Thursday, July 20, 2017

Telling the Climate Truth — The Pros and the Cons


Cover image from the New York Magazine feature story, "The Uninhabitable Earth."

by Gaius Publius

We need new Cassandras to warn us of new disasters, even though they'll never be believed.
Richard Clarke (paraphrased)

We aren’t doomed — we are choosing to be doomed by failing to respond adequately to the emergency.
—Margaret Klein Salamon

The recent, major New York Magazine article on the coming "uninhabitable earth" stirred quite a response, both positive and negative. The positive response was, in general, "Finally, someone telling the truth." The negative response was, in general, "But it contains these errors," and "Does it really help to scare people this much?"

The errors are secondary to the article's main point, but the question about climate communication strategy is both long-standing in the climate activism community and important.

If we tell this much truth, are we scaring people into inaction? Or does telling this much truth motivate people more effectively than the message that "we've got until 2050 to get fully in gear" currently does? (Is it even moral not to tell this much truth?)

My own thoughts below (click to go directly to them). First, here's one person's unique perspective on this question. The following is from Margaret Klein Salamon, a clinical psychologist and also the founder of the climate action group The Climate Mobilization (TCM), which advocates for starting a "World War II-scale" emergency mobilization to convert from fossil fuels, and starting it now.

The following is Ms. Klein Salamon's recent letter to her mailing list, also published here. Please read it through as she considers this critical issue — Does telling the climate truth hurt or help? I've highlighted a few key ideas and reformatted the piece just slightly.

As you read, please keep the terms affect tolerance and affect phobia in mind. She'll clarify the definitions. I'll offer closing comments at the end.


Last week, David Wallace-Wells published a cover story in New York Magazine, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” on some of the worst-case scenarios that the climate crisis could cause by the end of this century. It describes killer heat waves, crippling agricultural failures, a devastated economy, plagues, resource wars, and more. It has been read more than two million times.

The article has caused a major controversy in the climate community, in part because of some factual errors in the piece — though by and large the piece is an accurate portrayal of worst-case climate catastrophe scenarios. But by far the most significant criticism the piece received was that it was too frightening:
“Importantly, fear does not motivate, and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.” –Michael Mann, writing with Susan Joy Hassol and Tom Toles.
Eric Holthaus tweeted about the consequences of the piece:
A widely-read piece like this that is not suitably grounded in fact may provoke unnecessary panic and anxiety among readers.

And that has real-world consequences. My twitter feed has been filled w people who, after reading DWW's piece, have felt deep anxiety.

There are people who say they are now considering not having kids, partly bc of this. People are losing sleep, reevaluating their lives.
While I think both Mann and Holthaus are brilliant scientists who identified some factual problems in the article, I strongly disagree with their statements about the role of emotions — namely, fear — in climate communications and politics. I am also skeptical of whether climate scientists should be treated as national arbiters of psychological or political questions, in general. I would like to offer my thoughts as a clinical psychologist, and as the founder and director of The Climate Mobilization.

Affect tolerance — the ability to tolerate a wide range of feelings in oneself and others — is a critical psychological skill. On the other hand, affect phobia — the fear of certain feelings in oneself or others — is a major psychological problem, as it causes people to rely heavily on psychological defenses.

Much of the climate movement seems to suffer from affect phobia, which is probably not surprising given that scientific culture aspires to be purely rational, free of emotional influence. Further, the feelings involved in processing the climate crisis—fear, grief, anger, guilt, and helplessness — can be overwhelming. But that doesn’t mean we should try to avoid “making” people feel such things! Experiencing them is a normal, healthy, necessary part of coming to terms with the climate crisis.

I agree with David Roberts that it is OK, indeed imperative, to tell the whole, frightening story. As I argue in The Transformative Power of Climate Truth, it's the job of those of us trying to protect humanity and restore a safe climate to tell the truth about the climate crisis and help people process and channel their own feelings — not to preemptively try to manage and constrain those feelings.

Holthaus writes of people feeling deep anxiety, losing sleep, re-considering their lives due to the article… but this is actually a good thing. Those people are coming out of the trance of denial and starting to confront the reality of our existential emergency. I hope that every single American, every single human experiences such a crisis of conscience. It is the first step to taking substantial action. Our job is not to protect people from the truth or the feelings that accompany it — it’s to protect them from the climate crisis!

I know many of you have been losing sleep and reconsidering your lives in light of the climate crisis for years. We at The Climate Mobilization sure have. TCM exists to make it possible for people to turn that fear into intense dedication and focused action towards a restoring a safe climate.

