Climate Change Communication: Apocalypse or Utopia?

How would life be on earth if the average temperature would rise by 10 degrees due to the rapid increase of solar storms? Tim Fehlbaum developed an interesting interpretation of these precarious living conditions in his 2011 post-apocalyptic film ‘Hell’ whose screening marked the start of the winter semester‘s Apocalyptic Cinema series.

During the recent Climate Change Conference COP26, as in the years before, a recurring aspect of discussion was the question of how to address the existential threat of the climate crisis in communications. Melissa Fleming, UN-Under-Secretary-General, urged to ‘dial down the doom’ in climate communication, in line with scientist and author Michael E. Mann and journalist Michael Shellenberger: ‘Apocalypse never’. On the other hand, (post-)apocalyptic narratives are present among environmental activists across Europe, civilisatory collapse is on the table and demands for political action use drastic wording. Most publicly recognized, perhaps, is the quote by Greta Thunberg in 2019 ‘I want you to panic!’ (addressed towards inactive decision makers, and not as a general demand for more panic, as often misrepresented). So which side is right?

A question of hope

The controversy is not new. David Wallace-Wells ignited a fierce debate about climate change and doomism in his article The Uninhabitable Earth for New York magazine. The article compiled worst case scenarios from different climate scientists to paint an apocalyptic picture. He expanded his argument in a book with the same title – The Uninhabitable Earth. His work has coincided with becoming a parent, an experience which has shifted his views of how we should think about climate change.

Of course there are many people who argue that hope is essential for addressing climate change (or any massive, multi-generational problem). Rebecca Solnit’s Hope In the Dark remains a classic defense of the politics of hope. Catherine Keller explores similar ideas in her Political Theology of the Earth. There is a recurring argument that optimism and pessimism are both passive positions. The former trusts that things will work out and the latter says there is nothing we can do. Hope is an activist position.

Yet, the question is not whether or not one should be hopeful, but what one hopes for (Tommy Lynch: Why Hope Is Dangerous When It Comes to Climate Change). Many people around the world are not worried about a coming climate crisis. They are, however, living through a crisis that has been happening for some time. As Rob Nixon argues in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, we should listen to those who are already struggling with the slow violence of climate change.

A more pessimistic or even apocalyptic view of climate change often stems from viewing climate change as symptomatic of deeper issues rather than an isolated problem. Jason Moore’s analysis of our reliance on ‘cheap nature’ (A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things) or Andreas Malm’s account of Fossil Capital see the climate crisis as entangled with the crises of capitalism. Silvia Federici shows how the logics of accumulation and enclosure that drive capitalism are related to questions of social reproduction. Whether we use ‘Anthropocene’ or ‘Capitalocene’ is not only a question of terminology, but a question of what we take the essence of the problem to be.

In other words, if we approach climate change with the mindset ‘how do we avoid 1.5 C warming?’, we have already been defeated (and even that seems like an optimistic goal). We talk about sustainability without asking what it is that we are trying to sustain. Decolonial perspectives, from Ferdinand Malcolm and Dipesh Charkrabarty have reframed the nature of the problem. If climate change is a crisis stemming from the construction of an industrialised world dependent on fossil fuels, than saving the planet might require the end of that world.

Fear won‘t do it – or would it?

Besides the debate on the argument itself, the empirical question is, which psychological and social effects emotional references to either doom or hope have in climate communications. Already in 2009, Saffron O'Neill, Sophie Nicholson-Cole explored this question in an experimental study on visual representations of climate change. They conclude: “dramatic, sensational, fearful, shocking, and other climate change representations of a similar ilk can successfully capture people’s attention to the issue of climate change”. But, as the title of the publication anticipates: fear won’t do it: “However, they are also likely to distance or disengage individuals from climate change, tending to render them feeling helpless and overwhelmed”.

The sceptical view on alarming and possibly apocalyptic messages in climate change communication has persisted. But in 2017, Joseph P. Reser and Graham L. Bradley were looking at the actual empirical evidence in a review: “There is a strong view among climate change researchers and communicators that the persuasive tactic of arousing fear in order to promote precautionary motivation and behavior is neither effective nor appropriate in the context of climate change communication and engagement. Yet the modest research evidence that exists with respect to the use of fear appeals in communicating climate change does not offer adequate empirical evidence—either for or against the efficacy of fear appeals in this context”. Even without a definitive answer to the question posed before, their paper compiles a comprehensive overview on arguments for and against fear appeals in climate change communications.

In addition to climate change communication by researchers and organizations, also fictional works play an important role in shaping public perceptions. Perhaps the most iconic symbol for the debate on catastrophe and climate communication is the 2004 fictional movie The Day after Tomorrow by Roland Emmerich. The film drew a wide range of criticism – and rightly so – for example for perpetuating individual hero stories in an apocalyptic flood myth and for reiterating troubling stereotypes about race, ethnicity and gender. Nevertheless, it had a profound and wide ranging impact on perceptions of climate change, especially in the USA, as a study by Anthony Leiserowitz found: “The film led moviegoers to have higher levels of concern and worry about global warming (...) Further, the movie encouraged watchers to engage in personal, political, and social action (...)”.

Climate change poster

A similar study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany also found heterogeneous results: “The results show that the film surprised people by adding new, somewhat paradoxical features of climate change (...). People reacted with a drop in perceived probability of climate change. Nevertheless, the film did not lead to climate pessimism, but reinforced peoples’ willingness to act, respectively to ask for political action.” Further studies on the effects of the movie have been conducted, for example in the UK and in Japan.

A detailed look into the results compared across the different countries provides several interesting starting points for further discussions on cultural conceptualizations of climate change and apocalypses. One important aspect to keep in mind from the perspective of today is the general political discourse on climate change in the United States at that time: then, it was much more questioned by climate change deniers and conservatives, if the climate is changing at all. In that situation, the movie made an important contribution to awareness raising, maybe especially through the apocalyptic scenario it was painting.

Climate Change Communication: Apocalypse or Utopia?

Coming back to the title, the answer to the question depends very much on the understanding of apocalypse and the perspective. The central argument cuts both ways: while doomism might cause despair and apathy, and is criticised as a new delay strategy by climate change deniers, the same holds true for misguided hope, illusion and decision makers not alarmed enough for urgently needed action.