The Climate Psychologist

The Moral Imperative of Hope and the Wasteland of Climate Cynicism (W/ Glory Clip)

Since making The Climate Psychologist public a few days ago, and publishing my article on Living in Climate Truth on Alternet, I have been extremely pleased with readers’ responses. People have engaged in several ways: commenting, emailing me, and sharing articles on Facebook and Twitter. One reader even offered to help design the App that I describe as part of a strategy proposal! So thank you to everyone for that. It has been a lovely way to kick off.

So far, there is only one type of disturbing response I have received: cynicism. Several people have told me that I am naïve for thinking that climate change can possibly be solved; that there is no hope, and thus no point in trying. The climate is too damaged, the State too fascist, the problem too intractable. I am wasting my breath; the only thing to do now is count down to the apocalypse.

Climate cynicism is all too common.  In casual discussions about climate change with friends and acquaintances, cynicism is frequently expressed. “We are fucked,” people say, which pretty much ends the conversation, short-circuiting any discussion of organizing, or fighting back.

Climate cynicism is an extremely dangerous attitude (in part because is can be both seductive and contagious); it is important to understand how to evaluate cynical claims, what drives cynicism, and how we can fight it in ourselves and others.

Evaluating Cynical Claims

Are the cynics correct? Are we “fucked?”

The only honest answer is: I don’t know. No one knows. There is no way to know, with certainty, what the future holds.

Scientists offer a range of predictions about the impact of climate change. Some of them are incredibly bleak. The most horrifying prediction I have ever read is James Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia. Lovelock claims we have forced Gaia into a “hot state” in which the earth’s carrying capacity will be reduced to only a few hundred million people within decades.  That would mean the death of more than 5 billion humans. Its pretty horrific.

And it is possible that this damage is already locked in, and nothing that humans can do now can change it. This is a possibility that must be admitted.

But I fundamentally disagree that it is the only possibility, and that what humans do now will have no impact on our fate. Human induced climate change has never happened before; there is no test case. No one, not the IPCC, nor James Hansen nor a climate denier nor a climate cynic can know, with certainty, what the future holds. The future is unknown and unwritten.

This gives us a huge responsibility. In all likelihood (and according to most scientists), what we do now will have a fundamental impact on the fate of the climate, and on humanity. Though we cannot stop climate change in its tracks, if humanity acts with focus and urgency, we can prevent the worst damage, and thoughtfully respond to the changes in the climate we have already caused. The question is how to achieve the political will necessary to fight back. As David Roberts puts it, we are stuck between the impossible and the unthinkable. It seems impossible to muster the level of societal change that we need to protect our collapsing climate, but the alternative—the collapse of our climate and of human civilization— is unthinkably terrible, and must be avoided at all costs.

It is likely that a WWII level effort against climate change would save human civilization from chaos and ruin. This is a critical period. Our actions, and our attitudes, may be decisive in the scope of human history. That is a huge responsibility, and a terrific opportunity to do good in the world.

David Orr, discussing the climate crisis, said that “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”  Our situation is indeed grave, but the hopeful, moral response is to work, to fight, not to give up. Cynicism is a noun sitting on the couch. It is our moral responsibility to get off the couch, find hope, , and roll up our sleeves.

What Causes Climate Cynicism?

Cynicism is a defense mechanism. The cynic has been hurt, and is attempting to protect him or herself from further disappointment.  Do you know people who are cynical about romantic relationships? These people say, “All men are pigs” or “Women just cause trouble, who needs ‘em?” or something along those lines. People adopt this attitude make because they have been badly hurt, disappointed by love, and are afraid to risk having their hopes dashed once again. Instead of admitting their desire, and their vulnerability, (ie. “It would be great to meet someone new, but I’m frightened that it wouldn’t work out”) they pretend to have neither. Cynics are trying to pack their broken hearts with ice to numb their pain.

It is understandable that people would be cynical about climate change. The pain of reality is very great. It makes sense that people would pack their hearts with ice; numbing their fear and despair.

This also explains why climate cynics get angry at people, such as myself, who carry a message of hope. Hope threatens the defense. Some of the ice starts to melt, and raw emotions start to come through. “You are naïve!” They tell me, trying to maintain the safe, numb feeling “You are a fool.” People cynical of romance are similarly negative towards those in love; its painful to be reminded of what you have forsaken, so they attack the reminder.

