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The discourse that there is no point in fighting climate change is increasingly widespread on social networks. Is this a new tactic to discourage action by authorities and citizens? A new report suggests yes.

Analysis | Catastrophism as a tool of climate denial

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Climate activists hold a banner as they protest outside the YouTube offices in London, October 16, 2019.

    < li class="mt-2 flex first:mt-0">Étienne Leblanc (View profile)Étienne Leblanc

Voice synthesis, based on artificial intelligence, allows you to generate a spoken text from a written text.

In English, we call this trend doomism.

It's this idea that we're all done, that the world is about to end and there's nothing to to do, regardless of the actions we take to avoid climate catastrophe. Rising temperatures mean that the world as we know it will collapse and there will be no escape.

In Canada, polls show that citizens are increasingly concerned about the climate crisis. But they are also increasingly defeatist in the face of the phenomenon.

At the Canadian level, according to a survey conducted by the Léger firm last January, more than a third of the population (38%) think that it is too late to act. A notable increase compared to 2021 (25%).

If it seems less pronounced in Quebec, the trend of defeatism is no less growing, according to figures from the most recent Climate Action Barometer (New window ) led by experts from Laval University. In 2021, barely 17% of Quebecers believed that it was too late to fight climate change, a proportion which increased to 21% in 2023.

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This trend, which we observe almost everywhere in the West, is perhaps not unrelated to the fact that doomism is now at the heart of the rhetoric of denial climatic. At least this is the observation of the recent and very interesting report The New Climate Denial(New window), published last January by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which has branches in London and Washington.

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YouTube has become the largest video sharing platform in the world.

Experts have dissected the new forms of communication that are used to propagate the discourse of climate denial on the social network YouTube. Using artificial intelligence, they analyzed the content of more than 12,000 videos broadcast between 2018 and 2023 by around a hundred channels scattered around the world.

The good news, according to the authors, is that the two classic formulas of denial are in decline, namely: Climate change does not exist or climate change is not caused by activities human.

In 2018, 70% of communications put forward one of these two falsehoods to refute the climate phenomenon. In 2023, barely a third of videos make these arguments.

As climate science never ceases to improve and strengthen, and as YouTube has banned the monetization of videos that convey climate denial, climate deniers are refining their communication techniques, as my colleague Valérie Boisclair well described in her report entitled Climate skeptic Internet users are going on the offensive.

According to the authors of the report, one of the most popular arguments for some time is that of defeatism: the solutions put forward to protect the climate do nothing, renewable energies will change nothing and they are even harmful (New window). No matter what we do, there is nothing we can do about it, the die is cast.

While we all already feel a little overwhelmed by the scale of the phenomenon, such speech reinforces the impression that ordinary citizens no longer have any control over the problem. A communication technique that the famous American climatologist Michael Mann called inactivism.

Proponents of this technique are fueling climate apathy among citizens, so that the phenomenon of climate change is no longer part of their concerns. Therefore, they no longer oppose the climate policies proposed by their leaders. Why accept the sacrifices that the authorities want to impose on us if it changes nothing?

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Extinction Rebellion activists unveil a banner during a demonstration in Paris on October 31, 2021 against damages caused to the environment before the COP26 climate change conference.

Catastrophic messages are obviously not just the prerogative of supporters of climate denial. They are also transmitted by a fringe of activists who believe that in view of the climate situation, the only way to provoke a reaction from the population is to describe the end of the world.

However, it has been well demonstrated that this type of message, at least with regard to the climate issue, produces the opposite effect to that sought. By being told repeatedly that there is no longer any hope, climate fatigue sets in.

A phenomenon documented among others by the Norwegian psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes, who published an important book on this issue in 2015, entitled What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warmings.

If the threat of disaster is repeatedly repeated, people feel fear, guilt, or a combination of these two feelings. But these two emotions are passive. They cause people to tune out and avoid the topic rather than engage with it, writes Mr. Stoknes.

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Women sit on a bench surrounded by floodwaters from the Danube in Budapest on December 28, 2023, as the Lower shore quays are underwater due to flooding.

It goes further. The proponents of defeatism are not content to destroy any hope of being able to change things. They add to it, saying that scientists are no longer credible when they explain to the population that it is not too late to avoid the worst, even if the favorable period to act is more and more limited.

According to the doomers, experts are too conservative in their predictions by refusing to admit the seriousness of the problem at its fair value.

It's climate denial in reverse: the problem is so serious that climate scientists are lying to us into believing that it is still possible to escape from it.

In an article (New window) published last September on the American Physical Society website, climatologist Michael Mann says he fears this growing trend of doomism, which according to him discredits scientific facts.

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Michael Mann is a professor of climate sciences at the University from Pennsylvania.

To illustrate the growing catastrophist trend that he is witnessing, he takes as an example a message that was sent to him on the social network hit the United States in the summer of 2022, from a citizen who denounced the reaction of scientists.

Once again, we see that climate science, as it is often presented to the public, is too conservative, and avoids talking about what are recognized as worst-case scenarios. BUT [these worst scenarios] are becoming our reality TODAY, writes his interlocutor (the capitals are his).

As if the worst disasters were the manifestation of the world in which we would henceforth live.

Michael Mann deplores this tendency to succumb to catastrophism, while the scientific facts describe a much more complex and nuanced situation. This is exactly the message that scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relay in their most recent report: For many aspects of the climate crisis, it is not too late to act, even if the window of opportunity to ensure a viable and sustainable future for all is increasingly limited.

To illustrate his point, Michael Mann makes this interesting analogy: climate change is not a ravine into which we will fall as soon as we have reached a warming threshold of 1.5°C. They are more like a highway where things go too fast and on which we must take the first possible exit in order to reduce the risks as much as possible. The longer we wait to take an exit route, the greater the damage will be.

The climate, reminds Michael Mann, is not a clear-cut question that confines us either to failure or to success. The effects of disruption are complex and the solutions to get out of it will be just as complex.

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A sign reading “1.5 degrees is the limit” is photographed in front of the German Chancellery during the “Friday” demonstration for the future” against the climate protection law, in Berlin, May 12, 2021.

The IPCC experts, whose major report is the most exhaustive scientific synthesis on the climate available, are evaluating different scenarios of increasing temperatures. The worst-case scenarios, which describe a world 5°C or 6°C warmer on average, are chilling. It is nothing less than a fast track to the sixth extinction.

But science very well documents the possibilities of limiting the damage. Between a warming threshold of 1.5°C and another of 4°C or 5°C, there are hundreds of thousands of lives saved, millions of people who will not have to travel and thousands of protected species and ecosystems. According to scientists, although certain effects are already recognized as irreversible, it is still possible to stay within reach of the threshold of 1.5°C, or even 2°C, if we put in place – quickly – the right measures.

There is no doubt today that the story of a world without a future, which generates despair, greatly benefits those who want to do less, who do not want to see the role of fossil fuels diminish.

It nourishes immobility.

Hence the proliferation of this kind of discourse on social networks, some of which have become a springboard for the rhetoric of climate denial 2.0.

And this works, write the authors of the report The New Climate Denial. Although YouTube has banned videos that clearly deny climate change from being monetized since 2021, the platform pockets around $18 million per year by selling advertising in videos that convey new, more subtle forms of climate denial.

The story of an attractive ecological transition remains to be invented. The challenge is to convince citizens that the fight is not against them, but in their interest and that of their children.

Why continue to imagine the worst when we could dream of a world where life is good?

All is not lost. The worst is still avoidable. Science tells us that.

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