What’s wrong with being an apocalypse denier?

Brendan O’Neill

(Credit: Getty images)

Brendan O’Neill

29 October 2022

5:15 PM

This week, on BBC radio, I made a confession: I am a denier. Not a climate-change denier – an apocalypse denier. I thought it was a clever point – to distinguish between my acceptance that climate change is happening and my scepticism that it will imminently bring about the fiery destruction of Earth. Apparently not. You should have heard the intakes of breath. Apparently even apocalypse denialism is unacceptable in polite society now.

It was on Nicky Campbell’s show on 5 Live. I was up against a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil and the question was whether that movement’s art-splattering and road-blocking antics are justifiable. I made my point – that Just Stop Oil strikes me as an out-of-touch movement that is mad to agitate for less energy production during an energy crisis. Don’t you know that many people, including vulnerable elderly people, are worried about how they’re going to keep the heat on this winter, I asked?

Political interviews and speeches · Brendan O’Neill on Radio 5 with Nicky Campbell

But it was when we got into the question of why Just Stop Oil is doing what it does – because it thinks the end of the world is nigh – that things really kicked off. ‘The world is burning’, said the Just Stop Oil person. Nicky Campbell put the point to me forcefully: ‘Millions of people will die worldwide…’ I started to respond – ‘This hysterical representation of climate change…’ – but I was cut off by gasps and shouts. Campbell made a noise that I can only transcribe as ‘Ohhhhhhewwwww’. Clearly I’d committed blasphemy. I had dared to doubt the imminence of End Times.

Over the huffing I carried on with my point: ‘Everyone accepts that climate change is happening, everyone accepts that mankind has an impact on his environment, and that some solutions will be required to alleviate that impact.’ But, I continued, ‘The presentation of that as “the world is burning”, and there’s an apocalypse, and, in the words of Extinction Rebellion, that billions of people will die – that is untrue.’

It wasn’t enough. Campbell asked if I had read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports (I have: I couldn’t find anything about billions of people dying). The Just Stop Oil spokesperson branded me ‘dangerous’ and said ‘deniers’ like me should not be ‘taking up precious airtime’. You are a ‘total denier’, she said. ‘I’m an apocalypse denier’, I replied. After that I was pretty much frozen out of the discussion. My sin was too grave. They carried on with their Armageddon chat.

It is no longer enough to accept that the industrial era has impacted on the environment. You must also repeat the millenarian mantra about the coming heat-death of humankind. Acceptance of science will no longer ward off accusations of denialism. You must also accept a hyper-moralised, hyper-politicised interpretation of that science as proof that mankind is a singularly destructive force, that modernity was a mistake, and that the world will end if we don’t stop oil, stop gas, stop nuclear and stop pretty much everything. Bow down to that dire ideology or you’re in trouble.

But it’s untrue. And it’s unscientific. As the American writer Michael Shellenberger has said, the Extinction Rebellion claim that ‘life on Earth is dying’ and ‘Billions (of people) will die’ is not substantiated by anything resembling science. ‘No credible scientific body has ever said climate change threatens the collapse of civilisation, much less the extinction of the human species’, Shellenberger points out. The IPCC predicts a sea level rise of two feet by 2100. That doesn’t sound apocalyptic, especially as we have 80 years to prepare for it. ‘There is robust evidence of disasters displacing people worldwide’, says the IPCC, ‘but limited evidence that climate change or sea-level rise is the direct cause’.

As for billions dying, the truth is that far fewer people die in natural calamities today than in the past. ‘In 1931, 3.7m people died from natural disasters. In 2018, just 11,000 did’, says Shellenberger. And that decline occurred in a period in which the human population quadrupled and more and more of the world was industrialised. The unscientific cry that ‘the world is burning’ – the world clearly is not burning – distracts attention from the provable and wonderful fact that billions of people’s living conditions, life expectancy and safety from calamitous weather have improved in recent decades.

So yes, climate change is happening. And it poses a practical challenge for humankind. But it’s not an apocalypse. I remain an apocalypse denier. Someone in that radio discussion was making scientifically questionable claims – it wasn’t me.

The most striking thing was Nicky Campbell appearing to gloat at the fact that the BBC no longer has to be balanced on climate change. ‘We don’t have to have balance on this topic on the BBC’, he said. ‘It’s like evolution. The science is absolutely clear. So the days of me not being able to say “You’re talking baloney” are over.’

That is extraordinary, is it not? Of course if the BBC wants to ban what it considers to be unscientific views on climate change, that’s its prerogative, though I think even that is a mistake, given that there must surely be contrasting scientific takes even on this issue. But if it starts to sideline people who call into question the politics of all this, who challenge the fearmongering of certain eco-hysterics, then it will be engaging in political censorship, pure and simple. So, BBC, you censor climate-change denialism, we know that. But what about apocalypse denialism? Is that still allowed? Is it still permissible to express faith in humankind and to defend modern society on your network?

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Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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