The Climate Psychologist

Climate Truth and the New York Magazine’s “The Uninhabitable Earth”

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.

3 thoughts on “Climate Truth and the New York Magazine’s “The Uninhabitable Earth”

  1. Rendon Holloway

    From the article:
    //I am also skeptical of whether climate scientists should be treated as national arbiters of psychological or political questions, in general.//
    This seems quite correct to me. But the era of postnormal politics has also ushered in the era of postnormal science: many scientists now feel compelled to become advocates as well. The answer to this conundrum seems fairly obvious: the scientists should get training for the new role they are assuming. This article would seem to be not a bad starting point!

  2. Lee McKusick

    Thank you for founding The climate mobilization. I have been working on the atmospheric CO1 problem and I have a blog at https://lessco2essay.blogspot.com/

    Four points: 1 We need to measure local atmospheric CO2 emissions when we do a CO2 emission project. Benjamin Franklin had to fly a kite in a thunderstorm in order to later invent lightning rods. Measuring CO2 locally is cybernetic information theory. The velocity of system change is limited by the time delay in the measurement process. Lack of measurement is why 11 years since Al Gore’s video has not affected global CO2 levels downward.
    2. The Civil War battle of Antietam is a provocative historical point for comparing ending American slavery and the financial innovations and attack methods used with the modern need to deal with the modern petroleum slavery.
    3. A specific American social institution to focus on is the American public school from kindergarten to junior college. School is already taxpayer funded. A plausible goal is all children in America are entitled to a free, fair and excellent low carbon dioxide emission education.
    4. We are moving toward changing the American system to be a low carbon dioxide emission society. We need a payment instrument and ethereum transactional payment prototype scheme to fund a “no brainer” easy, popular and financially attractive series of innovations starting with paid super safe ride sharing.
    5. The American low co2 emission society needs to be prototyped, tried, developed, discussed and invented. The inner task is to anneal the inner forces that impel every American to drive and work. Institutions such as unemployment insurance need to be restated and revised.

  3. Lee McKusick

    I am going to recommend Web of Debt by Ellen Brown to you because it contains a catalog of American federal and state money and financial arrangements and instruments since before the American Revolution.

    An American program of CO2 emissions reduction is going to need the willing and cheerful participation of everybody regardless of their state of acceptance or resolution of the environmental issues at stake.

    The design problem is to devise a payment instrument. About the payment instrument, there need to be a number of characteristics explicitly addressed, with some alternate pathways to be tested.

    The American Civil War was a time where a number of funding instruments and payment instruments were designed and implemented. I favor the point of view that for the carbon dioxide problem, we should design instruments with Lincoln’s parting dictum “With malice toward none and charity toward all.”

    The past 20 years have shown that some kinds of financial instruments and some kinds of investment strategies have instabilities and that mathematical objects such as compound interest eventually have to be closed out.

    With those cautions, I think the first CO2 reduction payment instrument should be a rider and driver payment scheme using cell phones or cell phone calls., an institutional ride sharing database, and payment in Ethereum denominated in “tons of CO2 not emitted”. The ride sharing scheme here is supposed to be more financially attractive to the rider and the ride provider than the present system. The system we are overcoming is the American single car commute or the American parent drives the child to school. The scope of the project I believe should be first is an American School district with a defined geographic area.

    From a state standpoint, the government credits funds to such and such named school district and a measurement system is applied to the geographic district that reports geographic district tons of CO2 emitted, as measured at the perimeter of the district. Lets look at the wealth equation for the district. For dollars not spent on gasoline, there should be a matching rise in personal cash balance. For ride providers still buying gasoline, there should be an accumulated CO2 not emitted balance (due to carrying a rider) and the payment instrument rule should be designed to fund investments in replacement vehicles that emit much less CO2.

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