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Mainstream Climate Science: The New Denialism?

Latest data on climate crisis, as of March 7, 2024

Written by

Jonathon Porritt


Originally Published in

Jonathon Porritt’s blog

This is a bit of a long one! So here’s my “Executive Summary” so you can decide whether to commit the time to the rest of it: mainstream climate scientists run the risk of becoming the new climate deniers. As in:

  1. The speed with which the climate is now changing is faster than (almost) all scientists thought possible.
  2. There is now zero prospect of holding the average temperature increase this century to below 1.5°C; even 2°C is beginning to slip out of reach. The vast majority of climate scientists know this, but rarely if ever give voice to this critically important reality.
  3. At the same time, the vast majority of people still haven’t a clue about what’s going on – and what this means for them and everything they hold dear.
  4. The current backlash against existing (already wholly inadequate) climate measures is also accelerating – and will cause considerable political damage in 2024. Those driving this backlash represent the same old climate denial that has been so damaging over so many years.
  5. The science-based institutions on which we depend to address this crisis have comprehensively failed us. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is incapable of telling the whole truth about accelerating climate change; the Conference of the Parties (under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) has been co-opted by the fossil fuel lobby to the point of total corruption.
  6. By not calling out these incontrovertible realities, mainstream scientists are at risk of becoming the new climate deniers.


Back in the bold and blowsy days of Boris Johnson, it was at least full steam ahead at every turn – in stark contrast to Rishi Sunak’s endless trimming and backsliding. But Boris’s upbeat confidence was based on profound ignorance. Responding to a question after he’d just launched his 10 Point Plan for Net Zero in November 2020, he blithely asserted that: “this is what we need to do if we’re going to get climate change sorted – once and for all.”

A bit of a jaw-dropper for me. “Climate change sorted once and for all” – wow!

Since then, the 10 Point Plan has completely disappeared, but the staggering arrogance and misunderstanding persists. There are plenty who continue to argue that “the climate problem” can be “solved” – if we just roll up our sleeves and get all that green technology deployed. Even as the evidence of accelerating climate impacts accumulates by the day.

Hot off the press: we heard today (March 7th) that February was the hottest month ever, with an average temperature that was an astonishing 1.77°C above pre-industrial levels.

I don’t want to slow down the narrative here – so I’ve just given a flavour of some of that evidence about current extremes in the equivalent of an Appendix. And then further details about the speed with which certain “tipping points” are looming ever larger in a second Appendix. A quick glance is all you’ll need. But if you just can’t see why I’m getting so hot and bothered about all this, PLEASE check it out!

And there goes my reputation as a “glass half-full sort of a guy”! I will, from herein on, be badged as a full-on “doomist”, a “prophet of apocalyptic despair”, an anarchist/communist/subversive seeking “to bring down capitalism” by “existentializing” (I kid you not!) the “perfectly manageable threat of climate change”.

Guilty as charged.

It’s not just the right-wing crazies (of whom, more later) who follow that line. All sorts of serious commentators have subscribed (for years!) to the hypothesis that there’s only so much climate truth the little people can deal with. Here’s Pilita Clark writing in the Financial Times in August 2023:

“Doomist thinking is dangerous because it breeds paralysis and disengagement, which is precisely what the forces of climate inaction want.” “Doomism is ultimately a luxury that only a few can afford.”

Brilliant! So we’re the ones responsible for the lack of political traction, by virtue of a surfeit of hairshirt misery that only the middle class can afford!

These accusations of doomism are not new. Writing back in 2019, US author Jonathan Franzen put it like this:

“If you’re younger than 60, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilisation of life on Earth – massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under 30, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.

You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope today.”

Franzen got enthusiastically jumped on at the time for depressing and disempowering people. Particularly young people. (The irony of that is even richer, five years on!)

I would be the first to acknowledge some kind of continuing denial sort-of makes sense. It can be very painful to have to properly embrace an understanding of what is actually happening in the climate today. And it can get even more disheartening when we take account of the constraints of human psychology and behaviour, let alone today’s political reality.

I get all that. But mainstream scientists, NGOs and commentators have been “holding back”, on those very grounds, for a long time. And it certainly hasn’t worked as a way of enlisting the huge numbers of people required to force our politicians to start getting serious.

Simple conclusion: we have to see off this patronising, manipulative, self-serving deceit (about needing to protect people from the truth of climate change) ONCE AND FOR ALL.

Particularly if you happen to be a climate scientist still playing the “we’ve got this covered” card.

