In recent years, climate activism showed a regained interest in direct action and civil disobedience. One example is Extinction Rebellion. In their communication, these direct action groups often appeal to alarmism with doom scenarios about apocalyptic climate change. Direct actions could potentially be an effective form of climate activism, but the alarmism strategy is probably problematic. In this article I argue why alarmism is worrisome, and how alarmism can make direct action groups such as Extinction Rebellion ineffective or perhaps counterproductive.
The problems of alarmism
Alarmism is comparable to a badly adjusted accelerator pedal of a car. If you press it too little, the engine will stop. If you press the accelerator pedal slightly harder, the engine will rotate in an overspeed like a sports car from the starting blocks. This lack of control of an engine with a hypersensitive accelerator pedal can be dangerous. Like the hypersensitive engine, there are two possible reactions with alarmism: it creates a feeling of apathy resulting in inaction or a feeling of impatience resulting in overaction.
The alarmism risks for the general public: apathy, distrust and polarization
The first reaction of alarmism is a feeling of apathy. This can lead to fatalism, cynicism, paralysis, hopelessness, resignation and a lack of motivation to take action. Like an engine that stops, potential activists fall silent because of their false belief that it is too late, that the deadline is passed, that the climate change problem will not be solved and is impossible to solve.
This reaction is confirmed in psychological research: using terrifying messages and doom scenarios (“the current system will kill us all”) is anything but convincing (see, for example, “Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive” by Noah Goldstein, Steve Martin and Robert Cialdini). The alarmist strategy is irrational because it does not really encourage action, so that climate goals are not achieved.
As a consequence of this reaction, the general public might even experience a backfire effect: people who hear an uncomfortable alarming message of a problem that is beyond their control (such as the global political system that causes climate change) get even more convinced of the opposite. For example, they will deny climate change even more strongly. They put the head in the sand and become more convinced climate skeptics.
Apathy not only results in a lack of motivation to take action, but also in distrust. Twenty years ago, climate activists said that we only have ten years left to solve the climate crisis. Ten years later, the climate activists didn’t acknowledge that time is up and further actions are futile. Instead, they postponed the deadline: they gave us another ten years to win the battle. Ten years later, they still say “act now”, indicating that the battle is not yet lost. The alarmism of the activists decreases their credibility. This is comparable to an unreliable fuel meter. Suppose the fuel on the dashboard indicates too often that the fuel tank is empty while it is still full. In the beginning you will go to the gas station unnecessarily often. But after a while you will ignore the fuel meter and just continue driving. Until the fuel tank suddenly really runs out of gas. That happens to doom thinkers: if they sound too many false alarms, it leads to disbelief.
Another societal problem created by alarmism, is increased polarization. The reaction of the climate activists is very different from the non-activists: the activists become impatient and overzealous, proposing more radical direct actions and revolutions. This creates a polarization in society with two camps: the climate activists versus the climate skeptics. This polarization results in group think and ingroup-outgroup biases that can increase other biases such as confirmation bias, worsening judgments and decision making. A polarized society creates more mutual distrust, becomes less effective in making the right decisions and increases the risk of group discrimination and violence.
The alarmism risks for the climate activists: impatience, overzealousness and thoughtlessness
The second possible reaction of alarmism is a feeling of impatience. As a result, activists propose more and more drastic measures to save the climate. The impatience means the activists do not want to take enough time to study the effectiveness and costs and benefits of their actions and proposals. They thoughtlessly jump into a climate campaign, without taking the time to critically think about it and look for scientific evidence of its effectiveness.
One example is the disinvestment campaign. Some Extinction Rebellion climate activists took part in disinvestment actions, for example to demand that universities disinvest in the fossil fuel industry. However, the effectiveness of disinvestment actions is questionable. If the university does not invest in the fossil fuel industry, other people will invest in it (because demand in the share market is very elastic, so other investors will immediately take up the slack of a decrease in share price due to disinvestments). If the rates of return in that industry are lower than in other industries, the market mechanism will automatically push towards disinvestment in the less profitable fossil fuel industry, so disinvestment campaigns become superfluous. If the rates of return of that industry are higher than other industries, the university will lose money if it disinvests, and that means they have less money left to finance research and development of climate-neutral clean energy technologies. Those new technologies will do more good for the climate than a disinvestment (i.e. a decrease in harm when instead of the university a more careless investor reaps the rewards of investments in fossil fuels). Hence, a university disinvestment can even be counterproductive (because the other investors in the fossil fuel industry will not use their high profit rates for important climate and technology research). This critique on disinvestment is related to the idea of mission hedging (for a short presentation of this idea, see this video).
