Battles ahead – it will never be “too late”

Unsurprisingly, the sundry would-be Republican candidates for president have been less than inspiring this election season. One might think that with two candidates from Florida – a state that’s already starting to struggle with sea level rise – we might see at least hint of sanity from the national figures of Grand Old Party. One would be very wrong to think that, and if one really did, I would hazard a guess that one has not been paying attention.

Um, yeah. Climate denial is no surprise here. Peter Sinclair has more on the situation in Florida from rawstory and from his own video over at, but I wanted to talk about something slightly different.

Take a look at this video of Marco Rubio fielding a question sent in by the mayor of Miami (a Republican). Listen to the talking points:

Right-click and inspect element for transcript, or click here for full debate transcript

Some time ago, someone pulled together five stages of climate denial, which are unpacked well in this Guardian article by Dana Nuccitelli:

Stage 1: Deny the Problem Exists […]
Stage 2: Deny We’re the Cause […]
Stage 3: Deny It’s a Problem […]
Stage 4: Deny We can Solve It […]
Stage 5: It’s too Late […]

It’s pretty normal to get some combination of stages one through four in any given remark by a climate denier, and as Nuccitelli’s article shows, we’ve gotten pretty good at rebutting those arguments. Rubio mostly focused on Stages 2 and 4 in the video, with a nod to Stage 1. What I want to focus on in this post is “Stage 5”, because it’s an argument that makes a direct attempt to create despair. Let’s look at her discussion of Stage 5:

Stage 5 global warming denial involves arguing that it’s too late to solve the problem, so we shouldn’t bother trying (though few climate contrarians have reached this level). Unfortunately this stage can be self-fulfilling. If we wait too long to address the problem, we may end up committing ourselves to catastrophic climate change.

For the most part, this is as true now as it was in 2013 – most deniers don’t bring stage 5 into their arguments, and for good reason. “It’s too late anyway” is a dead giveaway that there is a problem, and that we could have done something about it. Why didn’t we? Because of the deniers and their efforts to mislead the public and stop any action. Whether or not the denier in question is as much the victim of misinformation as anyone else, most people have a hard time admitting they were complicit in that kind of damage.

That said, I have started to encounter Stage 5 more often. One of the few advantages of my hobby of arguing with strangers on the internet is that I’ve been able to see shifts in the landscape of denial over time. One lie will be beaten down, and fade away as another one surfaces. After a little while, the one you thought was gone will come back again, rising from the dead to feed on brains once again. This phenomenon is why the folks over at put together their list of common arguments and refutations. Most of the time when I’ve seen someone say “it’s too late”, it’s been someone who accepts the science on climate change, and has either given up, or is continuing to fight for reality-based policy without any real hope that their fight will succeed. More recently, though, I’ve seen it from folks who are continuing to make the points in Stages 1 through 4.

I have to say I think Stage 5 is a dangerous argument, because depending on your definition of “too late”, there are ways in which it’s correct. At this point in time, there is almost no chance that we will stop the warming.

The good news is that we still have time to avoid a catastrophic outcome. The more emissions reductions we can achieve, the less the impacts of climate change will be.

I think that first sentence is mostly wrong, and has been for a number of years. Given the lag time between an increase in greenhouse gasses, and the rise in temperature that will occur as a result, even if we froze CO2 levels where they are today, the planet would continue warming for anywhere from a couple decades to hundreds of years. Another problem is that even if we took care of our own emissions, there’s good reason to believe that a number of feedback loops are already operating, and increasing temperature and greenhouse gas levels in addition to what humanity is doing directly. So at this point, there is every reason to think that the climate will continue warming
for hundreds to thousands of years.

So how is it not too late?

The first thing to bear in mind is that we know that life can thrive in a climate that’s much, much hotter than today. The kind of climate shift required to get there means a mass extinction event, but it’s something we could conceivably survive, and even if we didn’t, other life would. In a worst-case scenario, even discounting nuclear war (which is probably a bad thing to discount), it’s possible that we could create a planet with a radically different makeup of life. No vertebrates, for example. The idea of Earth becoming like Venus has been proposed, but I haven’t seen a well-supported case that it’s possible yet (we’ll get there eventually). Basically, the first reason it’s not too late is that there’s no real cap on how bad it can get. As long as there are enough humans to avoid extinction via inbreeding, we can always work to make things better.

The second reason it’s not too late is that we know what we need to do to stop our contribution to climate change, to slow the warming, and even reverse it. In our current state of understanding and capability, we have what we need to actively manage Earth’s climate, and at this point I think that we have little choice but to do so. The only thing keeping us from really working toward this end is politics – mostly politics in the United States. I’ll talk more about why the U.S. matters in this case (unlike so many other cases where some folks here think we matter, but we don’t), but for now I’ll just state that a change in the current abysmal status of policy relating to science in the U.S. could give the whole world a massive boost towards a kind of global society that currently only exists in science fiction.

And that brings me to point number three. As I mentioned in my introductory post on FTB, I think we have an opportunity, created by the current climate crisis, to make a cleaner, more just, more ecologically friendly, and all around better society. To be clear, I’m not talking about the “problem and opportunity are the same word” kind of bullshit here. What I mean is that the changes we need to make in order to survive in an unstable, rapidly warming climate, and to stop making that problem worse, are the same changes we need to make if we want a society with a higher standard of living across the board, a better relationship with most of the rest of life on earth, and more social, economic, and environmental justice and equality. It’s not too late because while the planet is going to keep warming, we’re going to keep working on surviving and making our own lives better, and we’re at a point where working in that direction is actually going to mean good things for the rest of the planet for a change.

In the coming years, we’re all going to run into people who are either trying to create despair, or are in the grips of it themselves, and who will tell us that there’s no point in trying to change because it’s too late. Calling that out for the lie that it is, and being able to point out why it’s wrong is an important part of the rhetorical fight to make the world a better place.



  1. says

    I’m trying out something a bit ad hoc for the video transcript, and I don’t know how well it will work with the setups folks with hearing/visual impairment are using to check out audio/video content. Let me know if something does or does not work for you!

    Edit: One report says it works.

  2. StevoR says

    The way I look at it is the analogy of being in a car that’s gone off the road and is heading for a wall at high speed. There’s not enough time to stop and a crash is inevitable but there are still thing something we can do to slow the impact – brake hard, scrub off speed, maybe spin the car backwards – before hitting the wall which will make a huge difference between hitting the wall at, say, 150 mph and having an almost certainly fatal crash that will write the car off completely or hittiing the wall at, say, twenty miles and hour instead and having some bad damage and possible injuries but being a survivable impact with a lot less damage. Of course the later we leave any action – eg braking – the harder and worse the impact will be even though its effectively too late to any any crash. Oh & everything and everyone you love is in this metaphorical car. Problem is of course, up till now we have a driver that’s been denying we’re off tehroad at all and who has stubbornly, stupidly planted the foot right to the floor on the accelerator instead.

    I’ve also heard about some suggestions that may reduce atmospheric C02 levels e.g. take carbon dioxide back from where we are now (400 ppm*) to hopefully the target of 350 ppm or much closer.

    * Higher than at any previous stage in the past few million years, pre-Industrial levels were 280 or so ppm and ice age levels 185 ppm so a 100 ppm or so clearly makes a huge difference climatically. Source & excellent graphic – see “Time history of atmospheric carbon dioxide, by CIRES & NOAA” by CIRESvideos on youtube. (Not sure if I can link things here.)

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