The Catastrophe Narrative

Engaging anxiety for children. Care for children is a powerful instinct within humans that is easily roused, lending power to an argument if done in its name and assisting re-transmission of the argument. Inclusion within the exampled quotes is no doubt almost always a matter of genuine concerns, especially where parents cite their own children / grandchildren {and despite some cases, e.g. 5ac)i], looking rather more like stoking this concern rather than expressing realistic fears}. Yet the infectious power of such concern in society frequently transcends the issue, triggering guilt in others regarding responsibility for our children, and a need not to be seen as failing in this respect. And while even the smallest possibility of catastrophe might appear to legitimize inclusion of anxiety for children in communication, mis-framing such possibilities does far more harm than good, and once paired up with a false catastrophe narrative having no, improper, or emotively overwhelmed conditionals, the narrative combination has an amplified persuasive effect, promoting an argument not based upon mainstream (or skeptical) science. This variant is common, see footnotes 5aa) to 5ac) plus 1i), 1n), 1u)ii], 1y), 3m), and below for many more of the same from scientists. The citing of children sets an approximate timescale for anticipated catastrophe (i.e. presumably before they are pensioners). Here is a short example of engaging anxiety for children:

F1 [HILLARY CLINTON] about 6 months after announcing presidential candidacy, (Nov 2015): “I won’t let anyone to take us backward, deny our economy the benefits of harnessing a clean energy future, or force our children to endure the catastrophe that would result from unchecked climate change.”

Establishing an issue as one that is fundamentally moral, means that complexity and opposition often get steamrollered beneath moral affront. Our reactions associated with moral recognition are there for in-group reinforcement of acceptable baseline behaviors (which are relative to group and era), and affront works without the long process of having to navigate complexity. It’s a shortcut. Yet in our complex modern world that shortcut is often challenged by the entanglement of many social groups (one size fits all solutions may be inappropriate), by scientific uncertainties, by the likelihood of unintended social consequences (i.e. even where physical science on a particular issue seems sound), and more. Sometimes there just is genuine complexity which needs to be carefully navigated rather than steamrollered flat, in order to arrive at an equitable solution and without major unintended consequences.

Bearing all this in mind, in the context of climate change a powerful promotion of just one policy view (swift major emissions reduction) as a moral imperative, when an immature science is still grappling with a wicked system, and with fossil fuels clearly having major social upsides too, will likely cause more problems than it solves. But whether or not this turns out to be the case, doing so based upon the pretext of a high certainty of imminent global catastrophe (e.g. citing ‘the planet’, or ‘humanity’, or ‘life’) while also implying that such is backed by mainstream science, is illegitimate. Nevertheless, there are many and varied examples of narrative that forge just such a moral association. A moral angle is not only invoked by the actual word ‘moral’, or legal equivalents like ‘just / justice’, or religious equivalents like ‘sacred’, but also via an association with particular social behaviors we consider immoral, such as criminality or greed, or implied moral wrong-doing via the deployment of a ‘guilt’ label. See footnotes 5ba) ‘sacred duty’, 5bb) ‘if this question of whether carbon emissions is not a moral question then I do not know quite what is’, 1m)i] ‘deeply immoral’, 2m) ‘no greater crime against humanity’, 2z) ‘justice requires’, 3b) ‘global leaders have been guilty of willful denial’, 5ac) ‘some mad person keeps telling them that it is a false alarm’, 5ce) ‘When we inflict our greed upon nature, nature sometimes explodes’. Here is a full example of moral association:

F2 [IAN DUNLOP] Former Chair, Australian Coal Association & CEO, Australian Institute of Company Directors, in the Guardian (March 2018): “Climate change is accelerating far faster than expected, to the point where it now represents an existential threat to humanity, that is a threat posing permanent large negative consequences which will be irreversible, an outcome being locked in today by our insistence on expanding the use of fossil fuels… …Already one of the world’s largest carbon polluters when exports are included, Australia is complicit in destroying the conditions which make human life possible. There is no greater crime against humanity.”