The Moral Imperative of Hope

The terrific 1989 film Glory contains one of the greatest scenes I have ever watched, and an excellent lesson on hope and courage. Glory chronicles the 54th of Massachusetts, an all African American regimen that fought during the Civil War. The campfire scene takes place the night before the 54th was leading the charge on Fort Wagner, which was heavily defended. The men knew they would  likely die the next day. But tonight, they gathered around the campfire, singing, praying, sharing hope and mustering courage.


Our attitude and our actions are the only things that we can control.

When Denzel Washington’s character says, “Ain’t even much a matter what happens tomorrow, ’cause we men, ain’t we?” he is expressing a courageous moral stance. He is saying, “To fight with you all tomorrow, is the best that I can do. I am giving my all, risking my life, everything I have, for the cause I most believe in.  This is what gives me honor, what makes me a man.  The outcome, what happens tomorrow, is irrelevant, it is out of my hands.”

None of us caused climate change, none of us chose to be born into this world, or this era. But here we are. This is our challenge. We have a responsibility to fight back. Declaring defeat at this point is abdicating any and all responsibility. Climate cynicism violates the most basic of social contracts. It says, “Even though I recognize calamity is upon us, I will not fight back. I will not fight for myself, or my family, nor for you or your family. The odds are against us, and so, I will give up.”

A more moral, hopeful, honorable stance is one that says, that Morgan Freeman describes:

“(God, if we die tomorrow)… we want you to let our folks know that we died facing the enemy! We want ‘em to know that we went down standing up! Amongst those that are fighting against our oppression. We want ‘em to know, Heavenly Father, that we died for freedom!”

As we face the terrifying, unknown future, we have a moral imperative to maintain hope; to keep our sleeves rolled up and keep fighting. We might lose, that is true, and it would be a terrible thing. But if we should fail, let us die facing the enemy; let us go down standing up.

Some people call this naïve. I call it hope. And it takes plenty of courage.










9 thoughts on “The Moral Imperative of Hope and the Wasteland of Climate Cynicism (W/ Glory Clip)

  1. Robert Cable (Bob Cable)

    Excellent discernment and an excellent essay.! I will share it with friend Dr. John Spritzler, who is an activist and blogger ( )against similar cynicism regarding our corrupt political system. Unfortunately, we disagree about anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Rather than a factually-demonstrated reality, he thinks that the idea of AGW is a scare tactic by governments to attain greater social control, a prinicipal which–I agree–they generally follow.

    I look forward to your further hopeful, helpful writing.

  2. richard pauli

    Who is the enemy that we face?

    Is it the scientific reality of climate calamities? Is sea level rise and drought the enemy?

    I can agree with promoting the heroic act and to die fighting. But that only works when the team is unified and we all know the goals.

    What happens when half the team doesn’t want to fight? What should we ask of our heroes when some in our species act to make things worse?

    When there is organized opposition to positive action, when there is deliberate misinformation, then again, who is the enemy? Do we support our heroes properly?

    You almost label the cynic as the enemy, but what about the carbon capitalist, the denier, or the coal baron? Or even the calmly passive ones?

    And as for the cheer-leading, I prefer Shakespeare’s Henry V.

  3. rickertel

    Ms. Klein, I concur heartily with what I read as your overarching point, and am thrilled that you have brought your unique personal and professional perspective to bear on this topic in such a public way. Cynicism does threaten to derail the climate movement. I used to think hope was the antidote, or the vaccine, but I’ve come around – kicking and screaming – to believing that hope springs from action, not the other way ’round. Forgive me if I’ve misinterpreted that part your argument, which, as I said, I agree with generally. And pardon me if the point seems academic. I do appreciate your stress on the need to engage and act. That, I think is the real moral imperative. I’ve laid out my thoughts on the question of hope here: and would value your views on them. Meanwhile, I will add your blog to my blogroll. Thanks, again, for addressing this important topic, and for your contribution to this extremely important conversation.

  4. Jeff Cope

    “I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world. “ Adrienne Rich

    Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics, or picking out just one facet of a light-sucking black diamond, but even more than cynicism, I’d say what the people we’re talking about here are feeling most is despair. Cynicism doesn’t seem to sink to the depths necessary in the circumstances—global apocalypse and all. I think only a full-blown hope-despair complex suffices for protection. That makes it personal first, before it’s political. Despair over a future that can’t be known must come from personal history and psychological reaction rather than conscious, “rational” or knowledgeable response.