In my paper, Leading the Public into Emergency Mode—a New Strategy for the Climate Movement, I argue that intense, but not paralyzing, fear combined with maximum hope can actually lead people and groups into a state of peak performance. We can rise to the challenge of our time and dedicate ourselves to become heroic messengers and change-makers.

I do agree with the critique, made by Alex Steffen among others, that dire discussions of the climate crisis should be accompanied with a discussion of solutions. But these solutions have to be up to the task of saving civilization and the natural world. As we know, the only solution that offers effective protection is a maximal intensity effort, grounded in justice, that brings the United States to carbon negative in 10 years or less and begins to remove all the excess carbon from the atmosphere. That's the magic combination for motivating people: telling the truth about the scale of the crisis and the solution.

In Los Angeles, our ally City Councilmember Paul Koretz is advocating a WWII-scale mobilization of Los Angeles to make it carbon neutral by 2025. He understands and talks about the horrific dangers of the climate crisis and is calling for heroic action to counter them. Local activists and community groups are inspired by his challenge.

Columnist Joe Romm noted that we aren’t doomed — we are choosing to be doomed by failing to respond adequately to the emergency, which would of course entail initiating a WWII-scale response to the climate emergency. Our Victory Plan lays out what policies would look like that, if implemented, would actually protect billions of people and millions of species from decimation. They include:

1) An immediate ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure and a scheduled shut down of all fossil fuels in 10 years;

2) Massive government investment in renewables;

3) Overhauling our agricultural system to make it a huge carbon sink;

4) Fair-shares rationing to reduce demand;

5) A federally-financed job guarantee to eliminate unemployment;

6) A 100% marginal tax on income above $500,000.

Gradualist half measures, such as a gradually phased-in carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, that seem “politically realistic” but have no hope of actually restoring a safe climate, are not adequate to channel people’s fear into productive action.

We know what is physically and morally necessary. It’s our job — as members of the climate emergency movement — to make that politically possible. This will not be easy, emotionally or otherwise. It will take heroic levels of dedication from ordinary people. We hope you join us.

Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD
Founder and Director, The Climate Mobilization

Gaius again. I largely concur with Ms. Klein Salamon, that "gradualist half measures" which have no hope of achieving the real and only goal — "restoring a safe climate" — won't channel voter and citizen fear into productive action. They will instead, in my view, encourage those voters, those citizens, to continue to pass the climate buck to the next half-generation, unaware that this generation — today's voters and citizens, their own selves — will go over the first part of the climate cliff first.

About her action plan, note points five and six — a jobs guarantee program (MMT theorists have been calling for this for a while) and a 100% tax on all income over $500,000. Like it or not, none of the climate and environment goals can be met without great economic change as well. That may sound like too much of an ask, but remember the World War II analogy. FDR turned the U.S. into a rationed, command economy, a step absolutely necessary to deal with war demands.

Note also that the FDR tax rates to deal with the Depression were massively high by modern (post-Reagan) standards, were increased again during World War II, and stayed high through the Eisenhower administration and into the Kennedy administration.

Source; click to enlarge.)

If something is necessary for success, it must be made part of the plan. In this case, the alternative — and people need to be told this — is accelerating devolution of our species to hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Take your pick — but recall that World War II America chose the effective solution.

The View from the Oh It's You Senator Lounge

Why must we do this now? Because the climate crisis is starting now. Mass migration, in part due to climate change, is starting now. Deaths by weather extremes are increasing as we watch them. The three hottest years on record are the three immediately behind us. We're so close to +2 degrees warming already, we can almost taste it.

So what's in the way? The answer is simple — we have ceded control of climate policy to the greedy and pathological, to climate sexagenarians and octogenarians like Charles and David Koch, who, through the politicians they control (looking at you, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump), are marching to their own graves in triumph, leaving a wrack behind.

Does David Koch care about the world he will see from the grave? Or does he merely wish to enter it having won every battle he fought?

This is clearly pathological behavior on his part. It's therefore up to us to stand up for ourselves — or so it seems to this humble Cassandra — because few of our so-called "leaders," servants to pathological masters, care about us, "the littles," from their comfortable chairs in the Oh It's You Senator lounge.

An Easter Island Solution

Klein Salamon is right; an emergency mobilization is needed. But to get there, we have to gain control of the Titanic, to put our own hands on the wheel. Or, to put it differently, we must depose the village chief and enact our own "Easter Island solution." As I described it earlier:
You're a villager on Easter Island. People are cutting down trees right and left, and many are getting worried. At some point, the number of worried villagers reaches critical mass, and they go as a group to the island chief and say, "Look, we have to stop cutting trees, like now."