Jumping into a specific campaign without taking enough time for critical reflection, is dangerous. According to preliminary research about cost-effectiveness and cost-benefit analyses of interventions (see here, here, and specific examples in human health, education, animal welfare, climate mitigation options, individual climate actions), we can expect that most campaigns, actions, interventions or policy proposals are ineffective, weakly effective or sometimes counterproductive, and a minority is highly effective. Chances are low that the first climate campaign that you stumble upon is highly effective. If – because of impatience – you immediately jump into that specific campaign and invest time and resources in that campaign, there is a high risk for a sunk cost fallacy or escalation of commitment. If evidence shows that the campaign is less effective, you might be reluctant to let it go and do something different that is more effective, because you will not be inclined to accept that all the time and resources that you invested in that campaign were for nothing.
The lack of critical reflection also translates into the vagueness of many recommendations by impatient climate activists. They propose to fight the system, to overturn the government, to dismantle capitalism, to stop economic growth, but they do not make it clear what those recommendations mean, how to exactly achieve them and what the alternatives are. They basically target the wrong enemies, such as economic markets, neoliberalism, capitalism or economic growth. In their critique of the economic system, they do not follow two strategies: they do not base their critique on a scientific consensus among economists, and they do not offer and discuss empirical economic evidence or theoretical economic modelling that help to make the choice how to change the system into something better. This can be contrasted with effective altruists who use critical thinking and scientific evidence to do the most good. Effective altruists are consistently looking for new reliable evidence to update their beliefs and change their minds if necessary. In this sense, the effective altruist culture is very different from the alarmist climate activist culture.
Alarmist climate activists claim to follow the scientific consensus, but there is no consensus on their alarmist claims (e.g. that we are all going to die because of climate change or that we have no time left) nor on their policy proposals. There is no consensus among climate economists that a revolution and a destruction of capitalism is required or more effective to avoid climate change. On the contrary, there is a strong consensus that liberal market-compatible mechanisms (e.g. a cap-and-trade system of emission permits or a carbon tax), as well as investments in technological research are effective and required. A reform towards a green liberalism or green capitalism is probably more feasible than a revolution towards a green, just and efficient non-capitalist system. For example there is no good evidence that socialist or anticapitalist systems are better than capitalist systems in terms of human well-being. The same goes for sustainability: sustainable choices require good incentives and knowledge, and well-functioning free markets, corrected for market failures, have a price mechanism that generates the correct incentives for consumers and producers and integrates information about preferences and costs. Hence, such markets efficiently allocate resources to make sustainable decisions. Climate change is probably the biggest market failure, and a carbon price can correct the market.
Instead of improving market mechanisms of carbon pricing (as done by e.g. Carbon Market Watch), the antimarket, antiliberal and anticapitalist climate activists criticize those effective policy proposals. This is another example of a counterproductive climate action. The same goes for their criticism of economic growth. Long term technological growth is driven by technological innovations and knowledge. With sufficient investments in climate technology research and development, a decoupling between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions is possible. The economy can grow, even when harmful economic activities decrease (think about slavery, whaling, horse manure in cities, banned toxics, acid rain, ozone depleting chemicals,…). A long term economic growth in value, knowledge and technology does not require fossil fuel use or greenhouse gas emissions. Fossil fuels are depletable, whereas knowledge is non-rivalrous (my consumption of knowledge does not impede your consumption of the same knowledge). We need economic growth to increase valuable knowledge and technologies that make the economy more sustainable.
Plus, we also have to take into account the welfare of everyone in the far future. Economic growth can drastically improve the living standards of humans and animals in the far future. This is one of the reasons to be worried about climate change: with climate change, the economy can shrink with say 20% (damage from climate change could cost 20% of global GDP). This is a lot of wasted money and wealth, that could be invested in scientific research to improve lives. If we take the longtermist perspective, we see that the number of lives in the far future (if we avoid complete extinction) is much bigger than the number of people alive today, so a difference in wealth of 20% means a lot because it affects a lot of people.
Economic growth creates positive sum games or win-win situations, whereas zero or negative growth returns us to zero sum games (win-lose games) that increases inequality, harm and rent seeking (taking wealth instead of producing wealth). Economic growth becomes even more important if we take non-human animals into account. Technology driven economic growth improves the lives of humans, so we can avoid human suffering. But with technologies such as cellular agriculture (clean meat that replaces animal meat) and human-on-a-chip (that replaces animal testing), we can also drastically reduce human caused animal suffering (livestock farming, animal experimentation,…). But by far the biggest realm of suffering could still exist for a long time, even if we eliminated all human diseases, violence, and animal abuse: wild animal suffering, including insect suffering. The size of far future wild animal suffering is probably orders of magnitude larger than current human and livestock animal suffering. If we value well-being in an impartial way, also the well-being of insects in the far future matters. Even if the well-being of one insect at one day in the far future matters only a little, because there will be so many insects born on so many days in the future, their total well-being becomes very important. The problem is: if we are poor, we will not be inclined to invest in research how to intervene in nature to improve wild animal welfare in the far future. However, if we are very rich, we can afford to spend a little bit of money on wild animal suffering research (e.g. research in welfare biology). The richer we are, the more likely we spend some money. As far future wild animal suffering is the most neglected area of suffering, any additional resources invested in improving wild animal welfare can do comparatively a lot more good than resources going to smaller and less neglected areas of suffering. Hence, economic growth increases the likelihood that we will do research and invest in technologies that tackle the largest and most neglected area of suffering. Once we invent those technologies, they can help huge numbers of wild animals for millions of years in the future. A difference between maximum sustainable economic growth and a 20% lower growth due to climate change or a zero or negative growth as proposed by some climate activists, could mean the difference of huge amounts of suffering of wild animals in the future. Hence, we should not underestimate the importance of economic growth (see also the arguments by Tyler Cowen why we should prioritize maximizing sustainable economic growth).
