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.

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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.