The chief, who's also CEO of a wood products company, checks his bottom line and orders the cutting to continue.

Do the villagers walk away? Or do they depose the chief?

There's always a choice ...
You can't change what you don't control — that way madness lies. And this madness, or its best friend, fatal resignation, has a world historical conclusion. Do we seize control of the ship and turn to safer waters? Or let the disaster happen to us all because the hands of the soon-to-die greedy were allowed at the wheel instead?

Do we depose the chief and save the island, or fail to act while action is still possible? Me, I say best depose the chief. After all, these won't be the first chiefs deposed in the arc of history — just the most dangerous.

Mes petits sous,


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At 1:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Soooo many facets to this... where to begin...

The noted article may or may not have had factual errors. Still refreshing that someone decided to NOT be circumspect to a fault.
But the fact is still that nobody ever factors in the effect of the mushrooming human population and consequent demands on resources into the forecasts. The few I've read, each limited in scope, and doing my own extrapolation... the result is that it's already too late. In fact, it was probably too late when I read my first academic paper on it in about 1975.

The reason FDR COULD marshall such focused effort was because of war. The Japs had just bombed Pearl and it was feared they'd be landing in SF bay any minute. Also, there were German subs off our east coast and they'd been sinking our merchant ships for a year. There was legitimate fear we'd be invaded, defeated and/or killed. There was palpability.

Today? We're ignorant, stupid, lazy and delusional. The enemy is not perceived as just over the horizon (actually, it's behind us but, again, scientists being too circumspect and all...). The enemy is not palpable but is an esoteric concept. And the enemy has its paid shills to convince stupid americans that there's nothing wrong (think big tobacco in the '50s).

A 90% tax rate on the highest incomes would be sufficient. Taking it all removes the limbic effect of greed which is what makes capitalism encourage innovation better than purely altruistic models. But it was 92% during Eisenhower and we were lousy with innovation, so that would be fine.

Incomes via capital gains must be included also.

Corporate taxes must have loopholes removed so that GE actually pays their taxes.

The rest of the list is fine.

Would the Easter islanders have had the perspective to foresee their coming disaster? Would they deny and ignore it if they did?

"there's always a choice" is not correct in this place at this time. A coup is out of the question because it requires a popular movement that does not exist. Doing it via elections is also moot since we only have the choice of a racist denier of climate change and a less racist ignorer of climate change (descriptions of the "respective" parties).
Both sects of the money's party will never force anything that is not "market driven" since the money has paid very well to get free marketeers elected for 40 years. And unless you can make a shit-ton of money on renewables, they ain't happening.

And the real factor making all this moot is populution. In order to have humankind control its own reproductive rates to bring down the population to a number that earth even COULD support, you'd have to change everyone's religions and educate them to a level only the few richest can achieve. You'd have to outlaw and shut down all the media orgs that foment the denial and you'd have to lobotomize or kill all the mouths that would never ever shut up about any of these things (rush, alex jones, every republican, the kochs, the pope, all imams, billy graham and so on and on and on...) because people are too stupid to have this input from anyone.

"You can't change what you don't control ... Do we seize control of the ship and turn to safer waters?"

So... we don't control the ship, true. How do "we" seize control of it?

I think it's about time to resign ourselves to the truth that climate will kill humankind in the next century or two and we each need to do whatever we can do, which isn't much.

First, don't have kids that will have to suffer in the future.
Second, always vote for someone who really gets it. That means never for a R or a D. Find someone else. The Greens seem to get it... just saying.
Third... do what you can to keep your own C footprint at a minimum.

That's about it.

At 4:10 PM, Blogger Skeptical Partisan said...

(1) Fossil fuels are a substitute for organic labor (humans and animals)... think automobiles vs. walking or horse power; hand tools/assembly vs. power tools/robots; even labor intensive harvesting of wind sailing vs. fuel burning ships.
(2) Burning fossil fuels was/is en economic issue/problem. The economic argument against mitigating the greenhouse effect has won so far. The solution to climate change must also include an economic solution.
(3) Ecosystems and environments capable of sustaining human life are the seed corn of all economies. Without ecosystems able to grow food crops, economies cannot and will not exist.

At 9:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

SP has it totally wrong, though grasp of history is accurate.
The climate issue is one that requires humankind to completely revolutionize thinking and actions.
Capitalist thinking dooms humankind to extinction.

