Sunday, December 2, 2012

Coming out about climate change

Anne Karpf has an interesting piece in the Guardian in which she describes her 'tuning out' from the climate change discourse, especially from its ubiquitous exhortations. She thinks she might be something worse than a climate change sceptic: a climate change ignorer. This seems to capture a common spirit of being concerned about global warming but unable to engage with the issue in any meaningful, permanent way.

I am not a climate-change denier. On the contrary, ever since I interviewed the environmentalist Mayer Hillman for this newspaper 10 years ago, when he predicted most of what's happening today, I've understood that we're in the throes of something serious. I now recycle everything possible, drive a hybrid car and turn down the heating. Yet somewhere in my marrow I know that this is just a vain attempt to exculpate myself – it wasn't me, guv.
Indeed, when I hear apocalyptic warnings about global warming, after a few moments of fear I tune out. In fact I think I might be something worse than a climate-change sceptic – a climate-change ignorer.
The fuse that trips the whole circuit is a sense of helplessness. Whatever steps I take to counter global warming, however well-intentioned my brief bursts of zeal, they invariably end up feeling like too little, too late. The mismatch between the extremely dangerous state of the earth and my own feeble endeavours seems mockingly large.
In this I'm not alone. I asked two colleagues about their attitudes to global warming. One, a 48-year-old man, said he thought about it often, was angry about the role of big business, but as to his own interventions, "I do feel it's like pissing in the wind really – I don't know why I bother." The other, a 57-year-old politically engaged man, admitted – "and I don't say this with any pride" – that he rarely thought about climate change: it simply doesn't interest him. When pressed, it turned out that he recycled, signed petitions to conserve old buildings and didn't drive, but quickly realised that he couldn't sustain his contention that "I don't harm the environment".
Karpf makes reference to Sally Weintrobe's book Engaging with Climate Change in which several case studies are presented and psychological mechanisms of 'denial' as instances of coping with cognitive dissonance  are explored.
So how do we get beyond despair? Not, apparently, through campaigns that generate guilt: the book argues that apocalyptic warnings are counter-productive. If you accept the idea that we retreat from overwhelming anxiety, then generating more fear and guilt will just paralyse us even more, and is an excellent way of recruiting more ignorers. As Ed Miliband has observed, Martin Luther King never inspired millions by saying "I have a nightmare". The quick fix, meanwhile, denies the painful, deep feelings engendered by climate change, and what a complex business it is to reverse it.
The proposed solutions, based on psychological therapies, will not convince everyone. Especially as they are of the 'more of the same' sort, of the hope to be able to repair the damage done to Mother Earth through lifestyle changes and changes in our mental attitudes (developing 'dark optimism', as one put it). But it is convincing to argue that 'Once you let go of both the desire for the quick fix or single panacea, and the conviction that nothing we can do makes a difference – ie a sense of either omnipotence or impotence – you create room for a plethora of different creative solutions.'

It is interesting that the Guardian calls her article 'confessions'. To a paper which sees itself at the journalistic vanguard of doing the right thing for good causes, including climate change, having such thoughts of ambivalence must be a sin.


Harry Dale Huffman said...

What this article is trying to "get out" is something well-known in history: It is called self-flagellation. It means, in the present case, that you are punishing yourself with thoughts that you are somehow responsible for the "climate" (or what you, in your ignorance, take to be "climate change", such as the flood pictured above).

Self-flagellation does not and will not help, it WILL ONLY HURT, both you and anyone you try to force to your way of thinking. (I am speaking as a physical scientist, who knows the alarming picture concocted for you is not real.) The REAL REASON you think your efforts are ineffective against the MONSTROUS PROBLEM, is because that "problem" is only in your minds. You REALLY need only remember "give me the courage to change the things I can, the patience to abide the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference". You lack that wisdom, in understanding and dealing with the natural forces that have always been present, at one place or another, intermittently but regularly over the long term, and which can overturn many of the proudest works of man, on a very localized scale and for a relative instant in time. (For the recent hurricane Sandy, for example, the lesson is that to build down to the very edge of the stormy Atlantic is, over the course of as little as a century, a losing bet with Nature. Sandy was not super-strong, it just hit at the right place with just the right storm surge to do maximum damage -- and it has happened before, and long before any possible human-caused global warming. The 160-year record of Atlantic storms shows there has been no trend in increasing storm/hurricane strength over the last 160 years. There IS NO global warming signal in the natural catastrophes that regularly strike the works of man.)

