No doomsday

Framing global warming as an emergency is not effective in mobilising governments or citizens, as happened with the anti-nuclear movement. It may even have the opposite effect.

According to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, composed of the world's leading climate scientists, human-induced climate change presents a serious and growing danger to human societies. Inertia in the climate system means that much of the warming and associated impacts of past and current greenhouse-gas emissions are yet to be experienced. James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at the US space agency, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), has argued that business-as-usual would bring about the collapse of major ice sheets, with several metres of sea-level rise this century alone. Continued emissions and further warming could also trigger natural 'positive feedback' mechanisms in the climate system – when the ramifications of climate change leads to further change. The warming effect could thus be exaggerated and sustained even after human greenhouse-gas emissions are reduced.

Recently, some scientists have argued that positive feedbacks may begin at lower levels of warming than previously anticipated. Indeed, melting of the arctic ice cap is already creating a positive feedback by reducing the Earth's albedo, or the amount of sunlight that is able to reflect. This in turn is beginning to melt the permafrost, with its own positive feedback of releasing previously frozen greenhouse gases. Given that most global emissions arise from economic activity underpinned by long-lived capital investments in fossil-fuel energy systems, delays in restructuring current global energy systems to low or zero-emissions technology could have profound consequences in the longer term. Yet little structural change is apparent in governments and bureaucracies. For example, energy and industry departments are still approving new coal mines and coal-fired power stations in countries such as the Australia, Britain, China and the US.

Some climate campaigners argue that the lack of action on climate change means governments and the public do not fully understand the urgency of the situation. Framing climate change as an emergency is one way to draw attention to the dire nature of the problem. But are there disadvantages to the emergency approach? How effective is it in terms of actively engaging people in changing their behaviour over the long term, and bringing sustained pressure to bear on governments to change their policies?

Skylines in cities across the globe are becoming increasingly monotonous. Well, build a house based on Nestor Archival's philosophy, and you will have helped both the environment and your cityscape. While most people are extra cautious to lock up their doors and windows, the Philippine architect's two-story residence is an open house of sorts. Each wall and door in the building has holes in it (including the bathroom!), with wine bottles as the ceiling and plastic construction piping as windows. This keeps the house cool while also bathing the rooms in light. All electricity that is needed, meanwhile, is generated by the solar panels on the roof. A model house.

Fearing fear
Today's process of looking at the issue of climate change as an 'emergency' is characterised by descriptions of climate change as catastrophic, chaotic, cataclysmic, out of control, explosive, irreversible, rapid and runaway. Climate advocates stress that 'we are rapidly running out of time to act.' Such language evokes fear about sudden and disastrous shifts in the climate system unless emergency action is taken. Proponents of an emergency response argue that the speed of climate change is surpassing previous expectations. Scientists such as the former co-chair of the IPCC, John Houghton, say that the science contained in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, published in 2007, was incomplete and outdated by the time it was put into the public realm. For example, since that report was finalised, the extent of Arctic summer ice has diminished substantially, with 2007 being by far the lowest extent on record and 2008 being the lowest recorded ice volume. Indeed, some climate scientists have argued that Arctic sea ice has reached a tipping point, while others are already predicting the disappearance of summer sea ice before 2013.

Nevertheless, there is scientific disagreement over whether the empirical evidence exists for claims that Arctic ice melt has in fact passed a tipping point. Vicky Pope, the head of climate-change advice at the Met Office Hadley Centre in the UK, states that recent extreme melting could be due mainly to short-term natural weather variability, in combination with the longer-term effects of climate change. She argues that exaggerated claims distort public perceptions and confuse public understanding, and that this in turn undermines attempts to communicate "the basic facts that the implications of climate change are profound and will be severe if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut drastically and swiftly over the coming decades."

A second area of contention relates to targets for a 'safe' level of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Advocates of an emergency response argue that current emissions targets – such as the European Union's target of 450 parts per million (ppm) of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and two degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels as a threshold for 'dangerous' climate change – are arbitrary and flawed. The IPCC estimated that 450 ppm provided only a 50 percent chance of restricting temperature rises to two degrees Celsius. Given that current greenhouse-gas concentrations are already at 436 ppm and rising steadily, multiple reports now regard a strong global agreement on a target of 450 ppm as unlikely, instead suggesting that 550 ppm would be more politically feasible. Yet in 2008, a group of scientists found that climate sensitivity may be twice that estimated by the IPCC, and that over the long term 550 ppm of carbon dioxide would raise temperatures by six degrees Celsius – eventually leading to an ice-free planet and 70 metres of sea-level rise. Advocates argue that that we need to rapidly return to a safe climate zone of around 300 ppm.

