Very Bad vs Downright Catastrophic Climate Change

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On this blog I find myself often describing the psychological features of our climatic predicament. I mean, we know the facts, people are working around the clock to get the facts straight, and have succeeded in spite of the heavy lobby in favor of ‘the economy’ and against the facts. You can find all the facts you need on

A lot has also been written about the psychological mechanisms that have been deployed as the truth started to sink in. A few years ago, people could ‘deny’ human-made climate change without being ridiculed. Business as usual didn’t yet have the connotation of disaster.

Pragmatic thinkers with an tendency for optimism are hard pushed to find a way to express their deepest concern, that there is still something we can do. James Hansen is very upbeat in a letter to his granddaughter, saying that we should “never give in to the naysayers” (who for some reason claim it’s impossible to reverse the anthropogenic climate change). Alex Steffen (author of “Carbon Zero”) writes

To keep climate change within that merely “extremely dangerous” range, scientists say, we must limit the rise in global temperatures to 2°C. Allowing warming to accelerate beyond 2°C to 4°C takes us beyond extremely dangerous into downright insane. […] If that were the end of the story we could all just start drinking now.  Hell, I’d buy the first round. But it’s not. We still have a choice. We still, just barely, have the option of choosing to limit warming to 2° and then working hard to restore the climate once we’ve stabilized it. We can, yet, pause at “extremely dangerous” and pull back from the brink of chaos.

And Bill McKibben, in a worthwhile Rolling Stone article from August 2012:

The three numbers [1. we can’t raise temperature more than  2° Celsius; 2) that means we can’t put more than 565 more gigatons of CO2 in the air by midcentury; 3) the fossil fuel industry is planning to burn 2,795 Gigatons] I’ve described are daunting – they may define an essentially impossible future. But at least they provide intellectual clarity about the greatest challenge humans have ever faced. We know how much we can burn, and we know who’s planning to burn more. Climate change operates on a geological scale and time frame, but it’s not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a moral issue; we have met the enemy and they is Shell.

I understand and share the frustration of climate activists. The news they have to break is going to be bleaker and bleaker, yet in order to get the public’s attention they can’t talk “doom and gloom” (Hansen), they need to be more and more upbeat about it. They need to make it seem as if we still have a reasonable chance, as if there is a way out, that it’s not too late. But here’s the thing: the public will translate that into “we are on the right course” or “those in power will know what to do”. But those in power don’t. And those who know what to do have no chance to get in power. The urgency of the situation is dismissed, precisely because there is no painless way out, both our options are precarious and allow no peace of mind. It’s just that one of the options, namely stopping to burn the fossil fuels, might lead to significantly less victims than the other scenario.

These two prospects of “very bad” vs “catastrophic” might induce a feeling of whatever. We’re all doomed anyway, so why don’t we be doomed in style, uncorking the champagne and throwing one big party that marks the end of days (which religious fanatics more or less secretly desire anyway)? People in the Western world are, despite occasional disasters, not at all equipped to imagine even the “very bad” prospect. Their default state is in a safe and warm home, a safe and warm drive away from a safe and warm supermarket stocked with food they also perceive as safe. Foreclosure, homelessness, and hunger are perceived as a scandal because it is an exception to the ‘normal’ way of life. For every person who lived through a natural disaster, there are thousands who watched it on TV, from the comfort of their couch, and the images they see don’t educate them about the “very bad” down the road, instead they become more convinced that it is only in the world “out there” where the bad things happen. The images make them dismissive and numb. They are fully informed, yet they will not be able to make the link between the bad events out there  and the rupture of their supply chain of safety and warmth – until after the fact.

How can we prevent this? How can we educate a public that is born into a cocoon of safety, protection and entitlement, about the “very bad” and its distinction from the “catastrophic”? This seems to be the task of climate activists, but the cynic in me said that one decade from now, things will be a bit simpler. We’d all simply have to brace and wait for the catastrophic.

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