Skip to main content

Discourses of delay: arguments used to avoid climate action


Too expensive, pointless, and others should do more: a new study sheds light on the excuses for doing nothing that circulate in the public debate on climate change.

Whilst the latest assessments from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlight the need for urgent action, reasons to delay or avoid taking such steps remain prevalent.

Professor Jan Minx and Professor Julia Steinberger of the Priestley Centre and experts from the Berlin-based Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) examined a range of sources to identify twelve forms of argument that lead to deadlock.

According to the study, these arguments for delaying climate action can be organised into four categories:

  1. Redirect responsibility: someone else should take action first;
  2. Push non-transformative solutions: disruptive change is not necessary;
  3. Emphasize the downsides: strong climate policy would be politically and socially unjustifiable;
  4. Surrender to climate change: a change of course is no longer possible.


Diagram showing the various discourses of delay


Lead author William Lamb, a researcher in the MCC working group Applied Sustainability Science said: “As a group of social scientists studying climate change, we have observed recent debates and created a typology of climate delay discourses.

“We focus on arguments that seemingly acknowledge climate change as a problem, but nonetheless downplay the need for action.

“The tricky thing is that there is always a grain of truth in all such statements,” Lamb goes on to explain. “But these important aspects of the climate debate often become instruments of a prevention strategy that aims to avoid stringent action and protect material assets in the short term. That is why ambitious climate protection requires clear communication. Our study makes a contribution to this.”

The study has been published in the journal Global Sustainability.


Main image: “Gilets jaunes #9” by Christophe Becker, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0