Beware the climate doomsayers

One Change: Hope – not gloom – should underpin the drive for climate action

Remember the “hockey stick” graph? It featured in Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, revealing a spike in global temperatures over the industrial age. A milestone in climate science, the graph was first published in 1999 and was used in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2001, making clear the role of human activity in global warming.

What's different about 'doomism', however, is that it encourages inaction

It was also hotly contested, with climate deniers (notably the fossil fuel industry) repeatedly attacking the findings – and the scientists – over the years. Michael E Mann, co-author of the graph, is now regarded as one of the world's leading climate scientists and last month he published a book called The New Climate Wars. It examines the challenges ahead, including what he describes as "doomism".

Because climate change has become apparent – from erratic weather to record-breaking wildfires – denialists have had to change tack, Mann explains. Those fighting climate science are now attempting to deflect attention from the fundamental changes that need to be made, such as ending fossil fuel use, by using delay tactics, distractions (such as flight-shaming and finger-pointing) and – crucially – cultivating despair.

A certain amount of hard facts have always been used by activists to illustrate the urgency of the climate crisis and the need for action (I've used plenty of them in this column too). What's different about "doomism", however, is that it encourages inaction. It's the type of despair narrative that the US author Jonathan Franzen, for example, recently played into by warning of "false hope" in the face of climate degradation because, he argued, the moment of salvation has long passed.


Having hope – particularly when it comes to the climate crisis – is often seen as delusional, or something that should be left to young people and their Friday strikes. But without it, there’s not even the tiniest chance that things can change or that governments will create legislation that enforces changes at industry level, while making greener living the norm for individuals – and not just a lifestyle choice for the few.

The veteran naturalist David Attenborough has no time for despair: "I see no future in being pessimistic because that leads you to say then 'to hell with it why should I care?'" Speaking to MPs during a UK parliamentary discussion on the climate crisis in 2019, he added that "the only way you can get up in the morning is to believe we can do actually something about it".