Jonathan Jones said...

"Ignoring" climate change is not a completely unreasonable approach at the current time. Whether or not we can do anything about it depends critically on the value of the climate sensitivity.

If the climate sensitivity is low (say, under 2C per doubling) then there's not a huge amount to worry about. Sure things will change a little, but it will be a long time before the effects emerge clearly enough to matter (note that being "detectable" is a necessary but not sufficient condition for "mattering"; a statistically significant difference is not necessarily real world significant). Over the next fifty years we will develop some alternative energy source (better fission, working fusion, or just possibly renewables) and the problem will be fixed.

If the climate sensitivity is high (say, over 4C per doubling) then there's not a lot we can do to stop it. China isn't going to stop burning coal any time soon, and India and Indonesia won't be far behind. All we can do is cross our fingers and/or pray that the impact of a warming world isn't anywhere near as bad as people think. Adaptation will be the name of the game, and adaptation requires getting rich which requires cheap energy, not windmills.

The medium range (say 2-4C per doubling) is where the game is. This is the range where climate change probably matters, and probably isn't going to get fixed in time, but where we may be able to tweak (no more than that) the rate of rise and the peak value.

So *if* you believe that the climate sensitivity is between 2-4C and *if* you believe that mitigation is likely to be more successful than adaptation (an odd belief given the lack of effective mitigation strategies at present, but it takes all sorts to make a world), then by all means worry about climate change. But please don't show any more pictures of the Tewkesbury floods unless you're seriously prepared to claim that the rise in UK flooding is provably climate related and not just a consequence of land use changes.

Anonymous said...

"ever since I interviewed the environmentalist Mayer Hillman for this newspaper 10 years ago, when he predicted most of what's happening today,"

Global warming cannot be responsible for what's happening if there was no additional warming since 2002.

I might be en evil denier, but I'm not. I bought the most expensive Oeko-tumble dryer and a Yaris Hybride (2,3 l/100km in town ADAC-test) not that expensive. ;-)

Why should I waste energy if other people don't have enough left? A simple reason and I don't feel bad about it.

But I am still sceptic about some things.

At least I'm not disturbing animals or pollute the arctic seas pretending to be a better man who can save the world.


@ReinerGrundmann said...

"So *if* you believe that the climate sensitivity is between 2-4C and *if* you believe that mitigation is likely to be more successful than adaptation..., then by all means worry about climate change."

Is this your message to someone who tells you they are a climate change ignorer? How would they make up their beliefs about climate sensitivity? And would they be interested in the concept in the first place?
This seems a rather scientistic notion of granting people the 'right to worry' if they approach the question from an angle that's common in the climate science community. Your advice will not find a lay addressee.

Anonymous said...

The climate change 'ignorer' says: "As Ed Miliband has observed, Martin Luther King never inspired millions by saying "I have a nightmare"." So what would be the 'I have a dream' version of climate change communication be? And what and whom would it 'inspire'? Here are a few options: I have a dream that climate change is not a nightmare and I can ignore it with impunity. I have a dream that climate change might actually be a nightmare but I want to ignore it anyway because I feel helpless. I have a dream that climate change is manageable, so I shouldn't ignore it and do some managing. I have a dream that climate change is a nightmare but that fission and fusion and renewables will make the nightmare go away, so I can ignore it. And so on. But what would a really inspiring (I have a dream) message look like and what would it inspire and whom? Would there be one that could turn the ignorer into somebody who is happy with his or her stance or into somebody who would be persuaded to take a different stance of some kind? I am still not entirely sure....

Jonathan Jones said...

Reiner Grundmann,

I'm not trying to convince laymen of anything: I'm just remarking that her position is not as unreasonable as it may appear. As so often happens laymen are intuiting their way towards an answer which is actually a sensible balance between competing claims.

