Lets stop using the term “self fulfilling climate prophecy”

The Guardian’s James Randerson suggests that “climate scientists have actually been toning down their message lest the worst-case scenario becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

A recent Guardian poll of climate scientists found that;

Just 7% of the 261 experts surveyed (200 of whom were researchers in climate science or related fields) said they thought governments would succeed in restricting global warming to 2C. Nearly two-fifths thought this target was impossible and 46% thought a 3 to 4C rise by the end of the century was most likely.

He then echoes a common refrain floating around these kinds of discussions; “Don’t give up, it’s not hopeless, otherwise this will be a self-fulfilling prophecy!”

I humbly suggest that we stop using the term “self-fulfilling prophecy” in connection with any kind of climate change action.

Why?  Climate change has nothing to do with what we believe in, at least not now. Climate change is the result of deep, old, and slow moving structural properties of our global social and economic system.  No one is in charge of the climate, nor of global society.  Climate change is thus an emergent effect of our complex system.

As an emergent effect, it is in some real way the sum of all our individual actions. Of course what we believe in now influences our actions.  And this, by implication, influences the course of the future.  So belief is an important part of the climate risk communication srtategy.  

But it is silly to think that acknowledging how bad it is and how bad it might get will cause some sort of society-wide suicide impulse.  No one is going to lie down in the face of their own destruction.  The louder and more severe we communicate the reality of the situation, the more likely we are to realise what kind of a situation we are in and, hopefully, start to motivate the change it before hand.

The “self-fulfilling prophecy” notion distracts from the real political issues of risk communication and strategy formation in the face of dangerous climate change.


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