Since late 2018, the world—Europe, Australia, and North America in particular—have seen a great wave of climate activism. Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Fridays For Future (FFF) in particular brought a large number of (new) climate activists into the streets, until the pandemic brought the mobilization to a halt. The contours of this mobilization have already been described elsewhere (de Moor et al. 2021). Here, we focus on understanding its significance, and that of climate movements more generally, through the lens of temporality. In popular and academic discussions alike, climate activists are portrayed as the planet's saviors, having to make up for the impotency of governments worldwide before the window for meaningful action permanently closes. This desperate anticipation is perhaps best illustrated by Time Magazine's nomination of Greta Thunberg as Person of the Year for 2019. It stands in sharp contrast to growing numbers who hold a postapocalyptic orientation in society, who perceive climate breakdown as already here or inevitable, and for whom climate activism represents a new form of climate denial—the denial of the fact that it is already “too late.” Between these two poles of naïve faith in, and pessimistic dismissal of, climate movements, how might climate movements really matter today? An answer may be found by problematizing and transcending the binary “now-or-never” temporality that underlies these polarized discussions. As contributions to this dossier explore more generally, by problematizing temporalities we may find greater space to appreciate the significance of climate movements today.
Defining the Moment
In early 2022, Noam Chomsky told the New Statesman that, “due to the climate crisis and the threat of nuclear war . . . we're approaching the most dangerous point in human history. . . . We are now facing the prospect of destruction of organised human life on Earth.” A few days earlier, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had released its third in series of strong warnings to humanity that, unless emissions start dropping immediately, we will disastrously miss the window of opportunity to stay within 1.5 degrees of global heating, currently fast-tracking toward 3 degrees by the end of the century (IPCC 2022). Meanwhile, governments across Europe, while claiming to hold on to the European Union's climate targets, were exploring domestic and foreign fossil fuel projects to replace Russian energy imports. In this context, the belief in human progress seems permanently damaged, with a majority of young people worldwide agreeing that “people have failed to take care of the planet” (83 percent), “the future is frightening” (75 percent), and “humanity is doomed” (56 percent) (Hickman et al. 2021).
Amidst all this, society seems to find hope in the more inspiring global phenomenon of new climate movements. According to UN chief António Guterres, “We need young people everywhere to keep raising your voices” (UN News 2021). Notwithstanding the disruption to collective action caused by the pandemic, the past few years can be depicted as a new turn and peak in climate activism, leading to unprecedented public, media, and political attention (de Moor et al. 2021). FFF has organized several of the largest climate protests in history, with millions (especially young and female) protesters taking to the streets across hundreds of cities worldwide. Meanwhile, XR has set in motion a more disruptive global wave of civil disobedience, albeit with fewer participants. With few years left until the window to prevent runaway climate change may permanently close (IPCC 2022), but following many similar, unsuccessful previous attempts to change course, the question emerges of how to understand the meaning of this moment for climate activism.
Turning to Temporalities
Addressing this issue requires an exploration of the temporalities in which climate activism is entangled and that it challenges or (re)produces. Such temporalities, as we will see, inform what activists consider necessary, possible, and desirable and thereby inform what climate activism is, can, or should be about. Climate movements are closely intertwined with the temporality of their subject. Climate change involves geophysical time as well as socially produced temporalities, including narratives of crisis and urgency. Most notable, climate movements are urgently aware of discussions about “tipping points” (e.g., the moment when the release of increasing amounts of methane due to the thawing of permafrost increases global warming that creates feedback loops that lead to further thawing and methane releases, etc.; Lenton et al. 2019) and how much time—if any—is still left to avert runaway climate change. Climate movements also orbit official climate politics that take the form of (annual) climate summits, national climate policy (shaped by election cycles), and increasingly, open-ended, experimental climate governance through state and nonstate actors. Such politics are characterized by the temporality of “false solutions” promising green growth, as well as delays and broken promises. So, even if there is still a geophysical possibility to stay within “safe” limits of climate change, skeptics argue, hasn't the inertia of climate politics so far, and the perpetual passing of now-or-never moments, proven governments’ inability to enforce the needed changes?
Disagreements about the temporal landscape within which climate movements operate fuel related disagreements about the meaning and significance of the movements themselves. XR and FFF mobilize temporal landscapes like the one offered by the IPCC to depict a quickly passing window to cut global greenhouse gas emissions in half and retain a reasonable chance of staying under 1.5 degrees of global warming. In such readings of climate temporality, climate movements are often presented as the disruptive force that can enforce societies’ urgently needed radical transformations that politicians have proven to be unable to set in motion (Stoddard et al. 2021). Yet commentators’ attributions of this role to climate movements are rarely supported by credible theories of change or evidence of the movements’ assumed transformational impact or potential. Instead, such attributions are typically offered as a Band-Aid following desperate analyses of the systemic failure to address the climate crisis: “The climate crisis is perpetuated, but at least the kids are mobilizing!”