Hannah Ritchie has become the go-to “stubborn optimist” amongst climate scientists. Having seen the reviews of her new book, “Not the End of the World”, I read it with a growing sense of dread. Her selective use of “myth-busting” statistics is worthy of Hans Rosling (her original guru) at his best. The repetitive, totally banal evocation of  “hope’, as our best tool in the fight against climate change (“we have all the solutions we need – and they’re cheap and available”) grates mightily with someone who’s been pursuing that solutions agenda for the last 30 years – with a lot less banal bullshit.

And that’s the point. We’ve made progress during that time, but nothing like as much as should have been made. And that’s not because of the inadequacy of the technological solutions, but because of POLITICS and POWER. I don’t want to be mean here, but Hannah Ritchie’s naivety on the politics of decarbonisation is quite staggering.

So keen is she to maintain a positive outlook that she completely fails to confront today’s single most important data point: in 1992 (at the time of the signing of the Framework Convention), concentrations of COin the atmosphere stood at 356ppm. It’s now at 421ppm, rising by about 2ppm per annum. And that’s because today’s power-brokers (in politics, business and the media) have zero interest in reversing that trend. That warrants little attention in Happy Hannah world.

So, as a rather strange hybrid (a doomist solutions-broker!), let me now return to my Executive Summary at the top.

  1. The speed with which the climate is now changing is faster than (almost) all scientists thought possible.

One of my favourite sources of authoritative (and usually rather conservative) commentary on today’s comparative climate data (and not just become of his name!) is Zeke Hausfather. His take on the 2023 data: “absolutely gobsmackingly bananas” (as in Appendix A).

And there’s a lot more of that from mainstream scientists who, in varying degrees, have all been “shocked” by what has been happening during 2023 and early 2024. And finding it difficult to articulate that with the kind of measured words they’ve relied on in the past.

This has never happened before. It feels and sounds like a complete rupture in the “worried but reassuring” commentary that we’ve become accustomed to over so many years.

It would be wise for politicians to listen to that altered tone.

  1. There is now zero prospect of holding the average temperature increase this century to below 1.5°C; even 2°C is beginning to slip out of reach. The vast majority of climate scientists know this, but rarely if ever give voice to this critically important reality.

By all accounts, incontrovertible though this may now be, that assertion will still come as something of a shock to a lot of people on the margins of the climate debate – and even to many at the heart of it. It’s just too painful, too inescapably awful.

It probably shouldn’t be a shock. In 2022, Nature carried out a fascinating survey of climate scientists. Even then, two years ago, 96% of those involved in the survey dismissed the possibility of the average temperature increase remaining below 1.5°C. That’s just 4 out of a 100 who still thought that target was a real, deliverable possibility.

We now know it isn’t, even in the best of all possible worlds. And this absolutely isn’t the best of all possible worlds. Politicians have always had other things to distract themselves with, (other than the obdurately difficult challenge of climate change), but this particular moment in history is something else. With the wars in Ukraine and Gaza adding massively to what was already the most formidable of polycrises.

2024 is likely to be even harder in that respect – in terms of getting world leaders and their citizens to focus on the reality what it means that there is now “no available pathway to 1.5°C”, as was made clear at CoP28 in Dubai. This is the year of elections – and it has to be said that the likelihood of climate change featuring prominently in any of those elections seems remote. If it does, it will be negatively – see 4 below.

  1. At the same time, the vast majority of people still haven’t a clue to what’s going on – and what this means for them and everything they hold dear.

How could they? Who’s telling them what’s going on? Who are their trusted sources of information? Their favourite media? Their friends and family?

The truth of it is that most people have become habituated to the idea of climate change as “a bad thing”, whilst resigned to the fact that nothing ever seems to change.

It’s no bloody good that the Pope, King Charles, Greta Thunberg, Al Gore, Jim Hansen, Antonio Guterres, and even David Attenborough are telling us just how far gone things already are – not if the Daily Mail, GB News, the Telegraph and literally innumerable self-styled experts and self-publicists are telling them that it’s basically still OK, and that they should summarily dismiss all these scaremongers.

And not a single politician (apart from Caroline Lucas) is telling them the truth.

  1. The current backlash against existing (already wholly inadequate) climate measures is also accelerating – and will cause considerable political damage in 2024. Those driving this backlash represent the same old climate denial that has been so damaging over so many years.

