Since the emergence of ancient civilizations like the Mesopotamians, people have drawn from nature to create, build and survive. For millennia we’ve depended on the bounty of the planet Earth for food, water, and shelter. But along the way, our numbers have grown and our societies have steadily increased consumption. As a result, our demands on nature are pushing many of the ecosystems we depend on to the breaking point.
When it comes to the climate and biodiversity crisis, we’re threatening the basic sustainability of civilization. Modern society is faced with a decision to dramatically change how we do everything or press on with the knowledge that we may be digging a hole too deep for future generations to escape.
It’s not “doomism” to accept the possibility that our advanced and technological civilization may not survive if we fail to act in time. “Doomism” arises from the belief that we can’t prevent it from happening or it’s too late to do anything about it. There’s an ongoing communications battle between hope and doom, and it’s not guaranteed that hope will win the day.
We’re living in the information age on the continuum of human progress. Social media vibrates with interactions from the interesting and helpful to the banal and disturbing. Amidst the cacophony, there is growing evidence that all living beings have some form of communication and even a level of sentience that aligns closely with Indigenous worldview. When we lose ourselves to relentless electronic communication and distractions we also risk losing our connection to the natural world. We fail to hear what nature is trying to tell us.
A new generation’s existential threat
I was a child of the cold war era. The Soviet Union, China and the United States were building a stockpile of nuclear weapons that could wipe out humanity a thousand times over. The promise of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) kept our leader’s fingers off the trigger, but it didn’t prevent them from engaging in proxy wars around the world. It was a dangerous game that risked escalation to the “nuclear option.”
What was our response to the looming threat of global destruction? We partied. We got on with our lives. We built careers, spent time with friends, fell in love and brought the next generation of children into the world. Most of us believed war was beyond our control so there was no point in worrying about it.
As the 20th century came to a close, the wealthiest and most powerful members of society feared nuclear war because it promised an end to the way of life they enjoyed. The poly-crisis of the twenty-first century is a very different beast. There are many people and corporations that have a lot to lose if we get serious about solving the problems with existing energy, economic and political systems.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and repeated threats to use weapons-of-mass-destruction reminds us that there is still a lingering danger of Armageddon. The plague of war festers like an open wound, compounding the threats to our existence from a deteriorating global climate system, mass extinction of species, polarization of society and the rise of populism.
A disturbing trend amidst the poly-crisis is that many people believe that a world ravaged by hatred, destruction of nature, and a runaway greenhouse effect might not be that bad for the survivors. Oh we had survivalists in eighties, but the vast majority of people viewed them as nut jobs. It wasn’t an industry like it is today. The proliferation of “Prepper” handbooks, survival guides and bug-out-bag products is a clear signal that some people believe they will embark on a great adventure as the world devolves into a cauldron of human suffering.
I often wonder how young people are dealing with the madness. In this age of wars, wildfires, famine, heat waves, pandemics, droughts, mass human migration, killer storms, pestilence, floods and melting polar ice, are young people tuning out the risks? Are they partying or finding other ways to relieve the stress of the situation? Perhaps it’s just too much to ignore.
There are some amazing youth movements like Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future, but are climate and nature organizations attracting new supporters? Is the protest movement growing or are the deliberate campaigns to solidify inaction winning the day? The amount of misinformation out there makes it hard to tell.
The rise of disinformation campaigns
During the cold war leaders only needed the wisdom to avoid World War III. On this issue, public opinion was relatively unified. With the climate crisis, public opinion is split and our leaders must make difficult and unpopular choices that will anger a large percentage of voters. Leading on climate action is not for the faint of heart.
For example, governments creating energy-transition policies are constantly opposed and lobbied by wealthy industries that don’t want to change. These industries and their allies are conducting a covert war of disinformation that further stirs up emotions of anger and fear. How will the required changes happen quickly enough when every climate-friendly policy can be reversed with a change of government and the voters are split down the middle?
There are too many narratives being spread that delude people into believing climate action is a bad thing. The Skeptical Science website attempts to capture all of the most popular myths, exaggerations and outright lies that are circulating in traditional and social media. Because repetition is key to spreading disinformation, it’s likely you’ve heard most of them and possibly believe some to be true. How did we end up in this fabricated and manipulative reality?
In the 1960s, Exxon’s own scientists raised the alarm about their industry’s potential to dangerously warm the planet. Industry leaders considered the options and elected to run a decades-long campaign to create doubt and delay. Huge investments were made to question and contradict the climate science that they knew was valid. This is nothing short of fraudulent, cheating people out of a livable future to keep their profits growing.
