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Oct 16, 2009

Hamilton: How to deal with climate change grief

The science, economics and politics of climate change have been discussed and argued endlessly. But how do we cope psychologically with this challenge to our conception of the future?

We’ve had the scientific debate and the economics and politics have been discussed endlessly. Yet, Yet, as Sophie Black’s comment on “Oh, sh*t” moments attests, beneath the surface, unexplored, run powerful emotional currents. The climate predictions are frightening. Those who listen to them feel anxiety, fear, rage, guilt, anguish, helplessness, hope and apathy. The prognosis makes them worry about the well-being and survival of children and grandchildren. It destabilises the unquestioned belief in a continuously peaceful and prosperous societies. The health of the planet and its natural marvels is at stake.

What’s going on in the psyche? How do we cope with this profound threat to our conception of the future? Some preliminary answers to these questions can be had by analysing the responses to two recent and seminal interventions, one in Britain and one on the United States. The authors assert that the fight to protect the world from catastrophic climate change is lost and we must now confront the decline of civilisations and collapse of the human population.

The first, published on 17 August on The Guardian website, is an exchange between British environmental writers George Monbiot and Paul Kingsnorth. Kingsnorth argues we need to ‘get real’ and face up to the fact that civilisation cannot survive in its current form. We need to think about what we can learn from it and aim for “a managed retreat to a saner world”.

Monbiot agrees that the situation is irretrievable but objects to Kingsnorth’s apparent complacency and unreal expectation that a saner would eventuate. The transition is likely to be “hideous”, involving billions of deaths. As civilised life falls apart, the psychopaths are likely to take over. He insists that we must fight for a more just and less brutal transition to wherever we end up.

The second intervention is from US climate activist Adam Sacks and appeared on the website of Grist magazine on the 23 August. Titled “The fallacy of climate activism” Sacks argues that environmentalists have mistakenly focused on the symptoms of environmental decline (rising greenhouse gases) rather than the cause, the structural need of the system to grow without end and its promise of ever-increasing physical comfort.

It’s time to tell the truth, he declares: the battle over greenhouse gas emissions is lost and positive feedback effects are taking over. “Our version of life on earth has come to an end”, and the best we can do is try to plan the transition. “How do we survive in a world that will probably turn … into a living hell?”, he asks.

These two interventions represent a watershed in the global warming debate because the authors are saying the previously unsayable, expressing the fear of many scientists and environmentalists that it is too late to avert a catastrophic shift in the global climate.

They provoked a voluminous and rich array of responses, over 700 comments suggesting that the views expressed in the articles are deeply felt by some.[i] For the most part, those who participated in these exchanges are already seriously engaged in the climate change debate. As the vanguard they are in no sense representative of the wider population. Although their views are currently on the fringes of public debate, they will, in my opinion, be at the centre of it in a few years time and perhaps much sooner if the Copenhagen conference in December fails.

Analysing the responses to the interventions reveals a great deal about how the most engaged members of the population are coping psychologically with the threat posed by climate change. A recent paper by Tim Kasser and myself develops a framework that can be usefully applied here. We identify three broad types of psychological response to the threat of a warming globe.

DENIAL. The first type are denial strategies, both the express repudiation of climate science by so-called sceptics and the “casual denial” practiced by many members of the public who tell themselves scientists are often wrong or must be exaggerating. While sceptics pop up in the online debates here considered, neither the Guardian website nor Grist is a sympathetic environment for climate science denial. Those who practice casual denial mostly exclude themselves from debates over global warming and are also not represented in any numbers.

MALADAPTIVE COPING. The second type of response we have called “maladaptive coping strategies”—those deployed to defend against the reality of warming by filtering the facts or tempering their emotional meaning. Methods include: reinterpreting the threat to make it less stressful by telling oneself that humans have solved these sorts of problem before or imagining it to be too far off to worry about; practiced indifference; and, diversionary strategies such as minor behaviour changes (installing low-energy light bulbs) and pleasure-seeking. Practiced by a majority of the population, these strategies entail a refusal to engage seriously with the issue, so we would not expect to find many reactions reflecting these strategies among the online respondents.