Disagreements about the imminent tipping points for sea ice and safe levels of CO2 have led to different conceptions about what is a sensible response to climate change. David Spratt and Philip Sutton argue that staged solutions to climate change – solutions that envisage a transition to a low or zero-carbon economy over a multi-decade time period, using a range of measures – are no longer adequate, due to their calculations regarding the Arctic sea ice having already reached or passed a tipping point. Activists argue that declaring a state of emergency is the only way to galvanise a rapid and widespread response capable of fully addressing the problem in a very short time.

Many are now warning against this 'emergency' approach, however. One critic of such a framework, Mike Hulme, former director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in the UK, claims that activists, the media, politicians and even scientists "are openly confusing the language of fear, terror and disaster with the observable physical reality of climate change." One risk in relying on the language of fear to depict climate change is that advocates may exaggerate the dangers, providing sceptics with an easy opportunity to dismiss climate change as 'alarmism'. For instance, given that 41 percent of people in the US say news of global warming is exaggerated, the alarmism tactic seems to be ineffective with a significant proportion of the US population.

Another drawback to the catastrophe approach is the tendency of people to treat extreme weather events as natural. This leads to a perception that climate change is not caused by human activity, and therefore the problem gets dismissed because it is seen not to be able to be modified by human actions. Evoking fear about climate change is a common tactic; the film An Inconvenient Truth (2006) was promoted as "by far the most terrifying film you will ever see." There is indeed evidence that fear is a motivator in human behaviour, particularly if it resonates with personal experience or evolutionary fears. Yet while fear may capture audience attention, it often fails to generate active engagement with climate change or motivate changes in behaviour. Indeed, fear often "triggers denial or repression of a problem perceived as overwhelming," argue scholars Susanne C Moser and Lisa Dilling in a 2004 article.

Another negative consequence of the emergency frame is that, by shrinking the perceived response time available, it can prioritise large-scale technological solutions over social and political change. Yet this approach assumes a human ability to control highly complex systems such as climate, which are not fully understood, and risks compounding the problem while failing to address underlying issues. Finally, the focus on climate change as an emergency may render the movement unsustainable. If global warming progresses less quickly than anticipated, climate change may, again, be dismissed as alarmism. But if climate change does occur quickly and the movement does not succeed in achieving rapid transition, the movement risks losing its reason for existence. To get a broader perspective on the question of emergency framing, one can study the movements against nuclear war. Looking at past movements brings the advantage of seeing whether a crisis mentality brings results.

End of the world
In the early 1980s, a massive protest movement against nuclear weaponisation developed in Western Europe and the United States. For many in this movement, stopping nuclear war was an emergency. After nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, the governments of the US and the Soviet Union rushed to develop massive nuclear arsenals. Many other states considered obtaining nuclear weapons, and by 1964 the governments of Britain, France and China had held nuclear tests. Opposition to nuclear arms emerged from the very beginning, including among scientists. A major popular mobilisation occurred in the late 1950s, with a primary focus being fallout from the nuclear tests being carried out by major powers. This movement led to the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, but after that popular concern faded. At the end of the 1970s, popular opposition rapidly expanded. It was especially strong in Western Europe, the US and Japan, which, in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had long had a strong peace movement.

In these countries in the early 1980s, nuclear war was by far the most prominent issue in terms of social movement mobilisation and media attention. For many, nuclear war was a matter of life and death; it was a make-or-break issue for humanity. Yet strangely, there was little scientific backing for the belief that global nuclear war would kill everyone on Earth. The blast, heat and fallout would be devastating, but mainly so in the areas targeted and downwind, with the likelihood of killing tens or hundreds of millions of people, largely in Western Europe, the Soviet Union and the US. The majority of the world's population – in places such as Africa, South America and Southasia – would remain unscathed.