The scope of the science-denial campaign is meticulously documented in Geoff Dembicki’s book, “The Petroleum Papers.” Fake grass roots movements, scientists with questionable credentials and public relations experts from the tobacco industry were used to question the research and suggest that there was a lot of uncertainty around climate change.
In “Short Circuiting Policy,” Leah Stokes’ provides a similarly detailed account of how fossil fuel utilities and Big Oil lobby groups conspired to kill any legislation aimed at kick-starting the fledgling renewable energy industry in America. It’s amazing that wind and solar energy managed to grow at all, given the intense and relentless opposition from fossil fuel interests.
Big Oil learned from the tobacco industry’s fight to prolong the use of their addictive and cancer-causing product. The modern anti-science campaign is much more skillful at manipulating people into supporting and defending the fossil-fuel cause. An existing political divide is constantly exploited to intensify polarization. Do we even stand a chance against the onslaught of propaganda that’s enabled by increasingly effective information technologies?
Social Media is incredibly effective at monitoring individuals, categorizing their interests and delivering direct messages intended to capture their attention. Following the lead of traditional media, the social media empires have discovered that fear and outrage draws people in, elicits a response and ultimately sells advertising. There is no accountability if algorithms designed to sell products also sell identity-forming ideas that create opinions that are nearly impossible to change.
Social-network applications are further weaponized by bots and media “war rooms.” Content creators spend their days developing stories designed to capture and entrench followers. The power to create, manipulate and exploit misinformation is unprecedented. Hateful ideas can be targeted to profiles of individuals susceptible to the message. In as little as a few seconds, the vulnerable take the bait and spread it amongst their like-minded community. It’s devilishly effective.
A case study: Lithium-ion batteries
Whenever the topic of electric vehicles (EVs) comes up in conversation, I’m inevitably told that lithium-ion batteries are a big problem. Those who want us to continue burning gasoline have effectively spread this view amongst the populace and they’ve popularized the “battery concern” through a combination of misinformation and the use of double standards. It’s a concern that didn’t exist for decades when computers and cell phones required massive production of lithium-ion batteries.
Lithium mining consumes a lot of water because it involves pumping brine from underground aquifers and leaving it in reservoirs to evaporate. However, the often reported millions of litres of water used to produce a tonne of Lithium is orders of magnitude greater than what was determined in a 2021 research study. Is water consumption a valid concern or is it a double standard when hydraulic fracturing consumes between five million and 60 million litres of water per well?
Water evaporated in the lithium mining process remains within the region’s hydrological cycle and, according to a 2022 article in Science Daily, less than 10 per cent of the water consumed to produce lithium is fresh water. Most of the water is brine and its extraction, “does not correlate with changes in either surface-water features or basin-water storage.”
Comparatively, water used for fracking is permanently removed from the hydrological cycle. The water is drawn from freshwater resources like rivers and is injected deep into underground rock formations kilometers below the water table. It’s gone forever.
Alberta oil sands operations also have a water pollution problem. A 2021 report from the Alberta Energy Regulator stated the total amount of toxic water in oil sand’s tailing ponds was approaching 1.4 billion litres. It is a double standard to point to water issues from lithium mining when the fossil fuel industry has a dismal legacy of polluting watersheds and oceans around the globe.
Similarly, the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released in Lithium Ion battery production for EVs is often cited as being greater than the CO2 emissions of producing a gasoline powered car. This wilfully ignores the amount of CO2 released when gasoline is burned over the lifetime of the car. The false assumption is that just as much CO2 is released from charging a car’s battery as burning a tank of gas.
Cobalt mining undeniably has a child-labour problem and that’s why Tesla is moving away from cobalt, producing nearly half of its vehicles using cobalt free batteries. Chinese auto manufacturers are now manufacturing vehicles that use sodium-ion batteries. Technological solutions are emerging to address mining and supply issues with lithium-ion batteries. Since Big Oil has known about global warming since the 60s, one must conclude there isn’t a fix for the climate pollution caused by producing and burning fossil fuel. But there is an alternative, electric vehicles.
Finally, let’s consider recycling. Tesla states, “Unlike fossil fuels, which release harmful emissions into the atmosphere that are not recovered for reuse, materials in a Tesla lithium-ion battery are recoverable and recyclable. Battery materials are refined and put into a cell, and will still remain in the cell at the end of their life, when they can be recycled to recover its valuable materials for reuse over and over again.” They go on to say that 100 per cent of their vehicle batteries are recycled. Other EV manufacturers are following suit because it makes sense to reuse the battery materials in order to reduce costs.
How do we combat misinformation campaigns?