However, other maladaptive strategies feature strongly in the two debates. The commonest type from US respondents and the second commonest from British bloggers fall into the category of “wishful thinking” whereby the desired outcome becomes the expected outcome. They mostly fall into two groups, the first of which might be called blind hope.[ii]

“What may seem impossible now may become possible in the future.”

“Any number of probable future versions of our present civilization can and do branch off at every moment.”

“To quote Edina in Ab Fab: Cheer up! It might not happen!”

The second group invests hope in technological salvation.

“We are the pinnacle and we will innovate our way out of species overshoot without sacrificing nary an SUV.”

“We have built these amazing technologies … So let’s evolve and keep looking to find and understand the most workable, enjoyable way.”

“Well, I am a glass half full kind of guy so I hope something techie will save us.”

Although comforting, wishful thinking is maladaptive because it relies on unrealistic optimism and vague assertions about possible futures or human nature.

A second type of maladaptive response involves a form of “splitting”. Often entailing a demand for hard facts or a certain callousness, retreat to the cerebral dulls appreciation of the human suffering at stake. It is related to fatalism, considered later.

“It’s quite silly not to expect a right-sizing of the global population …”

“Sometime this century, the cull will begin.”

“Pieces like this always strike me as kind of mushy … There are no hard facts or numbers … no hard tactical advice, no prediction or even vision of how becoming more apocalyptic would bring about change.”

“Where is the mechanism by which ‘industrial civilisation’ collapses and what does such an idea mean? I mean specifics, and numbers, and facts …”

A related response is akin to the cry often heard in business: “Don’t tell me about a problem unless you have a solution”. It is a typically American sentiment.

“This makes the choir feel good … but what’s supposed to come out of it?”

“There are no useful takeaways from this piece.”

“Despair doesn’t accomplish anything useful.”

“Stop exaggerating and get behind some real solutions”.

Although the arguments, based on a mass of scientific evidence, are startlingly new, a number of respondents used what might be called the “old hat” argument, which allows claims about climate chaos to be lumped in with other debased predictions.

“This essay contains every shibboleth of contemporary environmentalism.”

“Same old song.”

“I’ve grown up with stories of doom and gloom … They all blur into one eventually, and then you can ignore them en masse”.

A variation on this defence mechanism is deployment of ridicule and generalized attacks on environmentalism. Thus:

“The End is Nigh.”

“Isn’t it fun watching two Old Testament prophets bickering about which one’s fire and brimstone is going to be more terrible.”

“I’m strongly reminded of Private Frazer from Dad’s Army: ‘We’re all doooomed!’.”

“Environmentalism has less to do with saving the planet than it does with reining in human aspirations.”

While often used by those who deny the science altogether, ridicule is also adopted by some who are deeply concerned about climate change but differ sharply with the authors over some aspect of the debate. The first is in response to Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain project, “a new literary and artistic movement for an age of massive global change”.

“Civilisations will decay and crumble while I, Paul Kingsnorth, reign alone and rule absolutely from my dark mountain HQ!! Mwa ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!”

“Two upper class romantic like to think of the world becoming a simpler (and needless to say, cloth cap doffing) place.”

“Two lovely white educated green blokes.”

ADAPTIVE COPING. Those who repudiate maladaptive strategies, such as those I have described, fall into the third group. Adaptive coping strategies are deployed when the person accepts both the facts of climate change and the accompanying emotions. Emotion-focused coping entails expression of the feelings that follow acceptance of the full implications of global warming. Along with depression, some express anger: “Our politicians, spineless and ineffective as they are, have children. They know their children will die … Are they stupid? Insane?” But perhaps the most common emotion is despair.

“I expect the next 50 years to be business as usual and to hell in a handcart with the lot of us.”

“I despair that many, if not most, close their minds to your sentiment … because they cannot bring themselves to face up to unpalatable reality.”

“If I try to talk to my peers about issues like global warming, I get a sea of glazed eyes and apathetic looks.”

A few express relief at finding others who share their anxiety: “Adam, I think you said very nicely what we all (climate activists) know in our heart is true—that it is very likely too late to avoid crippling warming—but almost never say”, and “I want to follow this topic. Already, I feel some relief talking about it at last.”

Another recognised adaptive coping strategy is to take a problem-solving approach. It involves a kind of intellectual engagement (unlike the intellectualization I referred to which entails an intellectual distancing). It means first facing up to the reality:

“Sorry folks, but we are f*&ked … Humans will survive but billions are going to die.”

“When the TVs go off I dread to think what will happen.”

“Nature’s first great experiment with ‘intelligent’ life will be a failure.”

Others consider the implications and propose forms of action aimed at managing the unfolding disaster as best we can.

“Our job as climate activists is to democratize survivability.”

“It’s not about hope or despair. It’s about facing reality and beginning to think about how we’re going to deal with what’s already in the system …”

“The future of ‘civilisation’ will be regional rather than global …”

“Hope for the best, work for progressive solutions, prepare for the worst.”

Philosophical consolations

Taking a philosophical perspective provides some of the most interesting and poignant responses to facing up to climate change. More prevalent among British than American comment, it is marked by a calm but sympathetic reflection on the human condition.

“Man hands on misery to man,
It deepens like a coastal shelf,
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.”

“It is the fate of all of us to die …”

“It is not the ending that matters, for an end surely comes to us all, it is how we live our lives.”

Others try to place the existential threat in a larger context, thereby diminishing it “in the scheme of things”.

“If the environment changes and we adapt we will survive. If we don’t adapt we won’t survive. Brutal I know but that is how nature is.”

“We must come to terms with the fact that humanity is a part of nature rather than a consumer thereof.”

“Earth might become uninhabitable, but on a thousand biospheres new forms of intelligent life are created with every turn of our galaxy. It all is relative.”

One contributor characterized the difference between Monbiot’s call for action, even in the face of hopeless odds, and Kingsnorth’s apparent capitulation to the inevitable with a Shakespearean reference: “Is this Hamlet’s age-old dilemma … Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?”

More often the philosophizing of contributors took the form of fatalism, a coping strategy that is perhaps maladaptive because it justifies passivity and rules out taking action. The difference between philosophy and fatalism—a subtle shift from a wistful or noble acceptance of the inevitability of death to an indifference to suffering or even a hostility to humanity—is at times hard to detect.

“Civilization collapse is a natural phenomenon.”

“Neither [authors] seem to grasp the evolutionary logic of the human species. Neither realize that life in the Planet has been and will be without us humans … other species have disappeared like dinosaurs, why not us humans?”

“People are just animals. … Their population eventually reaches an equilibrium by balancing dying of starvation and food supply. That is how it has been and how it looks like it’s going to be.”

“Nature decides when resources are insufficient for human requirements, with sickness, famine and war manifesting when necessary.”

“What does it matter if humans are wiped out, or the rest of the planet for that matter? Are we serving some higher force or being? No, everything is completely pointless.”

Humans have always dealt with tragedy by turning it into farce, and the respondent’s philosophizing at times takes a humorous turn.

“[To Paul Kingsnorth and George Monbiot] What do John and Ringo have to say?”

“Currently, we have 6 billion people living in shitty conditions whilst 500 million are watching porn or celebrity TV shows. Is that something worth saving?”

“Actually, the vast majority of those 6 billion are living in shitty conditions AND watching porn and celebrity TV shows.”

“[After the apocalypse] I’ll be the bald guy with the tattoos, third from the left, waving a shotgun in your face.”

“At least we won’t have to listen to Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh any more.”

Between the lines of these online debates another, deeper process of reconciliation is going on, one that arises from the collective engagement itself. Beyond the acceptance of the facts of global warming and the emotions they conjure up, many of the participants reflected on the meaning of climate disruption—not so much its consequences but what it can teach us about the mortality and the human condition.

Although perhaps performed unconsciously, the process has therapeutic and thus adaptive value. A number of psychological studies have shown that, in the same way that traumatic events often lead to personal growth, considered reflection on death tends to bring about a shift in personal goals away from materialistic, self-focused pursuits to an intrinsic and other-directed orientation. That can only be good for the environment.

Of course, not all participants in the online debates engage this way, but it is surprising to see how many do end up trying to make sense of human-induced climate change not through political or social analysis but by understanding it in the sweep of history or the scale of the cosmos. We can expect many more conversations of this kind.


[i] A large majority (500 plus) were in response to the Kingsnorth-Monbiot exchange with an additional 100 or so on the AlterNet website referred to in first footnote, which enabled some comparison of a British and American audience. The Sacks article attracted 100 plus response.

[ii] Some of the comments I reproduce here have been slightly edited to correct spelling errors and to ease readability.

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132 thoughts on “Hamilton: How to deal with climate change grief

  1. Peter Jones

    To really understand the physchology of climate change you need to go further than Hamilton goes here, and dig beneath the surface of what people say. I think most ‘maladaptive responses’ can be explained in terms of people’s general sense of powerlessness. The vast majority think something needs to be done about climate change, but can’t see how anything they do could make any difference, so turn towards excuses for not acting.

    People feel this way for a variety of reasons. The environmental movement deserves some of the blame: telling people that they can ‘do their bit’ to help stop climate change by buying energy efficient light bulbs or catching the bus is not only innaccurate, but disempowering. But more fundamentally, people don’t feel they do anything about the environment because they feel, more generally, that they have little control over their lives. The sense of collective power that something like a strike creates is but a distant memory for most workers, and most younger workers have probably never been involved in any political or industrial action in their lives.

    This is because the level of class struggle – in Australia especially – is extremely low. Explaining why would take up more space than I have here. But this won’t necessarily be the case forever, and there might even be an upturn in the near future. Because workers have changed the world in the past, and retain the latent power to do so in future, since without them, the bosses don’t have profits.

  2. Andrew

    Over the millenia humans worried about the end-of-the -world-as-we-know-it, repeatedly, the diffrence this time is that the most authoritative science indicates an abrupt transformation of terrestrial climate to conditions that shaprly depart from those which allowed the emergence of civilization some 8000 years ago.

    Our prehistoric ancestors managed to survive through major climate upheavals (mid-Pliocene 400 ppm CO2, 2-3 degrees C rise, 25 meters sea level rise; glacial/interglacial +/- 5 degrees changes in mean global tempratures) mainly through migration.

    Where will the 6.6 billion humans of the 21st century migrate to? (little prospect for an “escape” are offered by the thin film of water detected recently on some lunar rocks).

    Fortunate are believers in devine supervision, snatching them to heaven when the day comes.

    Less fortunate are believers in Gaia, the living Planet, who feel guilty the species to which the belong has betrayed “mother Earth”.

    Looking at the issue with perspective of natural evolution, the question arises whether any species, including humans, has a choice in the matter?

    Children of the “enlightnment” have been raised with a notion of “free will”, but while limited choices may be presented to fortunate individuals, does an entire species possess free will ???

    In this instance, a ‘free will’ to transform from the principal energy source – fossil fuels – which allowed the emergence of technological civilization some 250 years ago, to other energy sources?

    Unfortunately the atmosphere is not waiting to human decisions.

  3. Scott

    Never discount humanities ability to adapt….we’ll be fine. When we emerged from the cave centuries ago, would anyone have predicted how well we adapted to a fairly unforgiving world? For mine, life will continue as it always does….might be a little warmer, drier, more fuel efficient, more expensive…but we’ll still be bitching about Climate Change 50 years from now.

  4. Roger Clifton

    Young people should dismiss these maunderings as the helplessness of old age. We wrinklies are supping on the last of the old climate, making excuses about protecting the inheritance of you and yours.

    Yes, there are going to be changes in the climate. How bad will you let it get? There are solutions out there. It will be up to you to make them happen, even if you must take to the streets to push these voices aside. Listen up for the poets of the climate revolution!

    If you really want Shakespeare, try this one from “Henry V”:

    And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
    Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
    That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

  5. Georgina Smith

    Thanks Clive for speaking of the horrible unspeakable fear. I’m doing a master of environmental management and most of my friends in this degree have had to face up to the crushing realisation that we’re most likely doomed. It hurts, it paralyses and it angers beyond words.

    I’m 30. I want to have kids and enjoy their adult friendship as my mum does with me. But do I dare bring children into this world? Not only are we overpopulated as it is, but am I going to have to watch my babies die of starvation or war or some other horror as our entire species heaves and disappears? Am *I* going to die of starvation or war?

    All I can do is fight. So I’ll spend my life striving to change our course, because it’s the only hope for any of us. As you say Clive, fatalism equals passivity which equals us (humans) losing everything. Screw that; I’m going to use every single breath to try and avoid that.

    I think one of the comments in the main piece sums it up best, “Hope for the best, work for progressive solutions, prepare for the worst.”

  6. Robert Barwick

    “Wait, Chicken Little,” gasped Henny Penny, “Since the sky is falling in, we should discuss how we are feeling?”

  7. James Bennett

    Georgina,

    I vote no to your children query.

    Your future world sounds a terrible place.

  8. Rena Zurawel

    Robert Barwick
    Brilliant quote! I love it

    When too much is said and talked about usually nothing gets done.
    My climate trauma is caused by the Chinese billionaire who gets mega bucks selling electrical cars.
    We decided to put up solar panels on our roof. Our household uses 4kw of electricity on average. So we wanted to buy solar panels producing 4kw.
    Impossible. By some stupid law the largest panels you can get is for 2kw. We are not allowed to buy 4kw panels as we still have to buy energy from ETSA.
    Monopoly? Are we going to be convicted of plagiarism?
    My climate trauma gets worse and worse every day..

  9. mmcdono

    Some mechanisms by people exert their opinions and thus power over others

    Stage 1 – Religion
    Stage 2 – Ideology (eg Communism)
    Stage 3 – Climate Change

    History has shown that the primary protagonists of all these three stages are hypocrites of the first degree, think medieval popes, inner circle communist party memebrs, Al Gore with the 23 room mansion. People obtain power by scaring people – its time to wake up to this.

    Climate change will not cause civilisation to break down. I had a look on wikipedia and to be honest there was nothing there that really comes close. Indeed it would be laughable, if it wasn’t so sad, that there is so much suffering in the world today (war, famine, etc) whilst people are getting caught up in climate change – making costly choices that will make little difference to the end game but where the same money could solve many problems we have right now. A case in point is the worry that climate change will mean more people are exposed to malaria – wake up – 1.8 million people died from diarrhoea in 2008, 1m died from tuberculosis. Where is the grief from these statistics? Read the article again with these statistics in mind and the above article is riduculous.

  10. Julius

    Clive Hamilton only pretends to keep up with his reading. Otherwise he would at least have discussed recent publication of the news that e.g. some still-believing IPCC scientists think we could be in for a few decades of cooling or, another example, the way that the hockey stick preservationists have been caught out using only 12 selected Siberian tree core samples instead of the dozens available.

    It would be too much perhaps to ask him to pay attention to some serious scientific work which tends to support the sceptics (which I only started to be within the last year of paying close attention to the science and the scientists). However, would anyone who is qualified to do so care to comment on the implications of the facts that the oceans, which have an average temperature of little above freezing point, have a mass 300 times that of the atmosphere and forces acting on them in cyclical fashion over decades, centuries and even millenia from the gravitational interactions with sun and moon? (The specific heat of water is BTW many times that of air, and, just in case anyone overlooks the obvious, the difference just between spring and neap tides gives an indication of the vastness of the forces involved). At least doesn’t it sound as though CO2 which no one suggests is responsible for the ENSO, the North Atlantic Oscillation, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation or a recently discussed equivalent in the Indian Ocean, has nothing much to do with our recent SE Australian drought?

    And what about the 60 year cycle of Indian monsoon failures with its connection to solar and lunar cycles? If that and the other info about cycles of sun and moon lead us to regard them as much better explanations than AGW of all the major climate changes of the past such as the collapse of civilisations in North Africa and the Indian sub-continent and the drying up of the Great Lakes down to the roman and Medieval Warm Periods and on to the Little Ice Age, why should we make vastly expensive investments which will make not a jot of difference to Australia’s climate?

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