This is genuinely scary:

  • Marine Le Pen (who achieved 41.5% of the vote in France’s Presidential Elections in 2017) has recently been claiming an “ideological victory” as President Macron shifts to the right.
  • Austria’s Freedom Party was voted for by over 25% of the electorate in 2015, with new polls suggesting public support has now risen to over 30%, putting it well ahead in the race for the election later this year.
  • Georgia Meloni, whose party has deep fascist roots, heads Italy’s current government, the most right-wing government since World War Two.
  • In Sweden, once feted as one of the most liberal countries in Europe, the far-right, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats (emerging from the white supremacist and neo-Nazi fringe), took 20.6 percent of the votes in the 2022 election, up from 12.9% four years earlier, to become the second largest Party in the country.
  • The Netherlands saw a shift to the right in the country’s latest election in November 2023, in which Geert Wilders’ far-right, anti-Islam, anti-immigration ‘Freedom Party’ (PVV) secured the largest number of seats in the Dutch parliament.
  • A poll for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), published in January 2024, suggests that the far-right could gain up to 40 seats in this year’s European Elections, for a total of 98, becoming the Parliament’s third largest Group.

The correlation between the extreme Right and strident climate denialism is very close indeed.

  1. The science-based institutions on which we depend to address this crisis have comprehensively failed us.

There are 3 critical “governance pillars” on which the whole fragile edifice of global climate politics depends:

5.1       The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Where do we start? Once fêted (by me, amongst almost everyone else) as the single most significant science-based international endeavour in the history of humankind, (and a joint winner of the Nobel Peace Price in that capacity), we can all see it now for what it is: an equivocating, politically compromised, increasingly misguided interpreter of where climate science was 5 or more years ago.

And because it’s shaped as much by the politics of climate change as by the science, one has to acknowledge that the charge of “institutionalised dishonesty” (brought by some of the IPCC’s most trenchant critics) rings more and more true. As you’ll see in my two Appendices, the climate is literally melting down. And the IPCC would appear to have little to say about that.

5.2       The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s principal delivery mechanism is the annual Conference of the Parties. I’ve written about this elsewhere (often!), so I won’t labour the point. CoP28 in Dubai demonstrated beyond any remaining doubt that this UN (“consensus-based”) process has become the creature of today’s dominant petrostates, of Big Oil, of Big Ag and of Big Chem. What once might have been construed as deeply problematic but not yet terminal co-option was revealed, in Dubai, as the fully corrupt shit-show that it really is.

The likelihood that such a process will ever get anywhere near the kind of agreement that would make any real impact, within the timeframes still available to us, is preposterous. As Bill Becker puts it:

“Flashy country pavilions, corporate-sponsored cocktail parties, and a smorgasbord of side events, have turned the annual UN Climate Summit into what some say is a trade show or circus…a dangerous distraction from the business of combating climate change as over nearly three decades, global oil demand, carbon emissions and temperatures have marched steadily upward.”

Yet most international NGOs and most climate scientists still put their hope in this illusion-spinning spectacle.

  • Nationally Determined Contributions.

The massively over-hyped “success” of the 2015 CoP in Paris was put down to the decision to leave it to nation states to define their own decarbonisation trajectories – as in “Nationally Determined Contributions”. Targets were set – almost invariably falling short of what was actually required to meet the 1.5°C/2°C thresholds that were incorporated into the final CoP Declaration.

Since then, those targets have been regularly missed, postponed, “disappeared” – and what can the UNFCCC Secretariat do about it? Absolutely diddly squat.

In retrospect, the Paris CoP has proved to be a pyrrhic “victory” of astonishing proportions.

  1. By not calling out these incontrovertible realities, mainstream scientists are at risk of the new climate deniers.

Quick stock take: my best bet is that the majority of climate scientists would completely agree with Points 1 and 2 above. They probably (intuitively) go along with Points 3 and 4, whilst pointing out that they “do the science, not the politics”. Fair enough.

I think most would be deeply discomfited by Point 5 – partly because this 3 pillar governance  edifice is the one within which they will have been working pretty much all their lives, and partly because there’s nothing else out there to take its place.

Which is why I’ve worded my sixth and final point as uncompromisingly as I possibly can – precisely to try and make the point.

This is a super-hot topic in the climate science community right now. Jim Hansen (the doyen of climate science, and the leading voice behind today’s “Hothouse Earth” scenarios, including the possibility of us breaching the 2°C threshold by 2030) is battling it out with Michael Mann, whose impeccable personal and professional credentials make him a much-loved authority in this space. His is the voice of moderation – and he gets very grumpy about the doomists! But I would say that Jim Hansen is gaining the upper hand here.

