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Commentary: The truth about global warming is bad enough. We don’t need climate doomism

As scorching temperatures have smashed records across the world this year, I have been talking to climate scientists about a question I hear a lot.

A worker drinks water in a construction site in Savenay, outside Nantes, on July 18, 2022, as a heatwave hits France.

A worker drinks water in a construction site in Savenay, outside Nantes, on July 18, 2022, as a heatwave hits France.

As scorching temperatures have smashed records across the world this year, I have been talking to climate scientists about a question I hear a lot.

Do these heat extremes mean we are nearing critical tipping points that, once crossed, will push the Earth’s climate into irreversible, uncharted territory and runaway warming?

None of the researchers I spoke to expected the record heat to directly trigger dramatic shifts in the global climate system. 

Some thought the extremes might be a sign that parts of the system were losing stability. It could be “an early warning signal” of more persistent, abrupt shifts, said the University of Exeter’s Tim Lenton, a leading tipping point expert.

But neither he nor any of the others thought galloping global warming was about to turn Earth into anything like an unlivable scorched Venus or a desolate moonscape.

The bad news is a lot of people disagree.

“We’re doomed,” said a typical social media post last month, as authorities confirmed Earth had had its hottest June on record. 

Rapid warming “will wreak destruction for life on Earth” long before 2050, warned another after July became the hottest month on record.

These are not the first signs of climate doomism. United States writer Roy Scranton published a book in 2015 called Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, about finding meaning amid “the collapse of global civilisation”.

Dr Jem Bendell, a British professor, produced a paper in 2018 that spawned a “deep adaptation” movement based on the belief that most of the world would soon face climate-influenced societal collapse.

Researchers studying 10,000 young people in 10 countries two years ago found 56 per cent of them agreed “humanity is doomed” and 76 per cent thought the future was “frightening”.

And that was 2021, long before 2023 saw ocean waters off Florida warming to hot tub levels and a striking lack of midwinter Antarctic sea ice.

I do not blame anyone who fears for the future today.

The number of political leaders meaningfully addressing the intensifying climate problem is pitiful. A green energy transition is under way, but at too slow a pace to definitely stop far more heating. 

And it is genuinely alarming to see charts like the one sent to me by Dr Colin Morice, a scientist in the climate monitoring team of the United Kingdom’s Met Office Hadley Centre.

It showed north Atlantic ocean temperatures in June were an astonishing 1.49°C above the 1961-1990 average. The last record set for that month, in 2010, was 0.96°C above average.

But doomist thinking is dangerous because it breeds paralysis and disengagement, which is precisely what the forces of climate inaction seek. 

No wonder a growing number of scientists now compare climate doomists with the climate deniers who for years sowed doubt about the existence and cause of global warming.

“It’s very strange,” says US climate scientist Jonathan Foley.

“A few years ago, you had activist climate deniers who were spewing nonsense about climate science and saying, ‘Oh you’re all exaggerating this thing’. And now you have climate doomists saying ‘Oh you’re all underplaying what’s going to happen’.” 

I think doomists have yet to cause as much damage as the deniers who helped to stall early efforts to cut carbon emissions, or their modern day brethren who knowingly exaggerate the costs of climate action.

But it is not hard to see doomist thinking spread, especially in a year such as this when a warming El Niño climate pattern is adding to a baseline of human-caused higher temperatures.

This is leading to confusion about tipping points and so-called runaway warming.

The parts of the climate system with potential tipping points that scientists worry about, such as Amazon forest dieback or melting polar ice sheets, could affect millions of lives. The risks are impossible to minimise.

But they are not at all the same as a tipping point in global warming itself, which really would make a Venus-like Earth imaginable.

That is worth remembering. So is the fact that climate tipping points are now in a race with technology tipping points that could drive spiralling use of electric cars or renewables.

Better yet, scientists have sharply revised their estimates of what happens if these technologies ever help us get to net zero CO₂ emissions: Global temperatures would stop rising in just a few years.

The point is, every tenth of a degree of warming we prevent is crucial.

Doomism may feel alluring or even inevitable. But it is ultimately a luxury that only a few can afford. FINANCIAL TIMES


Pilita Clark is an associate editor and business columnist at the Financial Times where she writes on corporate life and climate change. 

Related topics

climate change El Nino global warming

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