Doomism

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There are people and organisations who reject the scientific consensus on climate change and global heating. These are often referred to as climate denialists, contrarians, dismissives, or sceptics/skeptics (incorrectly, since true scepticism is critical thinking, not dogmatic belief).

There are also some who accept the reality of climate change but reject the science on its likely consequences. One group is those who claim effects will be far less severe than the scientific consensus predicts; these are sometimes known as "lukewarmers", lukewarmists" or "climate complacents".

There is another faction who claim that effects will be far worse than consensus predictions, with consequences ranging up to extinction of humanity itself within a short period. These talk of "Deep Adaptation" or "Near-Term Human Extinction" and are sometimes referred to as "doomists" or "catastrophists".

In a guest article on RealClimate, "Denial and Alarmism in the Near-Term Extinction and Collapse Debate", Professor Alastair McIntosh of the University of Glasgow discusses climate change dismissives, and doomists, with particular reference to Roger Hallam, Jem Bendell and "Deep Adaptation", and Guy McPherson, "Arctic News", their idea of a 2026 doomsday, and Near Term Human Extinction. The article has copious references, including to the article by Tom Nicholas and other criticising Deep Adaptation.

Deep Adaptation

"Deep Adapatation" is the work of Professor Jem Bendell, originally published in July 2018 with a revised version published in July 2020 following publication of a paper by Tom Nicholas and others criticising his work.

2018 version: Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy Jem Bendell;

Abstract

The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable nearterm social collapse due to climate change.

The approach of the paper is to analyse recent studies on climate change and its implications for our ecosystems, economies and societies, as provided by academic journals and publications direct from research institutes.

That synthesis leads to a conclusion there will be a near-term collapse in society with serious ramifications for the lives of readers. The paper reviews some of the reasons why collapse-denial may exist, in particular, in the professions of sustainability research and practice, therefore leading to these arguments having been absent from these fields until now.

The paper offers a new meta-framing of the implications for research, organisational practice, personal development and public policy, called the Deep Adaptation Agenda. Its key aspects of resilience, relinquishment and restorations are explained. This agenda does not seek to build on existing scholarship on “climate adaptation” as it is premised on the view that social collapse is now inevitable.

The author believes this is one of the first papers in the sustainability management field to conclude that climate-induced societal collapse is now inevitable in the near term and therefore to invite scholars to explore the implications.

In his 2020 version Bendell seems to obliquely reference the Nicholas &c paper in his note on the updated version: "this paper appears to have an iconic status amongst some people who criticise others for anticipating societal collapse."

Bendell's note continues:

The update involves a light edit, not seeking to incorporate the range of scholarship that is relevant to societal collapse over the past two years. Instead, I focus on making specific clarifications and corrections to the original text. The paper therefore remains focused on its originally intended audience – people in the corporate sustainability field. Therefore, the paper does not address the many important issues of poverty, rights, humanitarian action, public policy, re-localisation, monetary policy, anti-patriarchy, racial justice and decolonisation. Those subjects were important to me before this paper and remain so, with various contributions on those topics at [www.jembendell.com www.jembendell.com]

As I am not a climate scientist or Earth systems scientist and wish to focus on other activities, if you have a view on any aspect of this paper then I invite you to engage each other by commenting on a google document version here.

The revised paper contains a number of changes, as noted by Alastair McIntosh in the RealClimate piece above[1]:

Amongst the changes made, are that a section about Arctic methane has been removed, meaning that Arctic News is no longer cited within the body text although it remains in the references. Most revealing is a welcome change made in the abstract. The original opened: ‘The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near term social collapse due to climate change.’ The revised, shifts from a statement of fact to one of opinion (my italics): ‘The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of what I believe to be an inevitable near-term societal collapse due to climate change.’

Nicholas et al on Deep Adaptation

The faulty science, doomism, and flawed conclusions of Deep Adaptation by Thomas Nicholas, Galen Hall, and Colleen Schmidt, published in Open Democracy on 14 July 2020, criticised the claim that runaway climate change has made societal collapse inevitable as not only wrong but undermining the cause of the climate movement.

The authors identify themselves as members of Extinction Rebellion and other climate movements and cite support from many scientists for XR's actions, and celebrate its successes. However they caution against "increasingly dire and prophetic, but ultimately unsupported, claims about the future", of which "the most influential example ... is undoubtedly Professor Jem Bendell’s ‘Deep Adaptation’, a self-published 2018 paper which holds that accelerating climate change has guaranteed social collapse within the next few decades."

They assert that "Deep Adaptation consistently cherry-picks data, cites false experts, puts forward logical fallacies, and disregards robust scientific consensus" and that Bendell offers "unsupported reasons for activists and the public to distrust mainstream climate science" which they say "mimics the practices that deniers of global warming have wielded for decades". This, they say, encourages us to distrust science which they say the COVID-19 pandemic shows we need to turn towards, not away from, to tackle potential disasters.

