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.

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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


    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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