Overcoming Climate Gloom

Esquire reports on the deepening pessimism that many climate scientists are experiencing:

Among climate activists, gloom is building. Jim Driscoll of the National Institute for Peer Support just finished a study of a group of longtime activists whose most frequently reported feeling was sadness, followed by fear and anger. Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a practicing psychiatrist and graduate of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth slide-show training, calls this “pretraumatic” stress. “So many of us are exhibiting all the signs and symptoms of posttraumatic disorder—the anger, the panic, the obsessive intrusive thoughts.” Leading activist Gillian Caldwell went public with her “climate trauma,” as she called it, quitting the group she helped build and posting an article called “16 Tips for Avoiding Climate Burnout,” in which she suggests compartmentalization: “Reinforce boundaries between professional work and personal life. It is very hard to switch from the riveting force of apocalyptic predictions at work to home, where the problems are petty by comparison.”

Most of the dozens of scientists and activists I spoke to date the rise of the melancholy mood to the failure of the 2009 climate conference and the gradual shift from hope of prevention to plans for adaptation: Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth is a manual for survival on an earth so different he doesn’t think we should even spell it the same, and James Lovelock delivers the same message in A Rough Ride to the Future. In Australia, Clive Hamilton writes articles and books with titles like Requiem for a Species. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, the melancholy Jonathan Franzen argued that, since earth now “resembles a patient whose terminal cancer we can choose to treat either with disfiguring aggression or with palliation and sympathy,” we should stop trying to avoid the inevitable and spend our money on new nature preserves, where birds can go extinct a little more slowly.

While my expertise is on the law and policy side and not on the science, I can relate to some extent. You see enough studies and data about the inevitable and largely negative change that this planet will continue experiencing, and it makes for a nagging feeling of despair.

Maybe for that reason I actually enjoy working on the mitigation side of tackling climate change, as opposed to the adaptation or “preparation” side. With mitigation, we can focus on the technology solutions and the policies that enable them, offering some hope that we can manage the decline of our environment in a way that will still allow civilization to flourish.

And perhaps at some level, it’s important to have humility and perspective: Earth will still survive these climate changes, as the history of the planet has been one of great upheaval followed by rapid changes in evolution and redeployment of life. Some species out there now (maybe even some humans) will greatly benefit from these climate changes, and their descendants will probably repopulate the Earth like our mammalian ancestors did following the end of the dinosaur age.

But in the meantime, there’s not much else most of us can do other than trying to reduce carbon pollution through our policies and purchases.


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