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Stop the Clock

by Alexandria Herr

On 17 April, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic representative for New York’s 14th Congressional District, released a video called ‘A Message From the Future’. In it, Ocasio-Cortez speaks in an earnest tone over stop-motion animated drawings, narrating from a hypothetical future where the Green New Deal – a proposed stimulus package to address climate change and economic inequality – has been implemented. Finally, she arrives to the darkest hour: the present. Sombrely, she says, ‘When I was elected to Congress, the world’s leading climate scientists declared another emergency. They told us that we had 12 years left to cut our emissions in half or hundreds of millions of people would be more likely to experience food and water shortages, poverty and death. Twelve years to change everything’.

This wasn’t the first time Ocasio-Cortez has cited the 12-year deadline. She used it again in a February interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, albeit with a slightly different spin: ‘Millennials and people, you know, Gen Z and all these folks that will come after us, are looking up, and we’re like: “The world is going to end in twelve years if we don’t address climate change, and your biggest issue is how are we going to pay for it?”’ Other prominent American Democrats, including Beto O’Rourke and Bernie Sanders, as well as youth activists in the US and Europe, have adopted the same number when talking about climate change.

The 12-year deadline – now a slogan in the world of climate activism – originates from the October 2018 IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees. According to the report’s summary, humans have already caused an estimated one degree of warming; to prevent warming beyond 1.5 degrees, CO2 emissions must be cut in half from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero at mid-century. Media coverage following the report latched on to the 2030 number; headlines ranged from worrying (CNN released an article entitled: ‘Planet only has until 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change’) to extremely worrying (The Independent: ‘We have twelve years to act on climate change until the world as we know it is lost. How much more urgent can it get?’).

‘We never identified the 2030 figure as part of the messaging,’ Roz Pidcock, former head of communications for Working Group I of the IPCC, told me when I spoke to her. ‘The messaging was really quite straightforward: climate change is already happening, is having impacts all over the world, every bit of warming matters, and limiting warming to 1.5 will affect every aspect of society … That’s the kind of messaging we were working with. The 2030 thing came as a surprise.’ According to Pidcock, media coverage of the deadline evolved in two distinct ways. In the first stage, the 2030 date specified the deadline for a necessary action: ‘We had twelve years left to cut our emissions in half,’ warned Ocasio-Cortez. Later, in the second stage, media messaging took a more fatalistic turn; it became ‘We’ve got twelve years to save the world.’

According to Pidcock, the first stage of interpretation is a ‘deadline to act’ message. This narrative implies that we have a fixed timeframe for action on climate change that is rapidly closing. While this is not far from what is stated in the report, some IPCC authors have expressed concern about the simplification of climate action to a single deadline. Myles Allen, one of the lead authors on the report and climate scientist at the University of Oxford, told me his take on this framing of climate action. Allen was concerned that the deadline-to-act narrative would engender a defeatist attitude toward the mitigation of climate change. According to Allen: ‘If we say that’s what’s needed and we keep not doing it, the danger is that people might say “well, that didn’t work,” and then they might say, “there’s nothing for it but geoengineering.” That’s a very misleading narrative because, of course, we can always reduce emissions.’ Pidcock argues that the deadline narrative can be problematic from the other direction as well – that it may actually be too conservative. According to Pidcock, ‘We don’t have 12 years. The action has to happen now; we have to be in a completely different place in 12 years time.’ The complexity of future emissions pathways – that every bit of warming matters, that action needs to happen as soon as possible, and that future warming is always preventable – is lost in the simplifying slogan of a 2030 climate deadline.

The second interpretation that emerged from the media coverage of the report was the ‘twelve years to save the world’ or ‘twelve years until climate breakdown’ narrative (a phrase which Allen rejects: ‘I don’t know what that means!’). On this view, the year 2030 brings with it some kind of catastrophic climate event that must be prevented: ‘The world is going to end in twelve years if we don’t address climate change.’ This framing is also misleading: one of the takeaways of the report was that climate change is not a problem for some distant future or generation, but is already having a global impact. Moreover, climate change is less of a discrete event than a systematic condition under which events are occurring. There will be no single cataclysmic event that we can point to as evidence, but rather many events, both slow (drought, sea-level rise) and sudden (hurricanes, wildfires), that bear the subtle fingerprints of shifting probability. Indeed, this is one of the aspects of climate change that make public communication so difficult. Easy headlines are often misleading, while accurate headlines are often shrouded in the scientific jargon of statistics and probability.