They state their position thus:

1. There is an unprecedented global climate and ecological emergency. If governments do not undertake enormous measures to mitigate climate change, then some form of “societal collapse” is plausible — albeit in varying forms and undoubtedly far worse for the poorest people.

2. Policymakers and society at large are not treating this grave threat with anything approaching sufficient urgency.

3. The climate crisis is dire enough in any case to justify urgent action, including mass sustained nonviolent disruption, to pressure governments to address it swiftly.

4. However, neither social science nor the best available climate science support Deep Adaptation’s core premise: that near-term societal collapse due to climate change is inevitable.

5. This false belief undermines the environmental movement and could lead to harmful political decisions, overwhelming grief, and fading resolve for decisive action.

6. Respecting the distinction between the coming hardships and unstoppable collapse clarifies our agency to minimise future harm by mitigating and adapting to climate change, whilst freeing us from moral and political blinkers.

The paper discusses Deep Adaptation as "just one prominent case of a stubborn class of doomist narratives", observing that "Doomism has always occupied an influential place within the western environmental movement. It was present during the first Earth Day, fifty years ago, in concern over the coming ‘population bomb’. When one instance of doomism becomes discredited or disproven, another appears, generally following a re-examination of the state of environmental degradation. The resulting dire findings are then used to justify a fatalist ideology or response." Bendell's, and DA's, role within XR and its messaging is noted.

The emotional appeal of Deep Adaptation to those anguished by the scale of problems faced by humanity and the inadequacy of our responses to it is acknowledged, as is the necessity to plan for adaptation to climate change.

The paper discusses the dependency of the predictions in Deep Adaptation on climate tipping points, in particular Arctic ice melt and methane release from permafrost. It criticises Bendell's position for relying on a single scientist studying Arctic ice, whose work is an outlier in the field, and allege that "it aligns Deep Adaptation with fringe conspiracy theorists, who seek out single extreme views, rather than reflecting on all available evidence". Methane emissions, the paper finds, are similarly mis-represented, as are tipping cascades and non-linearity.

Discussing societal collapse the paper observes that "societies have collapsed in the past for any number of reasons to do with both social practices and the environment" but criticises scenarios posited by Deep Adaptation such as "multiple meltdowns of some of the world’s 400 nuclear power-stations, leading to the extinction of the human race”, a hypothetical scenario which the paper examines and finds incompatible with the claim of wiping out all (or even a noticeable fraction) of human life.

The paper draws attention to Bendell's reliance on the work of Guy McPherson, "a retired ecologist who spreads misinformation about climate science in order to package and sell a “near-term human extinction” narrative. In 2008, McPherson predicted the end of civilisation by 2018, and in 2012 he predicted that global warming would kill much of humanity by 2020" and who in 2012 claimed that oxygen levels were "dropping to levels considered dangerous for humans, especially in cities" due to fossil fuel combustion: a claim in error by many orders of magnitude.

Intentionally or not, Deep Adaptation strikes a skilful balance between attempting to discredit mainstream scientific sources, postulating frightening tipping points, and appealing to our fear of the future and our own justified distrust of the institutions meant to protect us, all to conceal the lack of serious evidence for its own predictions.

The paper draws parallels between the devices used in Deep Adaptation and techniques used by fossil-fuel funded climate denialists: the use of non-scientific fake "experts", logical fallacies, impossible standards, cherry picking data, and conspiracy theories.

Deep Adaptation rejects the IPCC and scientific consensus. They claim firstly that "mainstream" work is out of date by the time it is published and that “one needs real-time data on the current situation and the trends that it may infer” in order to understand the real implications of recent warming; and secondly that the IPCC “has done useful work but has a track record of significantly underestimating the pace of change” and that one needs instead to turn to individual “eminent climate scientists” whose predictions have been more accurate. Nicholas &c counter that, whilst up-to-date data is needed, the chaotic nature of climate systems means that extrapolation from short-term trends may lead to unrealistically, and erroneously, catastrophic projections. On DA's second claim they observe that no individual scientists consistently make better projections than the IPCC.

The paper discusses other aspects of Deep Adaptation's rejection of the scientific consensus, and then examines DA's effect on the movement for climate action represented by Extinction Rebellion and others, and argues that it causes actual harms for various reasons. Crucially if societal collapse were truly inevitable our response should be quite different than if it is not: there would be no point in attempting to mitigate climate change in order to avert breakdown, or to act against governments if they were actually powerless to avert breakdown. They cite research showing that people are less likely to act on climate change if they believe that it is unstoppable.[2]

And if an organisation such as XR rejects the scientific consensus it loses any scientific high ground and puts it on the same level of credibility as climate denialists, and makes it harder to attract support from actual scientists.

Bendell's response

Bendell's has not published a detailed response to the criticisms in Nicholas, Hall & Schmidt's paper. In a "Letter to Deep Adaptation Advocate Volunteers about Misrepresentations of the Agenda and Movement" he dismisses the paper and simply reassures his supporters that there is scientific support for his views.

More discussion is cited in the footnotes to the RealClimate article referenced above.

Footnotes and references