Updated: Nov 2
29 May 2023 – Lisbon, Portugal. Invited Public Lecture
Given at the Centro de Historio, Universidade de Lisboa(University of Lisbon): “Why ‘Climate Apocalypse’ Backfires: Theoretical Insights for Effective Climate Action at the Hinge Point of History.”
At the end of May, I was asked to give a Public Lecture at the Centro de Historia, Universidade de Lisboa, the University of Lisbon, Portugal, and I spoke on “Why Saying ‘Climate Apocalypse’ Backfires: Theoretical Insights for Effective Climate Action at the Hinge Point of History.” Although I used a broad range of academic theories to explain why we must stop saying this (including Sherry Ortner on Key Symbols, social memory theory, and the history of apocalyptic thought), there are really simple reasons why instead of motivating action, calling climate crisis an "apocalypse" makes us more passive. Saying “Climate Apocalypse” causes us to lose hope. It’s about a looming endtime, not a beginning. Saying “Climate Apocalypse” helps us to avoid responsibility for causing climate change. It evokes long held themes about the existence of cosmic evil, not an increase in global average temperatures occurring at a rate ten times faster than ever before in geologic history, ever since the burning of fossil fuels in the Industrial age. The reality of climate change is that this is a human made disaster. Saying “Climate Apocalypse” unintentionially lulls us into avoiding responsibility for addressing climate change. It evokes, consciously or unconsciously, thousands of years of apocalyptic thought that tells us someone will swoop in and save us. I believe this contributes to the tendency of most people to passively wait on the world's governments or a Scientist semi-divine figure (or worse - a Tech Bro semi-divine figure!) to save us from climate crisis. Instead, the 20 countries responsible for 80% of current carbon emissions have to change our lifeways and commit fully to achieving net zero carbon emissions before 2050. Yet cycle after cycle our politicians take no steps at all, or baby steps at best, towards addressing this looming disaster so as not to upset our habits, to ensure they can get reelected.
However, the worst impact of referring to climate change as a “Climate Apocalypse” is another assumption that thousands of years of apocalyptic thinking inserts into our minds, which is that in the end, the innocent righteous will be saved and the wicked will be punished. This is exactly the opposite of what will happen. he reality is that an actual climate apocalypse, the real unfolding of climate crisis, will see those who caused it escape with less harm (not no harm) than the majority who are innocent. Half of all historical carbon emissions were created by just 23 countries - and 22 of these are Western European nations or settler societies formed by these colonizers, such as the United States. The other half of historical emissions were created by 150 countries. Today, a mere 20 nations are responsible for 80% of current emissions (which now include nations in Asia and the Middle East, who have "caught up" to the way of life established by Western Europe). Just three nations - China, the U.S., and India - produce nearly half of today's greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, we're the problem, fellow Americans.
Yet it is those who historically and currently are the least responsible for climate crisis who will suffer, including 85% of the world's population - mostly children - who live in the Global South. Take for instance the Democratic Republic of Congo, which only produces 0.03% of global carbon emissions, yet it will likely see the average temperature rise by 2.4 degrees C or 4.3 degrees F by 2060, impacting food security and health in what is already one of the poorest nations in the world.
While those who refer to a “Climate apocalypse” are trying to convey the scope and severity of climate change, the phrase unintentionally helps us avoid the realities of the situation: that around 20 countries, and especially 3, continue to perpetuate this crisis, which will disproportionately affect the countries that are the least responsible, and which will mostly harm the majority of children in the world and others who are the least able to adapt to the floods, drought, food crop failures, unbearable heat, historic storms, rising seas, and other impacts that climate change is bringing them.
I was so glad that in the audience that day were some students from Occupy Europe, who have led brave climate change protests that temporarily disrupted twenty-two college campuses across Europe last summer. I knew Occupy had recently been active at the University of Lisbon, and I was hoping they would attend, and they did! I was so honored, and grateful to share ways to help them become more effective, which entails making sure their actions are understandable by those they wish to influence. This requires an unwavering commitment to sustainable peace and to ensuring their protests are non-violent.
These students of Occupy and other related environmental activist groups understand the climate crisis better than many of their professors and administrators, I am sad to say. They are frustrated / outraged at the slow pace of the older generations to recognize that we only have about seven years to change course on climate, or else it is their world that will suffer the consequences. These young people are alternatively mad, hopeless, energized to tear it all down, and impassioned. Mark my words: they will not have it. They will not put up with the slowness of the COP meetings, with the evasion of responsibility by industry and government, with calculations about how much economic cost is convenient, and with those of us in the high carbon producing nations who are reluctant to change our lifestyles. In my public talk, and in our talk alone afterwards, I hope that I conveyed this message: I believe in you, and I want to help make you more effective. While on some level I admire the creativity and bravery of some of the news-making strategies that some of the youth environmental movements are taking, such as gluing themselves to valuable art pieces or throwing soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, I do not think these strategies will work. These are actions that distract from the important public education and the education of leaders that we so urgently need to undertake. These are actions that do not promote understanding of the climate crisis, in fact, they can cloud it, and so they will not motivate action except from those already on their side. What would be even more counterproductive that these disruptive protests and theatrical destructions of property are acts of violence, which, thankfully, the environmental youth movement is rejecting! Instead, an historic coalition of organizations in civil societies all across the world—united in the One Billion for Peace movement—could exert meaningful pressure on our leaders and on the industries most responsible for carbon emissions, but only if we work together, which requires a commitment to peace. And we Elders and Not Quite Yet Elders need to support Youth as they lead the way. Please consider joining them at: www.bioearthcommunity.org/peace-pledge .