If I have a message for anyone it is for climate scientists. Karpf's position, ostensibly believing in climate change but then doing little or nothing about it, is the new normal. And it will be very hard to convince people to move from it unless and until you get a genuine working low cost solution. As Pielke Jr has been saying for many years, unless low carbon energy is cheaper than fossil fuels no significant switch is going to happen. Anyone "climate expert" (whether physicist, engineer, economist or cod psychologist) who doesn't understand that is doomed to have a very disappointing decade.

Nils Simon said...

I liked the Guardian comment very much. It resembles a feeling I also experience, following the overconsumption of climate news: I just tune out. I don't engage in denialism, that's for losers. But I stop listening. The strange thing is, neither scare- nor skeptic-stories do much to change my behaviour. Like Anne Karpf, I do a lot of things that may be considered climate-friendly, but if I would do them only because of climate change and would have to tell myself "I am going to save the climate!" every time I get on my bicycle in the winter morning, I just wouldn't do it. The motivation would quickly wear off. And if I compare my own actions with global emissions, like being put in Douglas Adam's infamous total perspective vortex, I would immediately see how insignificant everything I do really is. Long story short, something else drives my behaviour, and it's not fear of the climapocalypse.

Consequentially, the latter half of the article is less inspiring than the first half promises. Btw, the "I have a dream" reference has been tabled before, I know it from Nordhaus/Shellenberger, "The Death of Environmentalism", 2004.

A completely different take on the "agnostic" frame comes from the conservative German magazine Cicero: I have my doubts whether the author (immunologist Beda M. Stadler) can look back on a serious engagement with the issue as Anne Karpf apparently can. In the Cicero piece, climate agnosticism looks more like mere laziness to have a look at the issue in any more detail. There's bold statements backed by little data ("Ist es nicht so, dass Klimaveränderungen schon immer den Homo sapiens weitergebracht hat?"), and I think the "belief" argument has been taken way too far.

Werner Krauss said...

Maybe you have to be a climate change ignorer to write such a detailed analysis of what it means to live in times of climate change.

For example, yesterday spiegel-online headlined: "plus 5 degrees: Earth threatened by dramatic warming"; in the course of day, the headline disappeared. "Our existence in danger" is just a headline for a few hours; are we really capable to stand this kind of mental terror? Does anyone really believe that we do get away with this? There are good reasons to become a climate change ignorer!

But in fact, Anne Karpf is far from ignoring climate change. Instead, she gives a detailed account of her own "environmental melancholia". In doing so, she explores with great scrutiny and expertise our "culture of climate change"; she links climate to our social relations, to the economy, to our everyday practices. Both the economic and the climate crisis obviously display similar features of dis-connectedness; there is a systemic element in this "environmental melancholia".

Thus, her account is far from being only an individual's confession:

"This isn't putting individuals on the couch while letting corporate polluters and transnational despoilers off the hook. As Weintrobe told me: "We feel as individuals but our defence mechanisms are socially shaped and produced by a culture."

And indeed, reading the next paragraph, it is hard to decipher whether she writes about her own endeavors or about those undertaken by national leaders on the climate summit in Doha:

"The fuse that trips the whole circuit is a sense of helplessness. Whatever steps I take to counter global warming, however well-intentioned my brief bursts of zeal, they invariably end up feeling like too little, too late. The mismatch between the extremely dangerous state of the earth and my own feeble endeavours seems mockingly large."

Whatever one thinks about her arguments, I think she provides a great starting point to face the challenge of climate change from a human perspective. I repeat myself when I mention Lars von Trier's "melancholia", which in my eyes catches best this kind of zeitgeist. To turn this environmental melancholia into climate activism remains a great challenge; in an optimistic reading, Anne Karpf at least delineates a good starting point to get there, while ignoring climate change as we know it.

Mark B. said...

I'll second citing this quote:

"ever since I interviewed the environmentalist Mayer Hillman for this newspaper 10 years ago, when he predicted most of what's happening today..."

Predicted what? That apocalyptic claims would be made? Certainly not that global temps would be stubbornly frozen in place for a decade. This sentence alone demonstrates the writers woefully poor critical thinking skills. Which explains why she ended up a journalist.

Roddy said...

I'm a layman, and I get what JJ says completely. And agree. Quite rational to ignore ACC, and a layman can intuit that quite well I think. (And you don't need to be a scientist to get it anyway.)