“Deadline-ism”: when is it too late?

Last Thursday was the first day of December 2016.  There was nothing particularly remarkable about the date.  Except that it was exactly 100 months since Andrew Simms and the New Economics Foundation announced that the world had only 100 months to avoid a climatic disaster.  The climate clock had started ticking 3,044 days ago, but last Thursday it stopped.  Time was up for averting climate catastrophe.

How we should interpret this moment?  Has disaster been averted and how would we know?  If it is too late, then too late for what exactly?  And is this ‘end-of-the-world’ type story one that helps people make sense of, navigate through and develop agency in a dangerous world?


The Ticking Climate Clock

On 1 August 2008, on a drowsy and unremarkable Friday morning, Andrew Simms announced the date after which it might be too late to prevent runaway climate change, too late to prevent a world free from an inevitable climatic catastrophe.  In Simms’ own words, he shouted “Fire” and pointed to the nearest emergency exit.  The claim made was that by 1 December 2016 – in other words last Thursday — we “could reach a tipping point for the beginnings of runaway climate change”.

To mark the countdown to this tipping point, the New Economics Foundation and its partners launched its ticking climate clock which, ever since, has been ticking, second-by-second, towards this moment.  Drawing upon the trope of the ticking timebomb and the Doomsday Clock of the atomic scientists, this climate clock bewitched its audience with the remorseless passing of time – tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.  Half a minute of listening and one became hypnotised, in a trance.  To listen was mesmerising, to be drawn into the final countdown.  “When the clock stops ticking we could be beyond our climate’s tipping point, the point of no return.”

But what happens on the other side of the point of no return?  I don’t so much mean what happens to the climate system.  Last week a tipping point in the climate system was certainly not passed.  There is no meaningful sense in which it is now no longer “likely” that the world’s temperature will remain below 2°C, whereas before last Wednesday it was “likely”.  Even if such decisive thresholds existed in the climate or in socio-technical systems, it is beyond our ken to know when and where they are reached, or with what consequence.  No, the 100 month countdown was a powerful rhetorical device to draw attention to the effects of human actions on the Earth’s atmosphere and its climate.

So I am more interested in asking about the psychological effects of such rhetorical “deadline-ism”.  What affects do these ‘end-of-the-world’ stories have on the human imagination and the will to act?  Not just the effects of passing the deadline, but the very act of creating such deadlines in the first place.  They suggest a degree of presumptive knowledge about the future and how it will unfold.  These stories want us to believe that the reason to act and intervene in the world is rooted in an epistemic claim about what will happen at a point in time, rather than in an ethic of care, duty or moral character.

Tipping Points

It is noteworthy that the ticking climate clock was launched just three years after the tipping point metaphor first entered into the lexicon of climate scientists in the autumn of 2005. Climate deadline-ism existed before this of course, but the potency of the tipping point metaphor offered a new rhetorical repertoire.  It appealed to scientists, campaigners and politicians alike.  For example, in October 2006 then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed, “We have a window of only 10-15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points.”

The effects of these types of artificial deadlines have been explored by Stefan Skrimshire in his short 2011 film Beyond the Tipping Point.  The concern expressed is that images of deadlines crossed, after which mitigation efforts will be rendered meaningless, may well induce feelings of helplessness or apathy, if not cynicism when the end of the world does not arrive.  As Skrimshire says, we need to move “beyond the shallow moral formula of ‘X years to save the planet’.  We must … challenge our obsession with final, ‘once and for all’ points after which, if crossed, all will be lost.”

Although the 100 months has passed and the “sky has not fallen in” (cf. Renata Tyszczuk’s Cautionary tales: The Sky is Falling! The World is Ending!), it seems very hard for politicians and campaigners to avoid the attractions of climate “deadline-ism”.  And there seems a constantly refreshing selection of new deadlines to choose from.

Some more recent expressions revolve around the ‘exhaustion’ of the allowable carbon budget.  Take this recent claim from IIASA in Austria: “After 2020 emissions must start declining … near-term action is essential”.  The climate clock has been re-set from last Thursday to a new 50 month deadline of January 2021.  Offering a slightly longer horizon is Mike Mann: “New calculations … indicate that if the world continues to burn fossil fuels at the current rate, global warming will rise to 2°C by 2036, crossing a threshold that will harm human civilization.”  Or, longer still, Prince Charles’ recalculation places the deadline to avoid catastrophic climate change now to be 2050.



Whether 2016, 2020, 2036 or 2050, the lure of such deadlines is reminiscent of various forms of millenarianism.  Specific predictions of the end of the world are offered to galvanise the faithful to tell the world (to evangelize; to campaign) or to warn the recalcitrant of the need for repentance (to be ‘born-again’; ‘to change the way you live’).  But as more reflective religious movements have realised, “deadline-ism” isn’t the best way to evangelise.  Deadlines place unnecessary, and unhelpful, time limits after which the currencies of faith, hope and love–the well-springs of the will to act –rapidly devalue.

So too with action in the world to mitigate the risks associated with a changing climate.  It is never too late to make purposeful interventions.  It wasn’t too late in 2008, nor is it too late today, 100 months later.  And nor will it be in 2020, 2036 or 2050.  As Andrew Simms himself recognises, “We have to find a better story to tell, in which people can discern a better future and answers to a host of social and economic problems. It will have to be a tale people can believe in.”  “Deadline-ism”, points of no return and stories of the sky falling in are not the stories we need to hear.