Climate Action

Too late to save the planet? Why this climate crisis myth is so prevalent – and problematic

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'It's too late' ... climate myths are stalling mitigation efforts. Image: Unsplash/Markus Spiske

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Climate Crisis

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • The idea that it’s too late to halt the climate crisis has been gaining ground recently.
  • It’s become the most popular cry of former climate change sceptics, say researchers.
  • But it’s also the view of many people who want to help, but are overwhelmed by the challenge.
  • While the world has been given ‘a final warning’, scientists say there is still time for action, but myths like these are stalling mitigation efforts.

The world has been given a “final warning” about the climate emergency. The United Nations says action is needed “on all fronts – everything, everywhere, all at once”. So why do so many people think nothing can be done to halt climate change?

In its latest assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says there is irrefutable proof that temperatures have risen by close to the 1.5C tipping point and that human activity is the overwhelming cause.

The report says action to adapt to our changing climate “has progressed across all sectors and regions, with documented benefits and varying effectiveness”. And it spells out what governments, businesses and individuals can do to halt the rise in global temperatures.

Statistic showing the severity of climate change effects and expectations of displacement, by country.
Over half of adults on the planet say climate change has already had a severe impact on their lives. Image: Ipsos

The climate emergency and its effects comprise the top three risks to the world over the next decade, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023, with failure to mitigate climate change as the risk with the biggest impact on life on Earth.

A global survey, commissioned by the Forum and conducted by Ipsos, found that more than half of adults on the planet say climate change has already had a severe impact on their lives, and a third fear it may force them from their homes.

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‘It’s too late’ – a dominant climate myth

And yet, researchers have found that increasing numbers of people say that it’s too late to save the planet. In fact, it's become the leading climate myth globally, outpacing arguments that the science is wrong or that rising temperatures are not due to human activity.

A study by academics from the UK, Ireland and the United States found the argument that “it’s too late” had become the dominant climate myth among climate sceptics over the past 10 years and said it was holding back climate action.

Researchers believe critics changed tack because evidence of human-caused climate change has become overwhelming. “Science denial has become untenable,” John Cook, a study author and research fellow at Monash University told Forbes magazine.

“So inevitably, opponents of climate action are strategically shifting to misinformation targeting climate solutions in order to delay climate policy,” he added. “My gut instinct was that science myths were much more prevalent than they actually are, when our analysis found they were a relatively small proportion of climate misinformation.”

Lauren Uppink Calderwood, the World Economic Forum’s Head of Climate Strategy, said: “It is critical that we overcome this narrative that it is too late to save the planet, which both ignores the significant progress that’s been made to decarbonize our society and also hinders further action. We cannot afford to be paralysed by climate pessimism but must rather accelerate action at all levels of society – from our local communities to global corporations. Every fraction of a degree counts when it comes to global heating, and so does every action we take to reduce our climate impact.”

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Paralysed by fear

Professor Heidi Toivonen of Twente University in the Netherlands says the view that nothing can be done is not confined to climate sceptics. She interviewed adults aged between 21 and 83, including people who said they were committed to protecting the environment.

“Climate change presents a profound challenge … It demands us to come to terms with humans having become a destructive geophysical agent causing changes in vast natural historical timescales,” she said.

“Climate change might push people towards a sense of complete loss of agency, the feeling that there is nothing we can do, especially as the question of whether it is already too late to prevent dangerous climate change is discussed in serious science circles.”

Some of those she interviewed said they did not believe that their actions would do anything to halt climate change, while others simply did not know what they could do. She also found that where people live shapes their perspectives about the climate emergency.

“Climate change as a phenomenon tends to be experienced in Western countries as remote, invisible, and complex, yet its scientifically accurate presentations can also cause difficult and paralysing feelings, counteracting any initiative to motivate people into action,” she adds.

To overcome these feelings more needs to be done to “feed the public imagination with practical ways of acting” and stimulate “more collaborative … and flexible forms [of action] needed to tackle the forthcoming, increasingly complex developments of the climate crisis,” she says.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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