Attribution and uncertainty aren’t the only issues that make climate change difficult to communicate however; scale is hard to convey as well. Pidcock is well acquainted with this challenge: ‘It’s such a global problem,’ she reflects, ‘how do you make a global issue relevant to people?’ How do we experience climate change? We don’t actually experience climate change through global temperature or global sea level rise. Those kinds of numbers can feel quite meaningless, and so can 1.5 degrees, 2 degrees. It’s very difficult to grasp what that really means.’ The doomsday scenario of ‘climate breakdown’ in 2020 might be tempting in order to convey urgency, but ultimately, may muddy the waters when it comes to public understanding. ‘It is going too far to say that humanity will be extinct in twelve years,’ says Pidcock, ‘and perhaps it’s not helpful because if you set deadlines like that and those things don’t happen, it detracts from the credibility of the science.’

On the other hand, there’s a reason why deadline-setting has been picked up by so many members of the media and political sphere. It’s a catchy, easy slogan for a topic that for so long has resisted urgency. It’s not the first time that deadlines have been employed in international policy either; in 1996, the UN declared in that they would halve the proportion of under-nourished people by 2015, and in 2000, they would halve the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by the same date. Politicians like deadlines, and so do people; we all set deadlines for our daily lives, be it going to the gym or writing an essay for students. Schedules make tasks seem more urgent and achievable. Deadlines have what psychologists call a goal-looms-larger effect, meaning that the closer the deadline the more important a task becomes.

This approach is perfect for activists hoping to bring climate change closer to the front of the American consciousness. ‘What you see is that the 12-years slogan really picked up traction,’ Pidcok told me. ‘It’s difficult to argue that it was not effective, because you see that slogan featured quite heavily in the huge uptick in social awareness and the national and international conversation about climate change that’s been steadily building since the 1.5 report. Just in the last few weeks [we’ve had] the Extinction Rebellion demos, the Greta Thunberg school strikes. So, who am I to say that slogan shouldn’t be used?’

Allen worries, however, about what may happen to the youth activists who are being mobilised by these deadline-oriented narratives down the line: ‘What if these youth activists, in five years time, realise that the 12 years narrative is wrong? How disillusioned are they going to feel that they were fed this line that turns out to be very misleading? That’s actually quite a new risk; we’ve had deadlines set, we’ve had 300 days to save the planet before [the Paris Agreement], but that was all about a negotiation being made. It wasn’t saying that we’ve got a specific amount of time before something bad happens to the planet itself. That’s new. And that’s worrying.’

Ultimately, the 2030 deadline harkens back to a long-standing climate communications debate concerning the efficacy of hope or fear in mobilising climate action. Telling a doomsday story about climate change might galvanise people, but it could also lead to psychological distancing, making people feel disempowered in the face of a problem that seems too big to solve. On the other hand, downplaying the impacts of climate change will not adequately convey the urgency of the crisis and the need for action. Similarly, a 12-year deadline could seem intimidating to those who fear that 12 years is too short to transform our transportation, production and energy systems. Whether or not people find this fear apathy-inducing or motivating is an entirely separate question. Ultimately, our emotional responses to narratives about climate change is highly dependent on our own existing beliefs, worldviews, ideological and political identities. In the words of Pidcock, ‘There’s no single message, no framing or set of words that will resonate with everyone.’

The deadline-oriented statements made by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, youth activists and others in the wake of the release of the 1.5 report are certainly less misleading than the outright denial of anthropogenic climate change by prominent members of the Republican Party, the president or even the current head of the Environmental Protection Agency. To nitpick the statements of Ocasio-Cortez and others who are attempting to promote climate action while ignoring the concerted attempt of the Republican Party to deny the existence of climate science would be an unbelievable double standard. What is perhaps a more important question than the scientific accuracy of these statements is how effective they are at mobilizing change and action. A person’s take on the 2030 narrative might, at the end of the day, be a kind of Rorschach test for what you think humanity is capable of. Even the UN poverty reduction goal, according to anthropologist Jason Hickel, was partially achieved not by actual gains in poverty reduction, but instead by the accounting trick of moving the poverty baseline from 2000 to 1990 and by changing the international poverty line. If you’re not confident that we can reduce our emissions sufficiently by 2030, the fear is that we will approach the mid 2020s with despair and give up, or worse – put it off. The only thing worse than a missed deadline would be for climate action to become an ever-receding goalpost, always teetering on the verge of fruition, until it is too late. The hard part about deadlines, after all, is meeting them.

ALEXANDRIA HERR reads for a MSc in Environmental Change and Management at St. Anne’s College. Her writing can also be found in Anthroposphere.

Art by Abigail Hodges


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