    Though it doesn’t seem it at first, it’s the easy way out. Rebecca Solnit talks1 about the comfort of giving up, for the well-off, who can afford to simply let things deteriorate elsewhere (or so they think) while they console themselves with the extravagance that goes with their privilege and position. By global standards, well off includes everyone posting here; we’re probably all among the richest 10% of people on Earth at least. Poor people, statistically speaking, don’t have the luxury of despairing; they have to struggle on just to keep what little they have for their families. That can become unbearable, even impossible while despairing. The suicide rate and rates of alcoholism, drug addiction and imprisonment are only a tiny bit of the evidence of the difficulty of managing the emotional gymnastics involved. It can become as unbearable to live with hope, if hope is wishing or expectation. Wishing can be thought of as the Disney Rule: Wishing can make it happen. But it can’t, and crushed expectations are the generator of despair. The great psychological and political danger of hope as wishing for and expectation of a better (near) future must be contained by whatever means necessary—television, celebrity melodrama, electronics, religion, eating, alcohol and drugs and a profit-making prison-insecurity2 industry… Without containment and distraction, people might work for change, and that would be intolerable for a society whose illusion of progress is utterly dependent on not making any.

    Despair isn’t the opposite of hope; it’s the obverse; the other side of the coin. For people seemingly mired in one or the other, the coin flips back and forth constantly, according to imagined milestones we pass, or don’t pass: We’ll be alright if we can just…[fill in the blank]: get a Democrat in the White House…capture the House…get a carbon tax…) Or… we’re screwed if we… end up with a Republican, lose the battle to take money out of politics. Hope, despair, hope. That flickering strobe is the coin flipping freely in air. Whether it’s the opposite of both, or some third, middle way, our other choice might be variously thought of as acceptance, tolerance of uncertainty; or the Buddhist art of holding oneself in beginner’s mind. But that holding takes a practice; it’s not an easy choice or an easy life. We are able to maintain such a practice and attitude, but are we willing? In a long list of sacrifices survival will demand of us, this is the first, and maybe the hardest, because if we can really attain it, everything else could be a roll downhill.

    We also not only have the ability to virtually eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions, we can actually recall those we’ve already emitted. By planting trees and growing crops organically, we can increase the organic material in soils, especially with perennials, grasslands and forests, especially edible forest gardens. We can thus resequester all of the greenhouse gases emitted during the industrial era and even during the long slow clear-cut of the last 10 millennia. A recent study shows trees continue to withdraw carbon from the atmosphere at an increasing rate as they get older, so using the process of succession to graduate from fast-growing short-lived pioneer trees to larger, enduring trees, spread far enough apart to grow several other levels of perennials and annuals between and underneath, we can feed ourselves better and more equally than before while reconstituting the world.

    That ability to come back from the brink is what I think of when Dave Roberts says in the same piece as your “impossible and unthinkable” quote, “Remember, there is no “too late” here, no “game over” — it will be a tragedy to shoot past 2 degrees [C] to 3, but 4 is worse than 3, and 5 is worse than 4. Being unprepared for any of those will be much worse than being prepared.”

    Knowing that 6 degrees is worse than 5, 8 is worse than 7 and 1100 ppm is worse than 450, I dole this information out miserly-ly. It’s so hard to convince most people we have to do something now, anything meaningful at all—that the only ones I tell we might be able to come back from the cliff-edge are those flipped to the far end from Disneyland and deep in the exercise of the luxury of rich despair. And it’s why I think the way to tell people the worst non-personal news they’ve ever heard is in community, with a healthy dose of the practice to develop beginner’s mind, as well as strategies and acceptance of emotion so they work through it on a accelerated timescale and come through it as effective citizens and activists.

    1. see also Solnit’s several posts on hope at
    2. local, state and national police forces in the US and elsewhere are increasingly militarized, in weapons, tactics and attitude toward civilians and conflict, while the military is increasingly seen as a Rubicon-crossing guard. With seizure laws, police increasingly have a profit motive as well, and everything is facilitated and coordinated by what I can only call the Heimat Seguridad Dept. (because the name it’s been given by its masters makes me gag and cringe)

    1. Jeff Cope

      Some hyperlinks in the last comment were removed on submission:

      Footnote 1. Rebecca Sonit on hope:

      Study about old trees and carbon:

      1100 ppm:

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