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Down-to-Earth Alarmism: Alternative Discourse to Tackling Climate Change

Features | Zahar Hryniv

No one said that the fight against climate change would be an easy one. In 2016, Stephen Hawking gave humanity one-thousand years to leave Earth - six months later this was revised to one century. In other words, the time we thought we had has shrunk by a factor of ten. The rapid proliferation of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, emissions, and deforestation continue to threaten billions of people around the world. In the face of these alarming occurrences, it is easy to form idealistic, and frankly over-simplified notions of the solutions to this extremely complex, multi-dimensional issue. In the public sphere, climate change discourse has been equally incoherent and illogical, and has alternated between both alarmism and optimism. Neither strategies work well to get the public on board, and willing to take action. I propose a strategy which could perhaps be best labelled as “down-to-earth alarmism” as the optimal method in producing a clear and cogent approach to climate change in both the governmental and public spheres. Essentially, this strategy would function by combining both the ideas of hope at a positive outcome and at the same time, presenting the scientific evidence illustrating the very harmful, severe costs of inaction.

Since the world’s first major climate agreement in 1987, the Montreal Protocol, climate action has continued to be taken, but it has been both far too limited as well as being not nearly committed enough in its approach. The Paris Agreement and the “Sustainable Development Goals” of the UN have portrayed a facade of optimism and hope for the future; when the real question is whether this approach can translate to concrete action on climate change. With regard to the Paris Agreement, the primary issue is the means of keeping the internationally embraced target of limiting global warming to a maximum of 2°C above pre-industrial levels. In the bid to take on this Herculean task together, the agreement’s signatories it seems, are stagnant over who should take clear responsibility and this has caused a catastrophic loss of leadership and ultimately, a lack of success. The Trump Administration for example, has withdrawn from the agreement altogether and although this has to some extent reinvigorated urgency from other countries to step up, this will not be enough. As the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases only after China, the role of the US in the agreement is of paramount importance. Carrying on this ineffective business of non-cooperation and inaction for any longer will mean that by 2050, we will surpass the 2°C boundary of global warming. Now, more than ever before, it is imperative that our world’s governing institutions adopt a discourse and approach of cohesion and determination.

There is also much work to be done on a micro-level in civil society. Amid recent student protests in the UK, Belgium, and Australia, we have seen how alarmism surrounding the topic of climate change has diffused some, but by no means all, of society. As with any contentious issue, we see a struggle between the young and old generation of our planet. Within this specific paradigm, there exist those fighting for a better future - typically young people and those in third-world countries who will be worst-affected by climate change. On the other hand, there are those who hang onto old ideas, comfort, and a “business-as-usual” mindset - often the older, more privileged factions of society. Indeed, to curb this unjust trend whereby those with the loudest voices really have less of a right to this power, thereby curbing global warming at large, social behaviours and norms must change. As a result, we must espouse a coherent narrative that is both measured but that also declares a “human tipping point”- one in which those who will feel climate change’s effects the most profoundly will say “enough is enough” and even demand a revolution.

The Green New Deal (GND), embodies the very notions of down-to-earth alarmism through an ambitious, yet achievable, ten-year plan

For example, a recently introduced piece of legislation in the United States Congress, the Green New Deal (GND), embodies the very notions of down-to-earth alarmism through an ambitious, yet achievable, ten-year plan designed to shift to one-hundred percent renewable and zero emissions energy sources within this decade-long timeframe. Taking American society back to the drawing board, it seeks to rebuild its foundation from the safety net up. Under this framework, reducing pollution substantively will require investment in renewable energy, more efficient transportation and the introduction of a smart grid for better energy efficiency. Furthermore, it aims to tackle social inequality through the creation of new high-wage jobs to help wipe out poverty. The introduction of this legislation puts these issues on both the government and public agenda. The GND links two seemingly separate issues together; the renewable production of energy and the tackling of economic inequality where one reinforces the other. The deal is, in a sense, a product of alarmism. Governments around the world and corporations are very clearly unconcerned when it comes to climate change and this very notion that the environment is not an issue and is under control is certainly something to be alarmed about. However, these sporadic, ambitious efforts by individuals is not enough to change the discourse in climate change. We need a structural change, and these kinds of actions certainly inspire further activism. The GND is in fact, a reaction to the ineffectiveness of current climate policies. Also, it provides a framework that allows for the introduction of further, more specific legislation to achieve carbon reductions.

The difference between taking an alarmist strategy and one that is “business-as-usual” is therefore a change in behaviour. The largely successful Montreal Protocol of 1987 for example, took a thought-out, rational government approach to banning substances (CFCs) that we use in everyday objects, such as refrigerators, that deplete the ozone layer. On the part of global governance, this meant complying with regulations that would radically change their industries yet would be of major benefit in the long run. On our part, this did not require a change in norms or behaviour but merely it required us to support the actions of our government.

But 32 years on, with the level of government inaction seen today, a more civil rather than governmental-based drive will be needed to mobilise meaningful environmental change and the question is therefore: can alarmism work? And the answer is: yes, but only when the strategy is used in a constructive way. Rachel Carson’s book A Silent Spring can be labelled as alarmist and yet her outcry led to the banning of a dangerous pesticide DDT and spurred revolutionary changes in the laws affecting our air, land, and water. It has been reported that climate alarmists are not as influential as climate deniers.

Therefore, taking either extreme as a discourse for climate change is ineffective. Rhetoric of imminent societal collapse and human extinction seems to always be on the horizon yet also out of reach. No doubt, this can lead to some eye-rolls but most importantly, inaction and a sense that we have time in the future to sort this out. We don’t.

All of this evidence leads to one clear conclusion: utilizing a combination of both optimism and alarmism, a strategy that I call down-to-earth alarmism, is the way forward. A synthesis of both scientific evidence that engages people with the real problem of a changing climate but at the same time, a rhetoric of hope that can inspire action. This strategy delegates responsibility to everyone and acknowledges that we all have a role to contribute. The outcry of environmental activists, organisations, and NGOs can spur change from the ground up; changing perceptions, norms, and ways of thinking. We should not understate the role of activists on policy, as no doubt the torch of environmental activism can be passed on further up to business leaders, politicians, and governments. For a problem that to many seems distant and abstract, employing the strategy of down-to-earth alarmism can inspire a movement by appealing to both hearts and minds. Let’s just hope that when passed on, the torch continues to shine bright.


Originally published 18.04.19 in Vol. 2 No. 2.

Photo Credit: "GreenNewDeal_Presser_020719 (26 of 85)” by Senate Democrats CC BY 2.0 (

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