Is Deep Adaptation flawed science?

Listen to the Science
Extinction Rebellion
Jem Bendell's popular self-published paper has been platformed by Extinction Rebellion, but relies on pseudoscience to come to inaccurate and harmful conclusions.

We know that climate change is fundamentally a problem of injustice and inequality. Yet Deep Adaptation doesn’t even mention the word justice.

As members of the climate movement, we’ve been relieved to see Extinction Rebellion (XR) ring the alarm on climate and apply pressure to governments.

As scientists, we have found comfort in a movement that starts by telling the scientific truth, a truth that has been intentionally obscured for decades. It is in part because of this commitment to the truth that scientists have allied with activists, for example by participating in protests, writing open letters of support for the movement, and defending arrested XR rebels in court. 

The support of scientists in this fight is vital, so it is deeply concerning for activist-scientists like us to realize that misinformation is influencing the movement. The pernicious example comes in the form of the self-published paper, 'Deep Adaptation', by Professor Jem Bendell, whose arguments that we should prioritise adapting and coming to terms with imminent societal collapse and possible near-term human extinction are built on claims that are simply not supported by science.

Misinformation 

Bendell's influential but false narrative creates a range of problems for XR and the broader climate movement. We must recognise its impact and intentionally disavow it both so that we can honestly say that we tell the truth and also to avoid falling foul of the paper's flawed political and strategic conclusions.

In our long-form rebuttal, we show how Deep Adaptation stretches truths and promotes falsehoods throughout, by relying on unsupported and exaggerated scientific claims as well as misleading use of specific terminology.

We show how the paper relies heavily on early claims about Arctic ice melt and methane emissions from thawing permafrost, claiming that these systems are out of human control, when in fact their warming effects are dwarfed by human emissions. To support these claims, the paper employs the work of lone, highly-questionable scientists and completely disregards the consensus of thousands of scientists that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change represents.

The paper also oversimplifies and misrepresents complex concepts like tipping points and tipping point cascades, and regularly equates nonlinear trends with unstoppable, compounding change.

These inaccuracies and false claims are made more convincing by applying the same techniques that other sources of misinformation—climate deniers—rely upon. Outlined well in Geoffrey Supran’s and Naomi Oreskes’ recent report on corporate-sponsored climate denial, these techniques include citing fake experts, cherry picking data, and holding critics of one’s work to impossible standards. We show how Deep Adaptation uses all five of the techniques which Supran and Oreskes highlight.

Influence 

In effect, Deep Adaptation obscures the complex, scientific truth in favor of a false narrative that, while doom-laden and panic-inducing, is somewhat easier to grasp because it is more certain.

But the truth is that human action is still the primary determinant of our climate future, that social collapse is not guaranteed, and that although lives and territories have been lost already, we can still prevent further destruction.

Despite its false statements, Deep Adaptation has been downloaded over 450,000 times. It has helped shape XR structurally, too, through the author’s input of similar content in the XR handbook. Clearly the narrative appeals. Why?

One reason for its popularity is that Deep Adaptation does a couple of things effectively that other works do not. First, it talks in stark emotional terms about something that is undoubtedly very scary. It does not shy away from describing feelings that all people concerned with the climate crisis feel on a regular basis.

This emotional expression is something that scientific writing and reporting rarely employs, as scientists strive for detached objectivity in presenting facts. While frank discussion of the psychological and emotional impacts of the climate crisis is sorely needed, it must still be a discussion grounded in reality. 

The other thing the paper does well is to correctly identify many of the past barriers to the environmental movement, such as the role of  neoliberal economics in promoting only individualist and market approaches to tackling the climate crisis. These two important strengths of Deep Adaptation make it compelling reading, even though the conclusions at which it arrives are ultimately unsupported.

Damaging

Regardless of whether Deep Adaptation appeals to us, it is important that we disavow Bendell’s paper and stop spreading its arguments. Believing, relying on, and promoting the core claims and ideas of the “Deep Adaptation Agenda” damages the climate movement in several serious ways.

1.     It demotivates us

Whilst an unjustified belief in near-term societal collapse is damaging to mental health, it also makes people less likely to act in a way that helps address climate change. Such belief encourages a kind of paralysis which we know is counterproductive because we know that action still works.

2.     It delegitimizes us

As a movement, we say that we tell the truth. But promoting misinformation goes entirely against that claim. In doing so, it hands power to deniers and delayers who say that we are “alarmist”.

3.     It obscures our long-term vision and planning

We know that our work is going to be crucial not just in the next ten years, but in the decades and even centuries to come, as society faces the long battle for mitigative and adaptive measures, and the fight for a just transition. Believing that the end is nigh misdirects our energies from the long haul.

4.     It ignores real aspects of a potential collapse

Deep Adaptation sticks to a vague but simplistic idea of collapse, reminiscent of  dramatic apocalyptic films. But real collapse is more complicated. For one, it always makes sense to keep fighting, both to recover from the past, and prevent more harm in the future.

This is one lesson that can be learned from the struggles of indigenous peoples across the world, who have dealt with true apocalypse while continuing to celebrate their cultures, and work towards a more just world.

5.     It is incompatible with environmental justice

We know that climate change is fundamentally a problem of injustice and inequality. Yet Deep Adaptation doesn’t even mention the word justice. It is content to treat the globe as one group of equally-doomed people, ignoring not just climate science but the gross inequality that would be characteristic of any realistic collapse.

This blanket doomism is a problem in the same way that “All Lives Matter” is a problematic response to “Black Lives Matter”; it ignores the fact that the climate crisis continues and deepens existing inequality and injustice, while the Exxons, Kochs, and Trumps endure little compared to marginalized communities.

Simply abandoning societal structures doesn’t eliminate the injustices they have created. So, rather than abandoning those structures, we must refashion and repurpose them to build a just world. 

Re-grounding

Because Deep Adaptation has fundamentally influenced our movement, it is vital that we acknowledge its impact, and move forward.

We must publicly disavow the paper’s false messages, saying clearly that near-term collapse is not inevitable, and that climate-induced human extinction is not plausible.

In addition, we should be stricter with science messaging, making sure that major spokespeople are citing science appropriately, and deferring to people with true expertise when it comes to deeper discussions of physical science and direct impacts. When we make mistakes about science, we should acknowledge those mistakes, and correct them, rather than doubling down on misinformation.

The support scientists have shown for XR, 350.org, and other groups is a huge asset, and should be embraced, so that we have scientific integrity when we call upon powerful political and cultural figures for action.

Above all, we must move forward, away from Deep Adaptation, and truly unite behind the science, because the truth is bad enough.

Choices

Like the Greek goddess Persephone, who had to choose between three distasteful fates: amnesia, a tempting mirage, and the bitter complexity of reality, we too have a choice to make.

We can ignore the problem, settling for incrementalism, greenwashed capitalism and other bandaids and distractions; we can believe the false, disturbing, but overly-certain narrative of Deep Adaptation; or we can accept the scientific consensus, wade through the uncertainty, mourn what is already lost, and strive to adapt, mitigate, and create an environmentally just society.

Uncertainty is a hard road to take, but it is the only honest option.

These Authors

Thomas Nicholas is a PhD student in plasma physics at the University of York, and member of Extinction Rebellion Scientists. Galen Hall is a researcher at the Climate and Development Lab at Brown University. Colleen Schmidt is a recent graduate of Columbia university, where her research focused on plant ecology. The long-form version of this article was first published in OpenDemocracy.

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