The good news is that normal social discourse is far different from the toxic echo chambers that thrive in the Twitter-space and the bloody battles in the comment sections of YouTube.
In general, civility hasn’t collapsed yet. I frequently have friendly chats with my neighbour and occasionally share a drink in the back yard, despite our differing views on the Alberta oil and gas industry. At election time, he puts up an “I’m Voting For Pipelines” lawn sign while I proudly display a “Fast and Fair Climate Action” sign. There are no hard feelings.
This doesn’t mean that in the interest of getting along we should accept the strange views people have developed from listening to their opinion-reinforcing information feed. Canadian climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe explains why she must respond to misinformation on social media, “when these arguments occur publicly, there are others listening in who need to know that, as scientists, we have heard these zombie objections many times and we have good responses for them.”
Hayhoe is a master at rebutting without insult and stating the scientific facts in a relatable way. She recommends talking to a person to find out what’s important to them or where their interests lie. Then discuss how climate change might impact the things that they’re passionate about. Parents should be concerned about their children having to live through increasingly severe heat waves. Skiers may not like what hotter winters will do to their sport.
And yet, it can be difficult to remain calm and respectful when someone expresses an opinion that you find outrageous, such as, “climate change is a hoax.” James Hogan describes in his book, “I’m Right and You’re an Idiot,” a discussion with Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh at the University of British Columbia. He challenged Hanh on the need for climate activists to fight back against disinformation. The Vietnamese monk replied, “Speak the truth. But not to punish.” Inner development, community building and transforming your daily life is also crucial for the environment.
Battling people over opinions that are extremely difficult to change may not be the best approach when you’re trying to open minds to the benefits of a green economy or protecting ecosystems. In “How To Talk To A Science Denier,” Lee McIntyre writes about how to connect with people and listen to their concerns while countering misinformation by asking questions that make them think about new possibilities.
Hogan offers similar advice and adds that the best way to connect with individuals is to engage with them in a cooperative way. Working together helps to create the trust and tolerance necessary to foster listening by both parties. For example, it might be a good time to discuss electric vehicles while helping your neighbour shovel the driveway. A company tree-planting event might be perfect for starting a discussion about protecting old growth forests.
The important thing is to try. You may not change people’s minds, but you will gain some insight into where their objections to climate action are coming from. Your arguments might soften them up for the next person that tries to convince them that a green transition will be good for everyone. Something you say might even inoculate them against the next piece of misinformation that comes in on their Twitter feed.
No time like the present
Jane Goodall spent her life researching and fighting to protect the primates that are our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom. She’s now spending her retirement years talking about climate change and sharing a message of hope. In “The Book of Hope,” she writes:
“My message of hope is this: now that you have read the conversations in this little book, you realize that we can win these wars, that there is hope for our future – for the health of our planet, our societies, and our children. But only if we all get together and join forces. And I hope, too, that you understand the urgency of taking action, of each of us doing our bit. Please believe that, against all odds, we can win out, because if you don’t believe that, you will lose hope, sink into apathy and despair – and do nothing.”
How can each and every one of us play a part in changing the world? Write to politicians and corporate leaders and let them know that business as usual is no longer acceptable. Support the political party with the best climate plan and give them your time and energy. Any organization that denies or ignores the seriousness of global warming lacks the wisdom to lead us through the greatest challenge of our time.
Set an example by making good choices about what you buy, what company you bank with, and how you invest your savings. Choose to live simply, with generosity and compassion for the people in your life, and the people bearing the brunt of climate chaos. Not everyone needs to be a saint, an activist, or aspire to being a community leader, we just need to do the best we can.
Don’t be reluctant to share what’s important to you. Share your worries and your reasons for hope. Talk with others about how we get to a future powered by green energy, an economic system that cares about the environment, and a society that distributes wealth more evenly from top to bottom. Along the way, learn to recognize disinformation and stop buying into the nonsense that floods our screens.
Let’s keep the conversation going, in a responsible way, on Twitter at @Enviro_Journal, on LinkedIn at Environment Journal or on Facebook at @EnvironmentJournal.
Robert Miller is a retired systems engineer who now volunteers with the Calgary Climate Hub and writes on behalf of Eco-Elders for Climate Action. As a climate activist, he works to stop old-growth logging in British Columbia, to reject coal mining on Alberta’s eastern slopes, to facilitate community involvement in urban afforestation, and to advocate for renewable energy. Miller uses a “systems-thinking” approach to learn, understand, and defend the ecosystems that are under threat by climate change and unrestrained resource development.
Featured image credit: Simon Skafar for Getty Images.