The agenda incorporation variant re-purposes the existing momentum of the catastrophe narrative to claim there is a solution within another cause, and hence energize that cause. Or at least it leverages the catastrophe narrative to blame or attack those opposed to such a separate cause. Given the catastrophe narrative is not supported by mainstream (or indeed skeptic) science, of course not mentioned, this is wholly inappropriate. For footnote examples 5db), 5dc), 5de), 5df) and 5dg) the agenda is anti-capitalism. For example 5da) the agenda is anti-Brexit, and for 5dd) it is anti-fracking. While the latter has indeed a direct overlap with the climate change domain via the fossil-fuel angle, this doesn’t make citing a high certainty of imminent climate catastrophe any more legitimate in relation to the mainstream climate science position. See the agenda incorporation intro in footnote 5 for its role in cultural alliances that can more permanently entangle causes. Here is an example of agenda incorporation:


F5 [EVO MORALES] President of Bolivia. At Paris Climate Summit, via The Telegraph [look for 12:50] (2015): “We are here today to voice our deep concern at the dramatic effects of climate change in the world to date. These are threatening our existence and the existence of mother earth. Saving mother earth to save life – that is our endeavour.” He makes an “urgent appeal to the Governments of capitalist powers of the world for them to stop destroying our planet irreversibly” and says “mother earth is getting dangerously close to its end… the capitalist system is responsible for that”.

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4 Responses to The Catastrophe Narrative

  1. Robert Clark says:

    Ms. Curry,
    I say I have proven to you that the new Ice Age began arround 18,000 years ago and the ice beaking off at the poles and the CO2 kept rising at the end of the last Ice Age for a few thousand years is proof positive. Mother nature follows strict rules.

  2. Lichanos says:

    Perhaps I have missed it, but I don’t see much here on what is ultimately driving this flowering of evil, i.e. the catastrophe narrative. I understand that there are many motivations for accepting it, and that it figures in peoples’ psychologies differently depending on who they are, but I find myself puzzled by the persistence of the narrative.

    Things are bad, getting worse, the End is nigh, fifteen years or so, whatever we do is not enough…It’s hard to see why people wouldn’t just get exhausted or disgusted with this view and slough it off. Perhaps that’s what most people do, i.e. those outside of the chattering classes.

    Among people I meet, those who are not engaged with the climate change debate do tend to slough it off as above, while those who are intellectually or emotionally engaged, tend to be bitter and cynical/conspiratorial about it. Not a “sustainable” mental state. Will it just fade away in ten or twenty years when the End Times don’t arrive, and everyone will pretend that they weren’t believing that they would ever come?

    Certainly the willingness of public figures to embrace apocalyptic thinking and to act as though it is scientific analysis bespeaks a degraded view of scientific discourse among the educated elite. But that isn’t anything new, is it? What’s new is the salience of scientific issues in public debate, e.g., pollution, habitat destruction, public health issues related to the environment.

    I find it all rather bizarre.

  3. andywest2012 says:

    Hi Lichanos,

    I think ‘evil’ is an inappropriate word to use. It is a social phenomenon, specifically a culture, and cultures can have upsides and downsides but it is best to view them objectively if we can, whether or not future history might regard some as evil, unless of course some Hitleresque regime or something but we are not in that territory. Regarding persistence, the major religions operate via the same social mechanisms, and they have persisted for millennia. Regarding arisal, it is I presume impossible to tell which culture will arise next from the soup of many competing memes, but for sure we have always been heavily dominated by cultures and they are not likely to go away any time soon, so as the main religions decline other cultures (secular or fringe religions) are likely to arise to take up the slack. Regarding rejection because the whole thing is simply too OTT, then indeed this will be happening with some folks. All cultures are polarizing, so they create resistance as well as adherence, but for those who are adherents they are convinced emotively not via reason, and for deep beliefs reason can become the slave of emotion. You’re absolutely right this is nothing new really, but indeed the entanglement of science and culture, though it has happened many times before (e.g. eugenics and national socialism), is becoming more high profile; perhaps in the long term this will lead to better understanding of our weakness (and the fragility of science) to cultural hi-jacking. Maybe the post two further down, ‘climate culture’ will give some further insight for you.

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