Meanwhile, Johan Rockström, the driving force behind the whole Planetary Boundaries framework, is now spelling it out as starkly as it needs to be:

“A 2.5°C global mean surface temperature rise is a disaster. It’s something that humanity has absolutely no evidence that we can cope with. There would be a 10-metre sea level rise. There would be a collapse of all the big biomes of planet Earth – the rainforest, many of the temperate forests, abrupt thawing of permafrost, and the complete collapse of marine biology. Over 1/3rd of the planet around the equatorial regions will be unhabitable because you will pass the threshold of health, which is around 30°C. It’s only some parts of the Sahara Desert today that has that kind of average temperature.”

All I know, as a non-scientist, is that a huge burden of responsibility now rests on this dedicated, brilliantly resourceful community of scientists. They cannot any longer be party to a systematised (and increasingly politicised) attempt to prevent people seeing the truth for what it really is.

It’s now absolutely imperative that more and more of those scientists begin to shout out that truth – before it really is too late.



First, a word of caution is need here. Many of these extremes will have been strongly influenced by the current El Nino, just as was the case with the previous hottest year ever in 2016. The shift from the much cooler conditions of a 3-year La Nina started in late 2022, and scientists predict that this current El Nino will weaken from the middle of the year.

Global temperatures breached 1.5°C for a record 12-month period (at 1.52°C).

February 2024 was the hottest month in human history – a full 1.77°C above pre-industrial temperatures..

Worst ever wildfires in Canada, Hawaii, Europe.

Record temperatures in Arizona and Southwest USA, France, Germany, Poland, Australia and so on.

Heatwaves in the middle of winter in Chile and Argentina.

Highest rainfall levels (and consequential flooding) in many countries.

Levels of sea ice in Antarctica at a new low in both the summer and the winter.

Global average ocean surface temperatures “off the charts” – as warm in February 2024 as would typically be the case in mid-July.

A record number of billion-dollar climate-induced disasters in the USA in 2023.

Hottest May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December 2023, and now January and February 2024. 140 countries broke February heat records.

Some reflections on all this from leading scientists:

‘Insane”, “climatic history rewritten”, “absolutely gobsmackingly bananas” etc etc.

As Professor Katherine Hayhoe has pointed out, “our previous projections underestimated these extremes”.

That’s for sure.



I did a whole chapter on climate tipping points for “Hope in Hell”, which I finished in 2019. And things have moved on a long way since then, with a major report in “Science” in September 2022, reviewing the Greenland Ice Sheet, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, coral reefs around the world, the thawing of the permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere, and the Amazon rainforest.

At the turn of the century, there was a broad consensus amongst climate scientists that the average global temperature increase would need to reach about 3°C before any of these tipping points actually tipped. By 2008, the consensus was settling around 2°C. And now, more and more scientists are talking about 1.5°C as the trigger for one or more of these systems actually tipping. This shift, over a quarter of a century, has come about largely as a consequence of a lot more research and much better modelling.

There’s also a renewed focus on the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), with a number of reports emerging in the last year. The bottom line is that this critical “conveyor belt”, (which carries heat and nutrients from the Tropics up to the Arctic Circle, where it then sinks down to the deep ocean), has slowed by about at least 15% since 1950. Some scientists believe that we could now be rapidly approaching a tipping point, where the AMOC would start slowing down much faster, causing very significant impacts in terms of temperature reductions in the US, increases in sea level, impacts on the Amazon, and so on.

Less attention has been paid to the Southern Ocean Overturning Circulation, although the indications are that this has slowed by 30% since the 1990s – an even bigger impact than is the case with AMOC.

And that will certainly have a knock-on effect in terms of the Antarctica’s sea ice. Levels of sea ice crashed for a full 6 months in 2023, and was so far outside previous norms as to make it difficult to fully comprehend what the consequences of this might be. Significant ocean warming has been detected between 100 and 200 metres below the surface. Again, many scientists believe that significant levels of melting are now “locked in” in terms of the huge ice shelves in Western Antarctica (the Amundsen and Ross Seas), with indications that the rate of melting has tripled over the last 30 years.

There’s a particularly disturbing phrase that often crops up in these reports: “irreversible in human timescales”. It’s this prospective irreversibility that should be causing the politicians to panic.

There was one moment during CoP28 in Dubai last year which made the point very tellingly for me. As reported in New Scientist (25th November), an open letter from the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI) was published in Dubai, warning politicians that an average temperature rise of 2°C would “liquidate most tropical and midlatitude glaciers, and set off long-term melting of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets, leading to 12-20 metres of sea level rise”.

At exactly the same time, “the global average surface temperature on November 17th was more than 2°C above preindustrial levels for the first time”, according to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.

The scariest of pre-tipping points.