Others underline the persistent underestimation of the severity and pace of climate change by the IPCC, arguing that its slow and consensus-oriented process leads to toned-down and outdated diagnoses, and that climate scientists are often forced into presenting overly optimistic pictures of climate change to enable and reproduce an image of climate change as something that can still be fixed, possibly even without jeopardizing current dominant economic models of “development.” From this point of view, climate activism is seen as a naïve reproduction of modernistic illusions about control and solution and as a strictly experiential “simulative politics” that sustains the unsustainable by denying that the window for “meaningful action” has closed (Blühdorn 2017; Foster 2015). Yet here, too, evidence about the actual impact of climate movements, as well as reflections about the temporal landscape upon which this question is projected, are missing.
Between these two poles, some have sought to depict the relevance of climate movements by empirically investigating their impact (for an overview, see Fisher and Nasrin 2021). Yet, such efforts run into the inevitable limitations of research into social movement outcomes, generally do not address questions of temporality, and leave it to the reader to determine whether to pass a verdict based on what climate movements have “already” or have “not yet” achieved. Climate movements themselves, unsurprisingly, seem to reproduce the optimistic temporality in which it is not yet too late, emphasizing that the real political impossibility is to accept defeat since there is no adapting to unmitigated climate change. To prove that unlikely political changes do come about, groups like XR and their intellectual defenders refer to historical precedents like the end of feudalism or slavery, wartime mobilizations of the economy, the global response to the COVID pandemic (Monbiot 2021), and Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan's (2012) conclusion that mobilization by 3.5 percent of the population can overthrow a regime. But more convincing theories of change are rarely presented. Instead, we see stubborn calls for radical hope to save what can be saved (Stuart 2020).
Determining Whether It's Too Late
Western climate activism is fundamentally shaped by the temporal paradox that the apocalypse lies in the future whereas preventing it should happen now (or even in the past). Climate activists must therefore overcome a lack of immediacy and the absence of a “natural” political constituency. Climate movements primarily address this issue by advancing a now-or-never narrative that discursively pulls the apocalypse into the here and now (Friberg 2022). Yet this perpetual now-or-never moment that climate movements seem to be stuck in, its “apocalypse forever” (Swyngedouw 2010), is contested and may be unproductive. At least since the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, climate activists have been mobilizing around a message that immediate climate action was the only thing that could stop impending doom. Yet the logic of this position is that since “now” has continuously failed to materialize, the only alternative one is left with is “never.” XR has reproduced this kind of narrative by claiming 2025 as the deadline to prevent human extinction while simultaneously questioning whether any time at all meaningfully remains, with banners stating “Act now because it's too late.”
The prevalence of this now-or-never thinking, alongside the difficulty of positioning oneself on either side of the temporal divide it implies, is best illustrated by debates surrounding the notion of “Deep Adaptation.” In 2018, Jem Bendell published “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy,” in which he argued that, more likely than not, we have already passed certain climate tipping points, rendering runaway climate change and near-term societal collapse inevitable. Consequently, society and activists should shift focus from trying to prevent such scenarios to adapting to them.
Bendell was certainly not the first to publish this kind of message. A belief in inevitable collapse can be traced back to the early days of the environmental movement and has recently regained traction under the impetus of the emerging “collapsology” movement, which has gained increasing attention (particularly in France) for its study of the collapse of industrial society (Servigne and Stevens 2015). Likewise, since 2009 the Dark Mountain project has been bringing together disillusioned environmentalists into an artistic project to find meaning in the context of a collapsing civilization (Kingsnorth and Hine 2009). Nonetheless, Bendell's paper brought this message to the center of the climate movement and triggered fierce debate. While Bendell's 4R questions (resilience, relinquishment, restoration, and resolution) have mobilized a Deep Adaptation community, it has also attracted fierce criticism regarding both its scientific accuracy and its effects on the climate movement.
For instance, Michael Mann (2021: 200) argues that Deep Adaptation “is wrong on the science and its impacts” and “breeds disengagement from the climate battle. . . . Bendell's paper is a more powerful tool for disengagement than any article ever written by a climate change denier.” Bendell and other collapsologists have defended their position by arguing that “this paper is an important contribution to a growing field of credible scholarship on the real risks of societal collapse” (Giangrande 2020) and that “we must prepare for this possibility and not deny its plausibility” (Servigne et al. 2020).
