By Ethan Brown
“Act now or it’s too late.” That was the headline in The Guardian on March 20, adding to a sea of grim headlines from The Washington Post, CNBC and others. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published new findings, and the media panicked.
The public has become completely numb to the phrase. Act now or it’s too late – we’ve heard it over and over. The same message was delivered by President Obama in 2015 prior to the Paris Climate Agreement, published as a headline in New Scientist in 2006 — the year of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and gleaned from a NASA scientist’s Senate testimony in 1989. When people hear “act now or it’s too late” for 34 years and the apocalypse never happens, it starts to feel like ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf.’
The IPCC’s new summary report does describe some depressing realities, but more than anything it offers tangible reasons for hope and enthusiasm. There’s so much potential for progress. But with these repetitive doom-and-gloom clickbait headlines, the media is failing to capture that.
“Act now or it’s too late” misrepresents the state of the climate crisis for two reasons. First, “it’s too late” begs the question — too late for what? The IPCC report says “to ensure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” But even the authors would likely agree that goal has eluded us, seeing as thousands of people have already died due to climate-induced drought in East Africa, floods in Pakistan, heat waves in Europe, hurricanes in the United States, and more.
On the flip side, if the “too late” benchmark means the extinction of humanity, it would quite literally never be too late! Even in the worst case scenario, climate change alone could not precipitate the extinction of our species. In reality, there exists no “too late” scenario where the world “fails on climate.” With each degree of warming we prevent, we save lives, preserve natural resources, and prevent economic losses. Our motivation should not be to avoid a “too late” scenario, but to pursue the best possible future.
Second, “act now” implies that we haven’t been acting already. We have. The IPCC report found we have 10 times more solar energy, and 100 times more electric vehicles than a decade ago. And over 170 countries have implemented climate adaptation policies. Our current trajectory would fail to limit global warming to 1.5°C over preindustrial times – which presents serious issues. But thanks to new climate policies around the world, that trajectory has improved drastically. Saying “act now” ignores that progress, and deprives the public of the motivation that comes with it. Perhaps “onward and upward” would be the better message.
Contrary to what the headlines imply, Monday’s IPCC piece never says “act now or it’s too late.” It also doesn’t say “final warning” or “drastically transform economies.” And it definitely doesn’t say “everything everywhere all at once,” though news outlets have latched on to the UN Secretary-General’s movie pun as if it was the report’s title.
What it does say — and this is literally the headline of the IPCC’s press release — is “Urgent climate action can secure a liveable future for all.”
The IPCC’s report is not an op-ed from a lobbying group, but a several thousand page analysis of all the global scientific literature over the last decade on climate change, climate progress, and climate solutions, which policymakers use to inform decision making. The text is completely matter-of-fact, and does not include apocalyptic warnings, opinions, or advocacy of any kind. Each fact is even accompanied by a note indicating the degree of confidence from the 721 scientists from 90 countries who co-authored the report.
The real “closing window,” as the report calls it, is for climate resilient development. Climate resilient development means ensuring communities can withstand and adapt to a changing climate while preserving economic security and developing economic gains. Today, there are ample opportunities for such development around the world, offering win-win solutions to climate change. But with every additional tenth of a degree of warming, this becomes less about making money and more about minimizing losses — which is precisely why we need to take it seriously.
The report also summarized prior research on emissions solutions from an economic lens, finding that out of 38 climate solution categories, 16 actually start out saving money, and another 13 start out with costs under $20 per ton of cut CO2. With economist Maximilian Auffhammer measuring the social cost of CO2 emissions at $185 per ton, these climate solutions seem to be good economics.
On this point, many journalists have been misrepresenting this line from the report: “Ambitious mitigation pathways imply large and sometimes disruptive changes in existing economic structures.” Climate action and capitalism, they want to imply, are simply incompatible. But the sentence was about changing economic structures to take advantage of these cost-saving climate solutions. In context, it’s not anti-business at all. .
In fact, the IPCC report bucks the common notion that there is an environment versus profits balancing act. The vast majority of these emissions reduction solutions align with all 17 of the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Climate solutions, if executed properly, can actually help everything, everywhere, all at once.
Of course, the report explains that climate change is here, and its impacts will only worsen as humans continue to emit greenhouse gasses. But in that 33-page summary, only twelve pages were spent on those problems. Four pages covered past progress, and seventeen pages covered future policies we can implement, notably examining how these policies can support economic development. Just by the pagecount, the report is mostly optimistic.
But by framing it as a harsh warning of doom and gloom and disregarding the majority of the document – which covers feasible climate solutions and their many benefits – news outlets have done a grave disservice to the climate movement. The general public won’t read this highly technical report, and they’ll understably rely on news articles. So the media ought to cover the report in its entirety and stop promoting played out, problematic soundbites. Because we’ve heard it all before.
Ethan Brown is a Writer and Commentator for Young Voices with a B.A. in Environmental Analysis & Policy from Boston University. He is the creator and host of The Sweaty Penguin, an award-winning comedy climate program presented by PBS/WNET’s national climate initiative “Peril and Promise.” Follow him on Twitter @ethanbrown5151.