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How can climate activists loudly speak the truth about the climate crisis without becoming paralysed by fear and despair? And how do we move a hesitant public into the emergency mode required to rescue humanity from climate armageddon. Can we confront climate change and still remain hopeful? These are some of the issues Mitchell Beer explores in this post first published in The Energy Mix. (Rolly Montpellier, Editor for Below2°C)

Let’s Confront Climate Change

Can We Confront Climate Change And Remain Hopeful, Below2C

Image credit: Trailer for An Inconvenient Sequel, YouTube Licence

A blockbuster feature article in New York magazine, detailing the devastation ahead unless humanity averts the worst effects of climate change, is triggering a secondary discussion on how to confront the toughest challenge facing humanity while sustaining the hope needed to keep on with the job.

“It is, I promise, worse than you think,” begins New York Literary Editor David Wallace-Wells, in a post that hit online networks Sunday evening. “If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today.”

While “the swelling seas—and the cities they will drown—have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic,” he writes, “they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.” Because “absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.”

Failure of Imagination

Wallace-Wells inventories a series of reasons for the “failure of imagination” that prevents humanity from comprehending the scope of the climate crisis, and it’s a necessarily long-winded list:

  • “The timid language of scientific probabilities, which the climatologist James Hansen once called ‘scientific reticence’ in a paper chastising scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat really was;
  • the fact that the country is dominated by a group of technocrats who believe any problem can be solved and an opposing culture that doesn’t even see warming as a problem worth addressing;
  • the way that climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious in offering speculative warnings;
  • the simple speed of change and, also, its slowness, such that we are only seeing effects now of warming from decades past;
  • our uncertainty about uncertainty, which the climate writer Naomi Oreskes in particular has suggested stops us from preparing as though anything worse than a median outcome were even possible;
  • the way we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere;
  • the smallness (two degrees) and largeness (1.8 trillion tons) and abstractness (400 parts per million) of the numbers;
  • the discomfort of considering a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible, to solve;
  • the altogether incomprehensible scale of that problem, which amounts to the prospect of our own annihilation; and
  • simple fear. But aversion arising from fear is a form of denial, too.”

His conclusion, based on conversation with some of the most eminent scientists in the field: “No plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster.”

But in introducing his assessment of what could be ahead, Wallace-Wells still clarifies that his report “is not a series of predictions of what will happen—that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action.” And that’s one point of departure for the critiques that have been circulating since the post first appeared.

Wallace-Wells’ report is certainly getting the circulation he wanted. “According to CrowdTangle, a platform that tracks social media traffic, the story has been shared on Facebook over 132,000 times, reaching the timelines of over 50 million people and the homepage of Reddit,” reports. It has also triggered a mixed reaction from veteran climate scientists and activists.

Doomist Framing Is Counterproductive

On Facebook, famed Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann takes issue with Wallace-Wells’ “doomist” framing. “It is important to be up front about the risks of unmitigated climate change, and I frequently criticize those who understate the risks,” he writes. “But there is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability, and hopelessness.”

Mann points to specific spots where the article overstates the science, stressing that “the evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now, is overwhelming on its own. There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative.”

On Grist, meteorologist Eric Holthaus agrees that “nearly everyone on the planet underestimates the seriousness of climate change,” but describes the article as “pure nightmare fuel. It mixes fantasy and reality to produce an outcome that is even more terrifying than we could have ever lucidly imagined.”

Fear Backfires

Holthaus says Wallace-Wells told him the purpose of the piece was to spur readers to action. “The problem is, if you’re trying to motivate people, scaring the shit out of them is a really bad strategy,” Holthaus replies. “Time and time and time again, psychology researchers have found that trying to scare people into action usually backfires. Presented with the idea that the planet that gives us life might be dying, parts of our brain shut down. We are unable to think logically.” The “more difficult response” to the “daunting data” of climate science “is to recognize how scary it all is, talk through it (I went to a counsellor), and choose hope. When the view is dark, hope is a radical choice.”

On Medium, Climate Progress founding editor Joe Romm argues that there’s nothing inevitable about the doomsday trends in the article. “If there is one critique of the NY Magazine piece that sticks, it is that Wallace-Wells fails to explain clearly that we are not doomed,” he writes. “We are simply choosing to be doomed,” by failing to adopt the fast, economy-wide transformation that would accelerate a “game-changing, unstoppable clean energy revolution.”

But the pushback has generated pushback of its own, with Vox climate specialist David Roberts defending the overall accuracy of Wallace-Wells’ post and arguing the value of content that reminds us of what will happen if we don’t move farther, faster in response to climate change.

“As many people have noted, we probably won’t keep on as-is, which makes the worst-case unlikely. But Wallace-Wells is not predicting it will happen,” Roberts writes. “He’s merely describing what could happen if we cease to act, which no one wants…except one of the two major political parties in the world’s most powerful country, including the man in charge of the executive branch and military.”

There’s lots of research out there on how to talk to different audiences, including the mythical “average” reader, about climate change, Roberts notes. But the bottom line is still that “most people simply have no idea how scary climate change is. However that terrible urgency is communicated, the world is better for it,” he writes.

Be Scared But Act

Veteran Canadian climate hawk Tzeporah Berman took to her own Facebook page to agree with Roberts.

“Actually, we should be scared,” she writes. “We should be watching food prices rise due to droughts and be scared. We should be watching wildfires increase and be scared. We should be noticing how much of our time and money is now being spent on extreme weather and disasters and be scared. We should be tracking the dramatic rise in refugees due to climate impacts and be scared. We should be noticing how much acidification and warming are changing our oceans and be scared.”

And then, she adds, “we should act. We should be thankful that we have technologies today, at scale, that can provide solutions. And the next time someone argues that ‘we have a right to continue to produce fossil fuels indefinitely’, ‘other countries’ emissions are bigger [so] we aren’t really the problem’, ‘the markets will take care of it’, ‘it’s too expensive’—we should remember that feeling of being gut punched we got from reading that scary article, and roll up our sleeves.”

Originally published in The Energy Mix.

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  1. Media are full of analyses and warnings; it has become a business for writers. But desperately short of relevant social and political suggestions that make a difference, including personal commitments, other than ‘rolling up our sleeves’, as the above article does.
    Each of those articles should end up with a series of suggestions, otherwise the articles do not contribute to the solution.

  2. “Holthaus says Wallace-Wells told him the purpose of the piece was to spur readers to action.”
    Action? What specific action do the authors have in mind, keeping in mind that since climate change has spawned a global crisis, any action must be globally coordinated? Good luck with that.

    • Welcome to Below2°C and thank you for your comments.

      So you say that climate change has spawned a global crisis. Is climate change not the result of the corporate take-over of politics and the erosion of democracy? The crisis is more about what has allowed climate change to occur than it is about the climate itself. The crisis is the paradigm of perpetual economic growth and society’s mass consumerism both leading to the over-exploitation of the planet and GHGs clogging up the atmosphere.

  3. I’m not so sure about fear not being a catalyst for change. Fear (and anger) has kicked off the by far fastets transformations of society in moders times, first when Hitles invaded Poland and then when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I don’t think the joy of life motivated those changes. Fear and anger can’t be the sole engines of change, but I very much believe they can be crucial initiators of the will to change.

    • Hello Kim and welcome to Below2°C.

      The article clearly makes the point that a gloom-and-doom approach to climate action has not been successful. I also know that guilt and finger-pointing do not work well. But I do think, as you do, that fear can be a great motivator for a large segment of the public. History if full of examples where a prompt reaction to a crisis can occur when people fear for their own safety or the well-being of their family members. I like your last sentence, ” Fear and anger can’t be the sole engines of change, but I very much believe they can be crucial initiators of the will to change.” It sums it up well for me – very insightful.

      Thanks for your comment.

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  4. Redefine hope. What are you hoping for? Do you have any realistic plan of how you will achieve what you are hoping for?

    I hope that my life will have and does have meaning. Meaning is based upon my understanding and my action.

    Hoping for an outcome is a fool’s errand.

  5. The corporate media is the problem…Watching any kind of “News/weather” on tv radio is so horribly the problem of why citizens know nothing of the causes /solutions to global warming.Informed citizens will do the right thing if they are given info..Advertisers of cars/trucks now what to do…repeat,repeat..TV shows should incorporate info in sitcoms etc…Why no giant criticism of the Corporate media

    • Welcome to Below2C Jean.

      The corporate media has done the climate movement a great disservice by always trying to give equal time to both climate believers and climate deniers. Over 97% of all scientists believe that climate change is real and caused by humans. And yet in any debate on the question, each side gets equal coverage. What I found so strange was to see the Paris Agreement get more exposure because Donald Trump pulled out than it does for its merits. Corporate media covered the withdrawal far more than the signing of the Accord.

      Thank you for your comments.

  6. Thanks for the useful article. After seeing FB page after FB page, and published articles galore focus on 1) the dire reports; and 2) the actions governments local – to national must take, two friends came to me asking what they could do. There’s an argument out there that only a collective movement would work, but collective movements are made of individuals, and individuals need and want advice on how to help – personally, socially, economically and politically. So we have a FB community now called Climate Steps where we share ONLY concrete actions that people can take. Yes, from minor, but also to larger. Anything to get the momentum going, and every bit counts. So check us out, throw in some concrete steps, and help people build to large scale action.

    This website is also paired with a blog, where I am summarizing some of the issues raised. I just summarized a FB thread where 196 people commented on actions individuals could take, and summarized the 93 ‘solutions.’ in the last post on this blog.


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