Nuclear war, as a social issue, has several important similarities with climate change. Both are enormous in their potential impacts on the environment and human life. Both seem to have a tipping point beyond which catastrophe seems unavoidable or irreversible: the outbreak of nuclear war and positive feedback momentum in global warming. Both issues are remote in the sense that there are few impacts on most people in the world in the here and now. If, or when, they eventuate, there will be major effects on future generations. Both, as it seems to many campaigners, seem to require governments to act, even though governments have played major roles in causing the problems.

The similarities between the issues of nuclear war and climate change offer several lessons for climate-change campaigners. First, the anti-nuclear-weapons movements expanded dramatically yet collapsed just a few years later, even though the underlying problem – the risk of major catastrophe from nuclear war – remained much the same. This suggests that movements should aim to become sustainable, building structures or approaches that can maintain popular involvement over the long term. Second, crisis framing was insufficient to create the huge mobilisation necessary to bring about fundamental change in the nuclear system. Third, crisis framing appeared to put an emphasis on short-term solutions implemented by governments. This sort of framing neglected the development of long-term activism to bring about changes in the structure of state system that underlies the nuclear threat.

There is another disadvantage of seeing nuclear war as an all-or-nothing struggle, as either preventing nuclear war or suffering the ultimate catastrophe. It means peace activists are not prepared for the aftermath of an actual nuclear war. It is possible that a nuclear exchange could be limited – for example, a few bombs exploded in a hot spot, such as South or West Asia. The result could be massive loss of life – from tens of thousands of people to a few million, for example – but still far from putting human survival at risk. But peace activists are completely unprepared because so much campaigning has used crisis framing with the message, We'd better stop nuclear weapons, or it's all over.

Futile fear-mongering
Coming back to climate change, to date most discussion has approached the issue in terms of whether climate change really is an emergency. This way of thinking seems to be concerned with scientific matters, but actually it builds in social assumptions. It is not the use of the term emergency that is necessarily significant here, but rather the assumptions that so commonly go along with the word. The emergency frame implicitly prioritises climate change above other issues. But some critics argue that other issues should have higher priority. Either way, it could be a mistake to prioritise one issue over others, because this may encourage competition between activists rather than cooperation. There are plenty of issues of vital importance in which millions of lives are at stake, among them nuclear war, global poverty, HIV, inequality – even smoking, which could kill a billion people this century. Rather than prioritise climate change as more urgent, it may be more effective for climate-change activists to work with other social-justice campaigners to find ways to help each other – indeed, some are doing this already.

Emergency framing can also be used to sideline dissent within the climate-change movement itself. For example, those who advocate highly ambitious targets for CO2 reduction may seek the high ground, stigmatising others as 'selling out'. Internal democracy, divergent approaches and openness to new viewpoints can be dismissed as unaffordable luxuries when the future is at stake. Whereas in reality, because climate change is such an important issue, maintaining democracy, diversity and dialogue within the movement are even more vital. Another consequence of framing climate change as an emergency is an orientation to solutions implemented at the top, usually by government. In the longer term, this is not good politics, because the way to lasting change is through popular mobilisation. Imposing policies from the top runs the risk of provoking a backlash, with gains in the short-term reversed later on.

Ultimately, the problem with emergency framing is that it is not effective. Psychologically, calling something a crisis may lead to disbelief if immediate evidence of dramatic effects is not apparent; or to disempowerment and withdrawal, because there seems to be little that an individual can do to address an overwhelming problem. Saying that the problem is even larger and more urgent than before is not likely to make people do more if they cannot already see practical ways to act. Emergency framing is, ironically, not a good way to create a sustainable movement that has momentum, even after the media have moved on to other issues. The movements against nuclear war fell into this trap.

The same applies to climate-change movements. They are active now in many countries, but will they be just as vibrant in five or ten years? The challenge is to build a long-term movement, cooperating with other movements, that will persist after media attention declines should climate change not occur as rapidly as scientists anticipate, and will also persist should some of the more calamitous scenarios overtake the planet. The world needs a sustainable climate-change movement built not on fear but on widespread commitment.

~ Patrick Hodder and Brian Martin are at the School of Social Sciences, Media and Communication at the University of Wollongong, Australia.

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