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  • Carys Mainprize

The 12 Arguments That Delay Climate Action

Unfortunately, there is such a thing as a climate change counter movement. While this includes outright scepticism and denial, today we are drawing attention to the 12 types of discourse which specifically delays climate action, as identified by the 2020 paper "Discourses of Climate Delay" by Lamb et al. which we recommend reading here.

Why is it useful to know the types of climate delay arguments? Well, knowledge is power, and knowing the type of discourse means we can more easily counter the misinformation.

Sometimes these arguments can be put forward in good faith and be based on (what seems to be) reasonable logic, too. Knowing exactly where the discourse falls can help in approaching these sorts of discussions.

Redirecting Responsibility

1. Individualism

We know the tune of this one. Turning off lights, lowering the thermostat by one or two degrees, changing to LED light bulbs, etc. Putting the responsibility onto individuals and their actions allows the more powerful companies, governments, and organisations to continue polluting and, importantly, put the blame onto others.

Please note that individual actions are not futile. It is still important to look at lifestyle changes, and it is important to know your consumer and voting power to influence change from the ground up. There are also so many reasons to avoid fast fashion, for example, than just because it contributes to huge emissions.

However, some of an individual’s carbon footprint could be reduced by system, policy, and regulatory change.

2. Whataboutism

What about China? What about the US? What about my next-door neighbour, who has just bought a second car? Their emissions are so much worse than mine/my sector/my country’s emissions, so why should we make changes?

3. Free Rider

Plus, if we did lower our emissions, another person/sector/country would just take advantage and increase theirs! Why should we take the lead on tackling climate change?

These two arguments can prevent a lot of advantages that will naturally happen when collective action takes place – an important concept of the UN’s Race to Zero campaign. This campaign has identified tipping points in each major sector where enough of the large companies, organisations, or bodies – the ‘key actors’ - have implemented changes to be or become net zero, that change is irreversible, and all the other actors will soon follow suit. So what happens if these key actors don’t do their bit because of these two discourses?

These arguments not only highlight the need for a fair and just transition, but also the importance of public pressure.

Non-transformative solutions

4. Technological optimism

Direct carbon capture systems, anyone? This is the argument that we can keep polluting, because with more growth comes more technologies and science, and something, somewhere, will come to save us before it’s too late - such as 'negative emissions' technologies like carbon capture, which has been including in several climate change plans (including Scotland's) but is not yet viable at a commercial scale.

Alas, this isn’t a Disney film. We can’t bank on that one, and even if something does get developed, it might not undo the biodiversity crisis, resource crisis, habitat crisis, and so on. It will only buy us more time in which we will inevitably worsen these problems.

5. Fossil fuel solutionism

Cleaner fossil fuels will be part of the solution!

Unsurprisingly, this is a myth perpetuated by the industry itself. There is no place for fossil fuels if we want to keep warming below 1.5 degrees C.

6. All talk, Little Action

“We will be net-zero by 2030,” may seem like a great promise, but not if there’s no action being taken now, and a well-developed and evidence-based road map for getting there.

Always be wary whenever you see a promise or commitment with no transparency or detail.

7. No Sticks, just Carrots

Only pull factors like incentives or voluntary policies are put forward as the solution – as in there’s no restrictions or regulations acting as push factors.

If the consumers only start buying electric vehicles, but there are emissions heavy options still available, then this would mean the carrots have worked.

Alas, that’s unlikely, and it only strengthens the ‘individual responsibility’ myth. We need more sticks, like taking non EV’s off the market, but this is seen as too drastic by governments that want to be voted in next election, and certainly full of minefields on how to make such a policy just and fair for the most deprived citizens (more on this below).

Emphasise the Downsides

8. Appeal to social justice

What will the social impacts be of any climate tackling policies? For example, will the most deprived people in our societies suffer from push policies?

Simply turn these arguments on their heads. What is the social impact of failing to tackling climate change? You can bet these will be worse. Or what are the positive impacts of tackling climate change?

This also ignores the power of the policy makers to make such policies just and fair, which is convenient because that would often be hard and/or expensive work – like providing grants or subsidising electric vehicle costs.

9. Appeal to well-being

This takes the above arguments one step further and claims that climate policies will threaten standards of living, livelihoods, ways of living, and so on. Economic growth, they could argue, is key to lifting people out of poverty, and economic growth will be hampered by strict climate policies.

This argument assumes that policy or change makers are, again, not able to do their jobs - such as creating an orderly transition process, or ensuring policies are just and fair, and so on.

It also assumes that economic growth can only be achieved in high carbon societies.

10. Policy perfectionism

This is self-explanatory, and a consequence of an overly cautious body unwilling to lose public support because of ambitious (climate) policies. Good outreach work, consultations, and feasibility studies should overcome these fears, and so can be used as a counter-argument against this discourse.

In other words, policy makers are still fully capable of doing their jobs when it comes to tackling climate change, just as they are for all other policy changes unrelated to climate change.


11. Change is impossible

Tackling climate change is an overwhelming issue, but it isn’t insurmountable as this argument would claim. This discourse suggests we adapt to climate change, rather than make stringent policies (that are more stick than carrot), or fundamental changes in lifestyles and societies.

The simple counter-argument to this one is that we cannot adapt to climate change if we continue to globally emit the amount that we do. This would lead to the ‘unchecked pollution’ scenario of RCP8.5 – have a look at what sea level rise might look like in 2100 if this is the case (this includes the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet).

The red areas will be under water in 2100, under 'business as usual' scenarios in this model. Map from Climate Central.

Add in moderate floods (a moderate flood's height above sea level has a 10% annual chance of being exceeded) and go in a little closer to the most affected areas in the UK:

Red areas are likely to be under water during moderate floods based on this model and dataset. Map from Climate Central.

Have a play around with the tool yourself here.

Basically, we cannot adapt to that – significant urban and farmland areas will disappear or be at risk of floods. Society would have to fundamentally change, much more quickly, to allow for this adaptation.

12. Doomism

Too little, too late. Fearmongering & shock tactics are under this category.

This is all incorrect. Remember the scenario above, of RCF8.5? We have essentially already avoided that fate, because we have put in place at least some measures to ensure our pollution is not unchecked. If we undid all that hard work like the above example was suggesting, we would probably still end up there. In the graph below, that scenario is the ‘no climate policies’ scenario - sometimes called the 'business as usual' scenario.

Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2020) - "CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions". Published online at Retrieved from: '' [Online Resource]

But if we keep going with the policy changes and commitments, we can still avert the worst of the crisis. Keeping warming to within the 1.5 degrees C target is still possible.

It boils down to this: we are going into – having, in fact – a climate crisis. It is all about how much of a crisis it develops into, and we have the power to lessen that. It is difficult work that will require sacrifices, hard choices, and huge commitment, but it is all still very possible – even better, it is still possible to ensure it is fair, just, and comprehensive.

How many of these discourses can you identify in your own narrative, workplace, sector, government, and so on?

Hopefully, you are now a little bit more informed and well-placed to counter these arguments, or at least spot them before they worm their way into your thoughts and beliefs. It is important to confront and dismantle those that continue to peddle these arguments, even if they do so out of good faith, because delaying climate action is not helping anyone. Even if you suspect that your counterargument will not change their mind or their practices, it may very well still impact on the people around you that are privy to the discussion – be it on Facebook, in a work meeting, or in a coffee shop with a friend.

You can read the full paper here.

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