I present this discussion to show that determining whether it is too late to avoid runaway climate change is as irresistible as it is impossible. While critics of “Deep Adaptation” seem to have mainstream climate science on their side, its proponents refer to the persistent underestimation of the climate crisis by scientists and the IPCC, pointing out that there is a (self-)censuring of what can be said, a lack of honesty in these discussions, and the need to consider political inertia. Ultimately, we are dealing with an uncertain field of modeling and probabilities, and it is up to those involved in climate action to balance plausibility with desirability when choosing which scenario to act on.
In a recent study (de Moor 2021a), I found that this issue loomed large in many corners of European climate movements, albeit in a somewhat suppressed way. Rarely did activists try to obtain an objective answer. Instead, they held on to scenarios that provided some window of opportunity for avoiding runaway climate change—regardless of whether this was the scenario they considered most realistic. This issue was, however, rarely discussed explicitly, and the sense that “never” had already become the most likely scenario remained a dark thought that occasionally surfaced but would then be dealt with so as not come in the way of action “now.”
A common argument to stay positive amidst uncertainty was that believing it is too late, when objectively speaking it may not be, can lead to the kind of inaction in which the potential window of opportunity could still be missed. This partly explains the perpetual “now” of climate activism: the exact moment at which it is too late can never be identified (Hulme 2020). Followers of “Deep Adaptation,” however, argue that erring on the side of caution instead means seeing the apocalypse coming early enough to begin the societal, cultural, and spiritual preparation for collapse.
It thus becomes clear that in reproducing the now-or-never temporality of tipping points—however important they may be as scientific warnings—climate movements reproduce unsolvable dilemmas in climate activism. Elsewhere, I have discussed how a temporality of urgency is simultaneously invoked to support both sides of the argument over opposing strategic decisions (de Moor 2021b): while some think there is no more time for reformism, others dismiss the radicals for proposing ideas that will not lead to immediate change, and while some claim we should stop waiting for states to act, others reject the small-scale immediacy of lifestyle politics for their limited transformational impact. Hence, regardless of the unknowable location of the tipping point, the urgency invoked by the movement's now-or-never temporality appears unhelpful in finding its political and strategic orientation.
Ultimately, the question of whether it is too late—and, by extension, why we are acting now—cannot be answered without considering for whom and for what. Whose fate are we talking about? What constitutes the parameters and conditions for a dignified livelihood? And what would arguably be required to achieve that? Kyle Whyte (2017), for instance, contrasts the global climate framing with that of Indigenous peoples, arguing not just that many Indigenous people have already experienced “their” apocalypse in the form of (cultural) genocide but also that, even if there is still time to stop runaway climate change, doing so implies a time frame within which there is no room to reconcile the structural political inequality of Indigenous peoples, thus inevitably reproducing (procedural) climate injustices (Whyte 2020).
As contributions to this dossier discuss, narratives of urgency may (initially) provide strong temporal and affective bases for mobilization, but without differentiating the now-or-never question (for whom? for what?), such narratives remain empty, risk premature demobilization, and can become highly depoliticizing (as illustrated by demands to “listen to the science” [FFF] and to go “beyond politics” [XR]). Considering alternative and more precise temporalities may be key to finding a clearer, more nuanced, and more honest space of possibility. From an analytical point of view, doing so may provide new answers regarding the significance of, and moment for, climate activism. It may thus be time to heed Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent (2022: 208), who argues we should “go further in the revision of the metaphysical roots of modernity and question the prominence of the chronological view of time to face the ecological crisis that prompted the notion of Anthropocene.” What is crucial is that “the universal chronological timeline is but one way of experiencing time and the current crises invite us to assume a variety of times, to adopt a polychromic view” (208).
Taking the multiplicity of temporalities into account in climate activism could, for instance, imply that we recognize the heterogeneity of temporalities involved with, say, developing just climate disaster responses; remaining engaged in mitigation even if it is to get from more to less disastrous scenarios; and rewilding projects that incorporate nonhuman temporalities. Collapsing the very different temporalities implied by each of them (immediate, uncertain, biological . . . ) into a single geophysical “now-or-never” moment may be appealing in our desire to answer the existential questions humanity is currently facing. Yet resisting the temptation may considerably open up agency for climate activism. This is not to argue that the threat of runaway climate change and the need to speak honestly about future possibilities are not real. It is a suggestion to carefully consider which alternative temporalities can be mobilized in each situation, as well as the agencies they may entail.
The remainder of this issue explores this space by engaging with the politicizing and depoliticizing qualities of temporalities of urgency and tipping points. Contributions discuss the strong political potential of the associated affective repertoires, as well as examples of alternative temporalities that show possibilities to overcome the limitations of an undifferentiated now-or-never temporality.
I thank all contributors to this dossier for their constructive participation in the collective editing process.