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The Truth Please – Your Personal One

October 19, 2023

It is always a difficult one with the word ‘truth’. Often, speaking about ‘truth’ can be like stepping on a minefield. We all know we can have our own personal ‘truth’, and telling ‘the truth’ can also be an important exercise to clarify things and get our minds on the right track. There is also the idea that in science, there can be only ‘one truth’ backed by scientific evidence. But there is also the notion that ‘telling the truth’ is for conspiracy theorists. So making a public statement about ‘telling the truth’ is something that requires a lot of courage and determination.

This is exactly what the founders of Extinction Rebellion have done today, commemorating five years since launch of the movement. I find it impossible to state in words how much we owe them – since no other movement has been as radically and fearlessly communicating what is at stake when it comes to the climate and ecological emergency. By mobilising tens of thousands of citizens from all walks of life, they got the message out loud that the crisis is not just a problem to solve, but that for some things, it might already be too late. No-one can predict the future, but we need to face the possibility that our very civilization is failing.

This kind of radical honesty stands in stark contrast to the communication of mainstream media and prominent climate scientists, who stubbornly cling to the idea that people need to be given a reason to hope, no matter how large the ultimate risk. To counter this culture has been the hallmark of the movement – up to a certain point. The steady erosion of this one of their fundamental principles is what the declaration of the Extinction Rebellion founders laments. In it, they admit that they themselves are responsible for it, as they thought they had to ‘improve’ their communication strategies.

Whenever an organisation strays outside the narrow confines of how we should think about the climate and ecological emergency, narrow-minded objections are made and the authors are associated with unscientific ‘alarmism’. A good example is the report ““What Lies Beneath”, which has been repeatedly criticised for cherry picking climate science, despite of the fact that its degree of ‘cherry picking’ is in no way outside of what high-level peer-reviewed publication do all the time, or that the report was accompanied by a foreword from one of the most influential scientists in the field of climate impacts research. But the value of this report, linking climate science to wider global security issues, was simply ignored. And that is a serious problem: all is needed is a major climate-driven food crisis intersecting with the erosion of international collaboration due to other, perfectly unrelated conflicts, and the number of victims could soar into regions never before seen in history.

At a more fundamental level, it is futile to argue about how probable such scenarios are, that is, to exchange and engage in factual ‘truths’. Before we do this, something very different needs to happen. We all need to be totally honest and speak about our own personal truth first. I have been a climate scientist for more than 30 years now, but only this year I was personally struck by a climate-change related extreme event, and this was the moment where I realised that all that time, I have been suffering from climate anxiety without knowing it. In other words, I have been in denial. The Extinction Rebellion founders are also telling their own personal truth, because they admit that they have let themselves be diverted from the path that deep down they knew was the right one.

I do not want to tell anyone that she or he should see the climate and ecological crisis as a deadly threat to humanity. We can never know the absolute truth. But if we are all honest, first with ourselves and then when we speak publicly, then can we approach it collectively as much as possible. This is another area where Extinction Rebellion have been truly trail blazing, with their core demand for citizens’ assemblies. By bringing in a much wider range of views, or ‘personal truths’, this form of deliberative democracy has frequently been shown to be superior to our current electoral model. Also, directly questioning the legitimacy of authority when and where it has failed demonstrably and by its own standards, is where Extinction Rebellion and their founders have always excelled. It does not mean no other opinion is allowed, but it is another form of honesty, expressed radically and without fear.

Therefore, honesty is the only thing I demand of both political decision makers and the scientific experts. Whoever believes that the climate crisis is no serious threat but something we are likely to master, then please say so, even at the risk of drawing the ire of those who feel the climate anxiety deeply within themselves. But please do not engage in empty promises to calm the public, such as emergency declarations that are not meant seriously, or net zero promises broken at the next electoral cycle. If there is to be a direct confrontation between the two views, with all the emotions coming out on both sides, one that is embedded in a wider culture of listening to each other, however difficult that might be, only then can we collectively make progress and eventually take the necessary measures to confront this crisis.

Wolfgang Knorr

Wolfgang Knorr is a climate scientist, consultant for the European Space Agency and guest researcher at the Department of Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University