In Climate Change Denial, Fatalism Versus Determinism

A photo of dry, cracked soil.
"Dessicated Crop Land" by Markus Siske is licensed under CC0 Public Domain (via Pexels)"

“Climate change fatalism,” a term often thrown around in the discussion about climate change denial, contains an important philosophical idea that deserves more exploration: fatalism. Robert Solomon states in his article, “On Fate and Fatalism” that, “fatalism is the idea that what happens (or has happened) in some sense has to or had to happen.” Thus, climate change fatalism would be the idea that climate change, particularly the feared imminent catastrophic end caused by climate change, has to happen, and is therefore out of human control. Fatalism is important to study because this tendency to believe that climate change is out of human control greatly reduces our motivation to mitigate the negative effects of global climate change.

Fatalism is much less dependent on stereotypical ideas of “fate” than many would assume. One of the most common misconceptions about fatalism is that fatalism requires belief in a deity that is in ultimate control of humanity’s fate. Fatalism does not require belief in either a specific theological system or any kind of mysterious agency. For example, ideas about fate exist in cultures without bringing up the concept of God. Fatalism is different from determinism, which argues that if we look at events that have happened, we can find a scientific or causal reason for that event. Those influenced by determinism would find the most logical conclusion for a catastrophic climate change-related event (whether that be God or rising greenhouse gas levels). Fatalism is only concerned with the outcome, not with why that outcome happened.

Although fatalism doesn’t require belief in a religious system, Christian eschatology has impacted climate change fatalism in meaningful ways. One study shows that the prevalence of end-times rhetoric affects public opinion at large, not just those who believe in the Second Coming. These researchers used “shadow of the future” in game theory to identify climate change fatalism. If the player’s shadow of the future is long, individuals will favor long-term payoffs and make the appropriate decisions. If the player’s shadow is very short, they will favor short-term payoffs and make decisions that benefit most the short-term. Belief in the biblical end-times shortens an individual’s shadow of the future, making us more inclined to favor short-term payoffs.

Climate change fatalism puts society in a much different situation than if determinism predominated. Determinism would reach for reasons and causes of climate change catastrophes, whereas fatalism is simply concerned with the fact that they must happen. Therefore, the answer to climate change fatalism is not more education about the facts of climate change. Individual attitudes towards climate change are often unaffected by increased awareness about its scientific validity because fatalism is independent of reasons. It’s long been known that scare tactics only backfire, further encouraging a fatalistic attitude towards climate change.

Climate change determinism, on the other hand, offers a more calculated and scientific approach to mitigating climate change by acknowledging the reasons behind catastrophic weather and other natural disasters. Although scare tactics are still widely used in discussions about climate change, optimist campaigns are spreading and encouraging positive thinking that will hopefully lead to positive action. Atmospheric scientist Andrew Dressler told The Verge that although individual actions have little effect on global climate change, collective individual actions do: “One raindrop doesn’t carve a canyon, but enough raindrops will.” Acknowledging that climate change fatalism has become a cultural mindset is likely the first step towards positive collective action.

Sarah graduated from DePauw University as an Honor Scholar majoring in Religious Studies major. She is from Fishers, Indiana and works in Indianapolis as an Onboarding Coordinator for BCForward.