). He cites the economist Nordhaus, whom other economists (Stern, Keen) have argued very seriously underplays likely economic damage from climate. But Nordhaus got a Nobel Prize, presumably because he makes the establishment feel ok about their complacency.

I don’t think we need the apocalyptic visions to make a compelling case for extremely urgent action, but I also think there’s enough substance to the apocalyptic stuff to take it very seriously indeed as within the range of plausible outcomes – not human extinction, but lots of other extinctions, and an awful lot of people suffering an awful lot, unnecessarily.

I think we can focus on the damage and pain and risk people are already experiencing in making our case, remembering the climate apocalypse has already arrived for people in Mozambique, and in Pacific islands, and Amazon indigenous communities and perhaps our own Northern Cape and Karoo communities! People in Graaff Reinet are without water today! (If one can separate out early climate effects from existing vulnerabilities and poor governance, which is sometimes hard.)

I think it’s a bit unseemly for a wealthy middle-class expert somewhere in North America to be saying, we don’t need to worry so much. What he means is, people like me don’t need to worry so much. And that’s true (up to a point, if you’re the kind of psycho who doesn’t mind watching the world crumble outside your gated community) – but it excludes an awful lot of others who are already experiencing a whole range of other painful effects from capitalism’s current model. So your approach seems sensible to me.

But I would add that we overlook the full potential of the positive side of the transformation we’re fighting for… it’s possible I say this to myself to fool myself into feeling better, but I really think science mostly under-estimates or has no real language for describing the transformative positive potential of human beings working together with nature – which is what we need to do en masse under the flying banners of a myriad Green New Deals.

We’re posting this exchange because we think it’s fair for you as our follower and supporters to know what our take is on these matters, and what kind of ‘editorial policy’ we have when posting and sharing news, and passing on information about climate change. Our commitment is to always be true to the facts, while also being careful to interpret those facts in the light of how the trends they describe will affect the most vulnerable people in the world. We will never exaggerate or catastrophise, we will carefully examine news stories before posting, but we will always communicate those voices that raise reasonable concerns about existing or potential catastrophes, while also deliberately prioritising the possibilities for averting or minimising catastrophe, such as the Green New Deal.

Our work is at heart a human rights campaign, a campaign for life. We believe all human beings have an equal right to life, dignity and the means and opportunity for happiness, but also that the right to life is shared by other species, and that those rights (of other species) are most secure when human beings are most secure.

PS: The ‘exaggeration’ of koala extinction seems to have been exaggerated in turn by skeptics who jumped to rubbish the claims of people who were in fact referring to extinction within particular habitats, or who were, quite reasonably, very upset by seeing living creatures being burnt en masse while the Australian government denies climate change… National Geographic has a good take.)

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