An artist's impression of a person who has been reading lots of climate change news (Picture: Tina Tiller)

The real enemy: Why blaming NGOs for climate inaction is stupid

Out of all of the people responsible for global inaction on climate change, why on earth would you point the finger at environmental NGOs, asks Danyl Mclauchlan.

Medical students often succumb to a form of hypochondria called ‘intern’s syndrome’ in which they convince themselves they’re infected with the diseases they’re studying. If they’re tired and headachy they must have . . . sound of pages flipping … hantavirus! And I feel like something similar happens to climate activists who spend so long battling fossil industry machinations they see plots and schemes everywhere, until they too become part of the conspiracy.

On Monday the Spinoff published an anonymous confession by a climate activist who works for ‘environmental NGOs’ declaring that they’d collaborated to hide the terrible truth about climate change from the public:

In all of these jobs, my bosses told me I shouldn’t scare the horses; I shouldn’t tell the full truth of the encroaching horrors I researched all day. Otherwise, people might give up or — in other words — stop sending us money.

I’m not a member of any of the environmental NGOs and I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors in those organisations. I do know that if you search through the press releases or media database hits for Greenpeace and Forest and Bird, the two largest environmental NGOs, you find many, many stories and PRs about climate change, and that they use very strong language, all of the time. ‘Climate catastrophe’, ‘global extinction’, ‘greatest crisis facing humanity’, etc.

And they use similarly strong language when they lobby politicians and litigate environmental issues through the legal system. I called Russel Norman, the Executive Director of Greenpeace New Zealand and asked what else he could do to alert the public to the threat of climate change. After a slightly strained silence he replied; “Well I did get arrested for swimming in front of an oil prospecting ship. So there’s that.”

What I think the apologetic environmentalist is talking about is a debate inside climate activist circles about alarmism and hope. Every piece of research about climate messaging always finds the same thing. If you tell people we’re doomed – which is the apologetic environmentalists message – they’re less likely to take action than if you give them agency and tell them there’s hope. A 2018 Yale study illustrates this nicely.

Does that mean the environmental movement should lie to people and tell them there’s hope when there isn’t? It does not, because climate change is not a binary phenomenon. It’s not a thing that we prevent, and the world is saved, or fail to prevent and we all die. We’re already living in the climate-changed world, and while there are terrible things happening, what with the droughts and floods and heat-waves and wildfires, civilisation still exists: billions of people are still living happy lives. There’s a spectrum of terribleness that intensifies as the crisis gets worse. If you give people hope and we mitigate climate change then the future is not so terrible. If you tell people they’re doomed, they lose all hope and you fail to stop it and the prophecies of doom become self-fulfilling.

There’s a push-back against this logic from people like David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, who argues that it’s causing environmentalists to diminish the severity of the crisis and he makes some thoughtful arguments. But there are also pieces like the recent, instantly notorious Vice article which predicted total global annihilation within thirty years, which are not thoughtful or plausible or scientifically accurate. This went viral among a certain apocalyptic strain of activists, and the apologetic environmentalist’s article echoes its themes.

There are two things I’m wary of in climate-doom arguments. Firstly: some people seem to like declaring that the world is ending and that we’re all about to die. This is a religious impulse not a scientific one, but some activists relish playing the role of end-of-time preacher condemning society to perdition for our consumerist sins. And the climate denial industry loves to take those false prophecies and use them to undermine the wider environmental movement, offering them up as proof that there is no crisis: that it’s all just a huge hoax.

Secondly, intellectuals love to appropriate the climate crisis as grist for their pet ideological crusades. If you talk to tech-environmentalists who love Elon Musk they’ll tell you socialism causes climate change and denounce the trillions of dollars in subsidies states paid to the fossil fuels industry, while it’s a long-standing trope on the far left that capitalism causes climate change because of its addiction to economic growth. In not unrelated news, the recent socialist revolution in Bolivia has led to a surge in both GDP and carbon emissions.

It can be very satisfying convincing yourself you’ve seen the deep and hidden ideological causes behind everything. This is why people believe in conspiracy theories. But it’s also a fatalistic approach. The environmental movement is never going to destroy the state, or the market, or ‘industrial civilisation’, and the core problem is difficult enough to communicate to the public without wrapping it all up in abstract meta-historical conspiracies and then complaining that everyone who doesn’t indulge your theory is hiding ‘the truth’.

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The irony is, there is a global conspiracy to prevent action on climate change. But it’s a very overt conspiracy. Anyone can see it. The fossil fuel companies and states with large reserves of oil don’t want the world to transition away from their products. This is not a trivial conspiracy. It consists of many of the wealthiest and most powerful organisations in the world: they have access to the best law firms and PR companies; they own political parties – like National – who will ferociously fight against any attempt to transition to a low carbon economy.

And if you run around telling people the environmental movement is a money-making scam and the world is doomed, that conspiracy gets to win. So please don’t do that. The brand name environmental NGOs like Greenpeace and Forest and Bird are doing important work: they’re one of the primary ways people find out about climate change. They fight court battles against mining and prospecting. They keep the issue in the news. If you want more direct action then there’s Extinction Rebellion. Alternately, give some money to Cool Earth which protects endangered rainforest and provides employment for indigenous people who live in them, and is regarded as the most cost-effective climate change charity in the world.

This is a local body election year: globally a lot of emissions reduction is happening at the local government level. Most climate messaging studies show that people respond more positively to climate change when it’s presented as a community problem. And not many people vote in local body elections, so you can make a difference if you support environmental candidates. I’m less optimistic about progress in national politics, and a little staggered by how little progress this government has made on climate issues.

I’m not here to pretend that things are great. Carbon emissions are still rising; we’ll probably blow past 1.5 degrees of warning by 2033, and that will have terrible consequences. But we’re still people living in rich and democratic states at a pivotal time: we have more personal agency than anyone else, and that gives us an obligation to try and make things better, not simply accept the worst.


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.


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