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EnvironMENTAL: Support group provides ‘a safe space for confronting climate grief’ – ‘The Problem With Climate Catastrophizing’

Scientific American: Obama Seeks ‘Psychological Help’ with Climate Change


The Problem With Climate Catastrophizing – The Case for Calm

Climate change may or may not bear responsibility for the flood on last night’s news, but without question it has created a flood of despair. Climate researchers and activists, according to a 2015 Esquire feature, “When the End of Human Civilization is Your Day Job,” suffer from depression and PTSD-like symptoms. In a poll on his Twitter feed, meteorologist and writer Eric Holthaus found that nearly half of 416 respondents felt “emotionally overwhelmed, at least occasionally, because of news about climate change.”

Eric Holthaus

 Do you feel emotionally overwhelmed, at least occasionally, because of news about climate change? Why/why not?

For just such feelings, a Salt Lake City support group provides “a safe space for confronting” what it calls “climate grief.”

Panicked thoughts often turn to the next generation. “Does Climate Change Make It Immoral to Have Kids?” pondered columnist Dave Bry in The Guardian in 2016. “[I] think about my son,” he wrote, “growing up in a gray, dying world—walking towards Kansas on potholed highways.” Over the summer, National Public Radio tackled the same topic in “Should We Be Having Kids In The Age Of Climate Change?” an interview with Travis Rieder, a philosopher at Johns Hopkins University, who offers “a provocative thought: Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them.” And Holthaus himself once responded to a worrying scientific report by announcing that he would never fly again and might also get a vasectomy.

Such attitudes have not evolved in isolation. They are the most intense manifestations of the same mindset that produces regular headlines about “saving the planet” and a level of obsession with reducing carbon footprints that is otherwise reserved for reducing waistlines. Former U.S. President Barack Obama finds climate change “terrifying” and considers it “a potential existential threat.” He declared in his 2015 State of the Union address that “no challenge—no challenge—poses a greater threat to future generations.” In another speech offering “a glimpse of our children’s fate,” he described “Submerged countries. Abandoned cities. Fields that no longer grow. Political disruptions that trigger new conflict, and even more floods of desperate peoples.” Meanwhile, during a presidential debate among the Democratic candidates, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders warned that “the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildrenmay well not be habitable.” At the Vatican in 2015, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio shared his belief that current policy will “hasten the destruction of the earth.”

And yet, such catastrophizing is not justified by the science or economics of climate change. The well-established scientific consensus that human activity is causing the climate to change does not extend to judgments about severity. The most comprehensive and often-cited efforts to synthesize the disparate range of projections—for instance, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Obama administration’s estimate of the “Social Cost of Carbon”—consistently project real but manageable costs over the century to come. To be sure, more speculative worst-case scenarios abound. But humanity has no shortage of worst cases about which people succeed in remaining far calmer: from a global pandemic to financial collapse to any number of military crises.

What, then, explains the prevalence of climate catastrophism? One might think that the burgeoning field of climate psychology would offer answers. But it is itself a bastion of catastrophism, aiming to explain and then reform the views of anyone who fails to grasp the situation’s desperate severity. The Washington Post offers “the 7 psychological reasons that are stopping us from acting on climate change.” Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions introduces its guide to “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication” by posing the question:“Why Aren’t People More Concerned About Climate Change?” In its 100-page report, the American Psychological Association notes that “emotional reactions to climate change risks are likely to be conflicted and muted,” before considering the “psychological reasons people do not respond more strongly to the risks of climate change.” The document does not address the possibility of overreaction.

Properly confronting catastrophism is not just a matter of alleviating the real suffering of many well-meaning individuals. First and foremost, catastrophism influences public policy. Politicians regularly anoint climate change the world’s most important problem and increasingly describe the necessary response in terms of a mobilization not seen since the last world war. During her presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton promised a “climate map room” akin to Roosevelt’s command center for the global fight against fascism. Rational assessment of cost and benefit falls by the wayside, leading to questions like the one de Blasio posed in Rome: “How do we justify holding back on any effort that may meaningfully improve the trajectory of climate change?”