1) too many people. must be fewer in order for earth to be able to sustain them.
2) economics is moot. Humankind must understand the limits of the planet and rigorously adhere to what is possible for sustainable life, not what is economically viable. Capitalism must die. The profit motive dooms us to fail. Sustainable means the opposite of "profitable".
3) democratic rule by the stupid, evil and delusional just won't work. Never has. Never will. Clearly, as the usa proves every 2/4 years.
4) rule by the rich cannot be allowed. Same reasons.

And, no, I don't have a solution. Humans are far too flawed, IMO, to ever solve this. I'm sure we just don't have it in us to get together and solve it ever. If we avoid war long enough, physics will kill us. If we try ANYTHING before physics kills us, it'll be war over who will be the last capitalist cabal to die from physics.

At 6:48 PM, Blogger Skeptical Partisan said...

"SP has it totally wrong, though grasp of history is accurate."
Confused about wrongness; the only point addressed is "economics is moot" which implies the assertion that 'The solution to climate change must also include an economic solution' is wrong. But every counterpoint has a large economic element:

1) must be fewer [people] in order for earth to be able to sustain them.
This will change *economic* output.

2a) Humankind must understand the limits of the planet and rigorously adhere to what is possible for sustainable life.
Ecosystems and environments capable of sustaining human life are the seed corn of all *economies*. Without ecosystems able to grow food crops, *economies* cannot and will not exist.

2b) Capitalism must die.
Capitalism is the dominant *economic* system in the west; killing it would effect a major *economic* upheaval... new *economic* systems will arise in place of capitalism.

3) democratic rule by the stupid, evil and delusional just won't work.
Quality of democracy is heavily influenced by quality of public education. Quality of public education dependent on *economic* and social investment.

4) rule by the rich cannot be allowed.
The rich become rich by manipulating *economic* system(s) in their favor.

At 10:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our entire understanding of "economics" needs to be revolutionized.

Perhaps we're saying the same thing. But your definition of "economics" includes meanings not yet defined or understood, as your 2b retort indicate.

My definition of "economics" is only what is currently understood, theorized and studied.

As to 3, there is a nature facet to go with the nurture, which you addressed. I've read studies since the '70s that indicate the American populace is getting genetically dumber as well as being MADE stupid by horseshit education and worse family and plut-archy influences. And if humankind won't invest in education now, they won't in the future, revolutionized economic meme. Greed.

In any case, academic discussion aside. When did humankind ever voluntarily and peacefully and altruistically revolutionize their entire understanding of econ and interpersonal relationships and governance and our relationship with our host?

And then consider it has to happen in THIS shithole of a dump of a nation.

And then consider it's already too late.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger Free Trader said...

Replace "climate" with "hell" and this would be the same reasoning used for the fire and brimstone version of religion. Next comes a call to eliminate "infidels" or "deniers".

At 3:01 PM, Blogger Skeptical Partisan said...

"But your definition of "economics" includes meanings not yet defined or understood, as your 2b retort indicate."

I am not an economist but everything I've read and every economist I've come across have said capitalism is an economic system. Capitalism is dominant in the U.S. If you kill capitalism in the U.S., the national and world economy will undergo a massive fundamental change. This contradicts "My definition of "economics" is only what is currently understood, theorized and studied."?


"Replace "climate" with "hell" and this would be the same reasoning used for the fire and brimstone version of religion."

This is essentially arguing [climate] science is a religion. While there are some similarities, they are very important and significant differences. Both science and religion arise from the same social need; in the face of complete uncertainty, people want rules of behavior/conduct to avoid catastrophic outcomes. Religions codify collections of old anecdotes into rules of conduct. For example, biblical strictures against adultery/infidelity likely arise from a tragic outcome of one adulterous incident. But not all affairs will end in tragedy. This is akin to associating good fortune to a charm because you happened to be wearing it on the day of a good event (promotion,favorite team winning). Religions use old anecdotes to predict the future. Scientific conclusions are based on carefully and precisely collected data (if properly controlled, a set of anecdotes can form a set of data). Scientific predictions based on data are restricted to well defined circumstances. For example, science predicts two doses of measles vaccine are 97% effective. When suffiently complete data is available, science is remarkably accurate in its predictions.

You have the right to make any choices that affect your individual well being; choose religion if that is your preference. When your actions affect the well being of the larger community, choose the path of minimum harm with most accurate predictive value. Science has proven to be a far better fortune teller than religion.


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