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Doomism about climate change is a privilege we can't afford

It's hard not to despair at the climate reports predicting total collapse, but if we are to have any hope of turning things around, "doomers" are not helping the narrative

Illustration of climate breakdown

Illustration: Mateusz Napieralski

“Sometimes all I think about is doom,” sings TikToker Chaz Cardigan in a parody version of Glass Animals’ ‘Heat Waves’. The video is part of an ongoing movement of climate doomism that is taking over TikTok, where many young people are feeling despair about the future and believe there’s nothing that can be done to stop climate change. 

“I am a climate doomer. I believe that there is little to nothing that we can do to actually reverse climate change on a global scale,” says another TikTok user, and countless others who genuinely believe that the world is heading towards an apocalyptic future.

The idea that the world has already succumbed to climate change and will have no way of reversing it has been spreading online in recent years, amid other conspiracy theories and misinformation about the climate crisis. The hashtag #climatedoom has over one million views, while #climatedoomism has nearly 500,000 views respectively. “Doomers” suggest that headlines highlighting the wildfires across Australia, severe flooding in Pakistan and Bangladesh, droughts in Africa, and heatwaves in Europe point to one irrefutable fact: humanity will not survive.

A report in The Lancet from December 2021 found more than half of the 10,000 people surveyed aged between 16 and 25 globally agree that “humanity is doomed” even as experts like Dr Chris Brierley, a climate scientist at UCL, say it isn’t true.

“We’re not doomed,” he told the Big Issue. “Society has shifted dramatically in the past 20 or 30 years, and for us to tackle climate change, it has to shift dramatically again, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If we give up in trying to tackle climate change, that’s when those messages of doom and gloom will come true,” Brierley said. “If we’re able to reduce our emissions now, then it’s going to stop things from getting worse. Saying that we’re doomed is not going to help that.

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The recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is made up of the world’ leading climate scientists (including Brierley), suggested that we absolutely need to “fast-track” climate efforts and act now in combating the climate crisis before the damage is irreversible. Doomers have used this “final warning” as proof that there’s nothing more to be done.

Brierley said he was “surprised” that the IPCC report was being misinterpreted in this way:

“It tells us what to do, what we can tackle first, and how to do it. The report says these things aren’t being done fast enough but it’s definitely not telling us that it can’t be done.”

Climate doomism is not a phenomenon consigned to social media or young people – climate anxiety, and the feeling of dread that hearing about climate change and the need for action can provoke, is becoming extremely common for people of all ages and backgrounds. 

The same Lancet study found it is affecting 75 per cent of 16-25 year olds globally, while a study commissioned by Friends of the Earth reported that over two-thirds of people of all ages in the UK are suffering from eco-anxiety. 

Psychotherapist Mark Vahrmeyer said eco-anxiety is extremely “real” and this slide into doomism is not uncommon. 

“It’s often about a process of mourning, where they think about what has been lost on the planet and there is a lack of hope that that loss can be regained. This pervasive sense of doom can be quite paralysing and it’s one of the problems we’re facing when it comes to the climate crisis.”

Vahrmeyer compares climate doomism to climate denial, arguing that they are two sides of the same coin: “People may not believe that climate change is real because they can’t deal with what might happen, and denial is much easier to cope with.”

Dominique Palmer, a climate justice activist, agrees. She said: “I understand that doomism stems from people feeling scared but it’s incredibly harmful. This entire decade is the time where we need to mobilise and push action, but doomism turns people away and they think that they can’t do anything about it.

“We have the solutions right now, the only thing missing is the will,” she said, suggesting that doomism can absolve people of this responsibility.

Palmer, and other activists, argue that it is a “privilege” to be a doomer and to believe that nothing can be done about climate change, because many marginalised people in the global south are already suffering from the effects. 

“People on the frontlines don’t have the privilege to turn off. They literally can’t ignore it because they are trying to survive and to help their families survive too,” she said.

Palmer continues to advocate for climate optimism.

For her, it’s not all lost because otherwise she wouldn’t bother fighting for it. Plenty of others are trying hard to fight against the doom and gloom messaging that is spreading online, including sustainability activist Alaina Wood and environmental educator Isaias Hernandez, both based in the U.S.

Both Wood and Hernandez often post videos responding to doomers or simply spreading educational and uplifting messages about climate action in an effort to spur people into relinquishing doomism. 

“I think social media and the media in general has such a fatalistic approach to talking about climate change, and we’re not hearing at all about the climate solutions that are out there,” Hernandez said. 

With his videos, where he presents what he calls “evidence-based-hope” and looks at what progress is being made in tackling climate change, Hernandez hopes to inspire others to take action and give them information that won’t deter them.

“My content allows people to share honest questions and honest answers. I don’t want it to be all wishful thinking and saying everything is great, but that doesn’t mean everything is bad either. There definitely is still hope out there,” he said. 

Many more climate activists are aiming for a message of hope, including Ben Carey from the climate communication lab Utopia Bureau.

Carey launched the Climate Science Translated project with campaigner Nick Oldridge two weeks ago, aiming to dispel complex information about climate science, such as the IPCC report, into easy-to-understand and humorous content for the average person.

“Climate science is not presented in an easily digestible format and, frankly, it’s quite boring. If there wasn’t a climate crisis, no one would be interested in it, and it’s just not easy for the human brain to process it,” Carey said.

Since launching, the project has published two videos featuring British comedians Jonathan Pie and Kiri Pritchard-McClean explaining global warming and carbon emissions. 

Why comedians though? “Comedians are funny. People don’t want to listen to lectures about climate, but they hopefully will listen to someone being funny about it,” Carey told the Big Issue.

Carey said it’s “hard to argue” with the pessimism of young people when it comes to their futures, as they will be inheriting a planet in “a really bad state”, especially if we don’t take action now. But believing in that doomism isn’t going to change anything for the better, he argues.

“What we want to do is to change the tone, to snap people out of that existing denial and doomism and give them something they might actually want to listen to and then do something about it,” Carey said.

As Kiri Pritchard-McClean says, “doing fuck all is scientifically proven not to work, so why not decide to do something?”

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