Catastrophism can also lead to the trampling of democratic norms. It has produced calls for the investigation and prosecution of dissenters and disregard for constitutional limitations on government power. In The Atlantic, for example, Peter Beinart offered climate change as his first justification for an Electoral College override of the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. The Supreme Court has taken the unprecedented step of halting implementation of the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s signature climate policy, before a lower court even finished considering its constitutionality; his law-school mentor, professor Larry Tribe, likened the “power grab” of his star pupil’s plan to “burning the Constitution.”

The alternative to catastrophism is not complacency but pragmatism. Catastrophists typically condemn fracked natural gas because, although it results in much lower greenhouse-gas emissions than coal, it does not move the world toward the zero-emissions future necessary to avert climate change entirely. Yet fracking has done more in recent years to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions in the United States than all renewable energy investments combined. It has boosted U.S. economic growth as well.

The idea that humanity might prepare for and cope with climate change through adaptation  is incompatible with catastrophists’ outlook

Placing the problem in proper perspective requires appreciating the long-term costs in the context of the distant future when they will arise, distinguishing costs spread over long time periods from those borne all at once and, finally, applying separate analyses to expected outcomes and worst case scenarios. Catastrophists get these things wrong.


The power of compounding growth is the most crucial and counterintuitive phenomenon for understanding long-term projections. Many first encounter it in the tale of the ancient chessmaster who offers to train the emperor in return for one grain of rice on the board’s first square, two grains on the second, four on the third—doubling on each square through the sixty-fourth. This sounds quite affordable, but the payment for the last square turns out to be just over nine quintillion (million-trillion) grains.

An economy growing by some percentage each year follows a similar trajectory. If GDP rises by just three percent per year, the economy will grow almost 20-fold in a century. In constant 2009 dollars, U.S. GDP was less than $1 trillion in 1930. Eighty-five years later, after growing at an average compounding rate of 3.4 percent, it exceeded $16 trillion. Eighty-five years from now, even at half that growth rate, U.S. GDP will approach $70 trillion. For the majority of the world population, which resides in the developing world and thus starts further behind, progress will likely be faster—more closely mirroring the booms in the United States and other now-developed countries in the last century. A $500 trillion global economy in 2100 in which most of the world approaches the standard of living already enjoyed in the West may sound fantastical. But it only requires steady progress.

Conversely, if innovation and economic growth stall; if the developing world halts its development; if wealthy nations begin to move backward—climate change will be the least of humanity’s worries. The world’s economic system of debt-based capitalism, predicated on continued growth, would collapse. The political systems built on that economic system would collapse as well. In that world, as in the prosperous one, the effects of climate change are a marginal consideration.

At its extreme, the conflation of future impacts with present circumstances produces incoherent results. Take, for instance, the EPA’s “Climate Change Risks and Analysis” project. Among its most prominent claims: Unmitigated climate change will cause more than 12,000 annual deaths from extreme heat in major U.S. cities by 2100. (The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the EPA report fewer than 500 heat-related deaths in 2014, a figure that has been on a downward trajectory over the past 15 years). To reach 12,000 by 2100, the analysis took each city’s mortality rate from extreme heat in 2000 and applied it to the hotter temperatures forecast for 2100. It concluded that, by 2100, the heat in New York City would be killing at 50 times the rate in Phoenix in 2000 (even though the New York City of 2100 is not expected to be as hot as the Phoenix of 2000). If one believes that residents of New York City will be dropping like flies from heat in the future, climate change must seem terrifying indeed. But that is not a rational belief.

To the climate catastrophist, even a credible argument that climate change is manageable may offer little comfort. So what if the IPCC’s best guess of sea-level rise by 2100 is only two feet? Some scenarios contemplate much worse outcomes, and what if those come true?