Not only do a lot of climate activists target the wrong enemies (capitalism, economic growth), but they propose risky alternatives. Doom thinking can lead to an overreaction with more harmful measures. People take too drastic means in a final attempt to save the world. An example is the call for mass civil disobedience and revolution by Extinction Rebellion, claiming that mass civil disobedience is the only option left to avoid a catastrophe. However, those activists do not take into account all the costs of such revolutionary direct actions. They do not think like an economist, considering both direct and indirect (opportunity) costs.
Mass civil disobedience has many risks and opportunity costs that are not fully taken into account by the activists. Some examples of costs:
- time: the long occupations and jail time of activists preclude other use of time (such as time for scientific research, lobby work,…),
- direct costs for the activists: fines and court costs from the lawsuits that cannot be spend on other effective climate measures, such as afforestation,
- direct costs for governments for law enforcement, resulting in a misallocation of government resources (intelligence services,…) towards law breaking climate activists instead of more important issues (e.g. terrorism),
- indirect costs for the broad population: loss of prosperity due to obstruction of economic activities.
Some examples of risks:
- risk of loss of goodwill or sympathy among the wider population (the action style can induce antipathy),
- risk of losing respect for our democratic legal system,
- risk of uncontrollable evolutions due to weakened governments (as history demonstrates, getting governments on their knees through a revolution can create a power vacuum that is unmanageable and difficult to channel in safe ways),
- risk of losing time and postponing more effective actions.
The latter concern is striking: Extinction Rebellion claims that we do not have time for other alternatives and mass civil disobedience is the only option left. However, the question is whether we have enough time to follow the four steps of Extinction Rebellion: first look for and gather enough activists for mass civil disobedience, second get the government on its knees, third install citizen assemblies that discuss and decide climate policies and finally implement those climate policies. It might take too much time to convince enough people to become climate activists that break the law. Extinction Rebellion is so impatient, that they claim we need climate neutrality by 2025 (that’s not what the IPCC and climatologists say), but they won’t reach that target if we first have to wait for those civil disobedience actions and citizen assemblies. Extinction Rebellion is not able to give reasonable arguments or empirical evidence that the strategy of mass civil disobedience will be quicker to solve climate change than other climate policy proposals. On the contrary, the proposals of Extinction Rebellion are more revolutionary and their demands are stricter than for example a carbon tax, so it seems less likely that those demands will find more political support in the shorter term. This can be contrasted with an effective altruist who not only takes into account the size of a problem or the impact of a solution, but also the chance of success (the political and economic feasibility) of that solution.
Alternatives: effective climate activism
The climate measure with probably the biggest impact, is support for organizations that lobby for more government investments in research and development of climate technologies (such as clean energy and carbon capture and storage). One of the best analyses that argue for public clean energy R&D as the most effective climate policy, was done by Let’s Fund (also covered in a Vox article). Another interesting analysis of effective climate actions in the effective altruism community was done by Founders Pledge. These analyses are much more thought-out than many of the analyses by alarmist climate activists.
Clean energies facilitate the next most important climate measure, widely supported by economists: carbon pricing. Market mechanisms such as a carbon tax or cap-and-trade become more politically feasible if we have cheap clean energy sources. Organizations such as Citizens Climate Lobby lobby for a carbon dividend (a carbon tax with revenues paid out as citizen dividends). These are more concrete, safe and effective policy measures than the vague proposals of many alarmist climate activists, such as revolution or dismantling capitalism.
Extinction Rebellion also promotes citizen assemblies to improve democratic decision making. But I think there are more promising (simple, clear, concrete) proposals based on economic analyses, such as approval voting, quadratic voting or a futarchy with prediction markets. When it comes to estimating the impacts of climate change, prediction markets and superforecasters are more reliable and accurate than alarmist climate activists, so we can invest more in such prediction markets and superforecasting.