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    The Myth of ‘Environmental Catastrophism’

    Between October 2010 and April 2012, over 250,000 people, including 133,000 children under five, died of hunger caused by drought in Somalia. Millions more survived only because they received food aid. Scientists at the UK Met Centre have shown that human-induced climate change made this catastrophe much worse than it would otherwise have been.

    This is only the beginning: the United Nations’ 2013 Human Development Report says that without coordinated global action to avert environmental disasters, especially global warming, the number of people living in extreme poverty could increase by up to 3 billion by 2050.2 Untold numbers of children will die, killed by climate change.

    If a runaway train is bearing down on children, simple human solidarity dictates that anyone who sees it should shout a warning, that anyone who can should try to stop it. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could disagree with that elementary moral imperative.

    And yet some do. Increasingly, activists who warn that the world faces unprecedented environmental danger are accused of catastrophism—of raising alarms that do more harm than good. That accusation, a standard feature of right-wing attacks on the environmental movement, has recently been advanced by some left-wing critics as well. While they are undoubtedly sincere, their critique of so-called environmental catastrophism does not stand up to scrutiny.

    From the Right…

    The word “catastrophism” originated in nineteenth-century geology, in the debate between those who believed all geological change had been gradual and those who believed there had been episodes of rapid change. Today, the word is most often used by right-wing climate change deniers for whom it is a synonym for “alarmism.”
    Examples could be multiplied. As environmental historian Franz Mauelshagen writes, “In climate denialist circles, the word ‘climate catastrophe’ has become synonymous with ‘climate lie,’ taking the anthropogenic green house effect for a scam.”

    Those who hold such views like to call themselves “climate change skeptics,” but a more accurate term is “climate science deniers.” While there are uncertainties about the speed of change and its exact effects, there is no question that global warming is driven by greenhouse-gas emissions caused by human activity, and that if business as usual continues, temperatures will reach levels higher than any seen since before human beings evolved. Those who disagree are not skeptical, they are denying the best scientific evidence and analysis available.

    The right labels the scientific consensus “catastrophism” to belittle environmentalism, and to stifle consideration of measures to delay or prevent the crisis. The real problem, they imply, is not the onrushing train, but the people who are yelling “get off the track!” Leaving the track would disrupt business as usual, and that is to be avoided at all costs.

    …And From the Left

    Until very recently, “catastrophism” as a political expression was pretty much the exclusive property of conservatives. When it did occur in left-wing writing, it referred to economic debates, not ecology. But in 2007 two quite different left-wing voices almost simultaneously adopted “catastrophism” as a pejorative term for radical ideas about climate change they disagreed with.

    The most prominent was the late Alexander Cockburn, who in 2007 was writing regularly for The Nation and coediting the newsletter CounterPunch. To the shock of many of his admirers, he declared that “There is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of CO2 is making any measurable contribution to the world’s present warming trend,” and that “the human carbon footprint is of zero consequence.” Concern about climate change was, he wrote, the result of a conspiracy “between the Greenhouser fearmongers and the nuclear industry, now largely owned by oil companies.”

    Like critics on the right, Cockburn charged that the left was using climate change to sneak through reforms it could not otherwise win: “The left has bought into environmental catastrophism because it thinks that if it can persuade the world that there is indeed a catastrophe, then somehow the emergency response will lead to positive developments in terms of social and environmental justice.”

    While Cockburn’s assault on “environmental catastrophism” was shocking, his arguments did not add anything new to the climate debate. They were the same criticisms we had long heard from right-wing deniers, albeit with leftish vocabulary.

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