The Esquire article describes the views of Michael Mann, the climatologist who created the famous “hockey-stick” chart used to argue that centuries of climate stability were giving way to sharp warming in recent decades. “As Mann sees it, scientists like [NASA’s Gavin] Schmidt who choose to focus on the middle of the curve aren’t really being scientific. … A real scientific response would also give serious weight to the dark side of the curve.” In Mann’s own words: “Maybe it is true what the ice-sheet modelers have been telling us, that it will take a thousand years or more to melt the Greenland Ice Sheet. But maybe they’re wrong; maybe it could play out in a century or two.”

Catastrophists worry that warming temperatures will set off an uncontrollable feedback loop, begetting ever-accelerating warming that leaves the planet uninhabitable; ocean currents might suddenly reverse, sending local climates into wild gyrations; unexpected ice-sheet dynamics might produce rapid glacial melting that causes sea levels to rise rapidly by multiple meters; agricultural yields could collapse, triggering widespread famine and conflict. Perhaps. If nothing else, such claims are unfalsifiable.

But it is difficult to know how to weigh such extreme hypotheticals. Emphasizing them risks departing the world of empirical research and model-based forecasting for one governed by fear. A variety of other long-term challenges with truly existential worst-case scenarios already exists, from the archetypical nuclear war to the emergence of artificial super-intelligence hostile to humans, to the global spread of an engineered pandemic, to coordinated cyberattacks on physical and financial infrastructure. Working with a catastrophic mindset and a century-long timeline, one can construct an apocalyptic scenario from almost any problem.

Several factors may help to explain why catastrophists sometimes view extreme climate change as more likely than other worst cases. Catastrophists confuse expected and extreme forecasts and thus view climate catastrophe as something we know will happen. But while the expected scenarios of manageable climate change derive from an accumulation of scientific evidence, the extreme ones do not. Catastrophists likewise interpret the present-day effects of climate change as the onset of their worst fears, but those effects are no more proof of existential catastrophes to come than is the 2015 Ebola epidemic a sign of a future civilization-destroying pandemic, or Siri of a coming Singularity.


The errors of today’s climate catastrophists repeat those made by the last generation of environmental doomsayers. As Paul Romer, the chief economist of the World Bank, recently observed:

During the 1970s, the Club of Rome famously argued that our economic system was on the verge of collapse because we were running out of fossil fuel. This analysis was flawed not simply because it got the magnitudes wrong. It got the signs wrong. The problem facing the world is not that the earth’s crust contains too little fossil fuel and that we won’t have enough innovation to solve this problem. The real problems are that the earth’s crust contains far too much fossil fuel and that too much [innovation] is making this problem much worse.

In other words, even though the Club of Rome was wrong in the 1970s, Romer believes its broader perspective should be embraced. Seemingly oblivious to the irony, he attributes the failure last time around to “an instance of motivated reasoning. Advocates seem to have been too eager to generate a sense of pessimistic urgency.”

Schrag, the Harvard geology professor, is even more blunt. Reflecting on Ehrlich’s predictions of eminent mass starvation in the 1970s, Schrag acknowledges that “none of his predictions came true.” Nevertheless, says Schrag, “It’s quite amazing that we’re actually able to feed the world at all. Ehrlich wasn’t wrong in ’68, he’s just wrong today.” In this view, the catastrophist is not accountable for considering how growth, innovation, and adaptation might avert catastrophe. But Ehrlich was indeed wrong in 1968, for the same reasons his intellectual heirs are likely wrong about climate change today.

Obama catastrophized in speeches, but seldom when the prospect of a follow-up question loomed. Pressed by New York Times reporter Mark Landler whether he “believe[s] the threat from climate change is dire enough that it could precipitate the collapse of our civilization,” Obama relied on his legalistic rather than rhetorical gifts: “Well, I don’t know that I can look into a crystal ball and know exactly how this plays out. But what we do know is that historically, when you see severe environmental strains of one sort or another on cultures, on civilizations, on nations, that the byproducts of that are unpredictable and can be very dangerous.” True enough—and the same could be said for a whole host of other challenges. For instance, try replacing Obama’s phrase “severe environmental strains” with “strains of militant religious extremism.”

As for Bry, the newspaper columnist; Rieder, the philosophy professor; and Holthaus, the meteorologist? They each decided to have kids after all.


End Excerpts: Full article available here: