Our Aversion to Doom and Gloom Is Dooming Us

20 07 2017

Reproduced from Commondreams.

I worked for over 35 years in the environmental field, and one of the central debates I encountered was whether to “tell it like it is,” and risk spreading doom and gloom, or to focus on a more optimistic message, even when optimism wasn’t necessarily warranted.

The optimists nearly always won this debate. For the record, I was—and am—a doom and gloomer.  Actually, I like to think I’m a realist. I believe that understating the problems we face leads to understated—and inadequate responses.  I also believe that people, when dealt with honestly, have responded magnificently, and will do so again, if and when called. Witness World War II, for example, when Churchill told the Brits, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” In those words, he helped ignite one of the most noble and dedicated periods of unity and resistance in all the annals of human endeavor.

Finally, I believe that the principles of risk management dictate that when the consequences of our actions —or our inactions—are pervasive, long lasting, irreversible and potentially devastating, we should assume worst-case outcomes.  That’s why people get health insurance; it’s why they purchase insurance for their homes; it’s why they get life insurance. No one assumes they’ll get sick, that their house will burn down, or that they’re about to die, but it makes sense to hedge against these events.  It’s why we build in huge margins of safety when we design bridges or airplanes. You can’t undo an airplane crash, or reverse a bridge failure.

And you can’t restore a livable climate once it’s been compromised.  Not in anything other than geologic timeframes.

Yet we routinely understate the threat that climate change poses, and reject attempts to characterize the full extent of the potential for catastrophe it poses. And it’s killing us.

David Wallace-Wells’ recent article in the New York magazine, The Uninhabitable Earth, is a case in point.  It was an attempt to describe the worst-case scenario for climate change.  Here’s the opening sentences to give you an idea of what Mr. Wallace-Wells had to say:

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. 

Predictably, a large part of the scientific community reacted with hostility, and environmentalists were essentially silent. For example, Climate Feedback published a critique of Wallace-Well’s article by sixteen climate scientists, leading with Michael Mann, originator of the famous hockey stick, which graphically showed how rapidly the Earth was warming. Here’s part of what Dr. Mann had to say:

The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now, is overwhelming on its own. There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.

The last part of Dr. Mann’s statement may explain the real reason the environmental and scientific communities reacted so hostilely to Wallace-Well’s article, and why they generally avoid gloom and doom, even when the news is gloomy—the notion that presenting information that details just how bad climate change could be, leads to “paralysis.”

This, together with scientists’ tendency to stick to the most defensible positions and the scenarios that are accepted by the mainstream—what climate scientist James Hansen calls dangerous scientific reticence—probably explain why the scientific community has tended to understate the threat of climate change, although few would describe Dr. Mann as reticent.

And it should be noted that Mr. Wallace-Well’s did overstate some of the science. For example, given out current understanding of methane and carbon releases from permafrost, it appears as though it would take much longer to play out than Wallace-Wells suggested, although it likely would add as much as 2°C to projected warming by 2100. But for the most part, he simply took worst-case forecasts and used them. As Dr. Benjamin Horton—one of the scientists commenting on the Wallace-Wells article put it, “Most statements in the article are based on peer-reviewed literature.”

One of the reason worst-case projections seem so dire, is that the scientific community—and especially the IPCC—has been loath to use them. For the record, ex-ante analysis of previous forecasts with actual changes show a trend that is nearer to—or worse than—the worst-case forecasts than they are to the mid-range.

The article also forecast some of the social, demographic, and security consequences of climate change that can’t be scientifically verified, but which comport with projections made by our own national security experts.

For example, in this years’ Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, climate change was identified as a “threat multiplier” and Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, said in testimony presented to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in May of this year:

Climate change influences the entire geostrategic landscape. In that sense, one could  walk through the entire threat assessment report and identify ways in which climate  change will intersect with nearly every risk identified, and in most cases, make them worse.

Director Coats specifically highlighted health security, terrorism and nuclear proliferation as threats that climate change would exacerbate. This is coming from the Trump administration, which has been censoring climate-related information coming out of NOAA and EPA.  It’s a measure of how seriously the national security community takes the threat of climate change that they fought to keep the issue above the political fray.

Yet here again, the scientific community took issue with these claims, because they were conjecture.  Never mind that those whose job it is to assess these kinds of risks found the forecasts likely and actionable. Scientists want data and the certainty it brings, not extrapolation.

So what’s the gap between future worst-case and the more typically used mid-range projections the media and scientists favor?  It’s huge, and consequential.  I’ve pointed out some of the risky—if not absurd—assumptions  underlying the Paris Agreement in the past, but let’s briefly outline some numbers that highlight the difference between what’s typically discussed in the media, with projections based on worst-case—but entirely plausible—forecasts.

After Paris, there was a lot of attention paid to two targets: a limit of less than 2°C warming, and a more aggressive limit of no more than 1.5°C warming.  What was less well known and discussed was the fact that the Agreement would have only limited warming to 3.5°C by 2100, using the IPCC’s somewhat optimistic assumptions.

What is virtually unknown by most of the public and undiscussed by scientists and the media is that even before the US dropped out of the Treaty, the worst-case temperature increase under the Treaty could have been nearly twice that.

Here’s why.

As noted, the 3.5°C figure had a number of conservative assumptions built into it, including the fact that there is a 34 percent chance that warming will exceed that, and the idea that we could pass on the problem to our children and their children by assuming that they would create an as yet unknown technology that would extract massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere in a cost-effective way, and safely and permanently sequester it, thus allowing us to exceed the targets for a limited amount of time.

But the fact is, some projections found that temperature increase resulting from meeting the Paris targets would exceed 4°C by 2100, even if we continued to make modest progress after meeting them – something the Treaty doesn’t require. The IPCC forecasts also ignored feedbacks, and research shows that just 3 of these will add another 2.5°C of warming by 2100, bringing the total to more than 6.5°C (or nearly 12°F). At this point, we’re talking about trying to live on an essentially alien planet.

Finally, there’s evidence that the Earth’s natural sinks are being compromised by the warming that’s happened so far, and this means that more of what we emit will remain in the atmosphere, causing it to warm much more than the IPCC models have forecasted. This could (not would) make Wallace-Well’s thesis not only plausible, but likely.

But rather than discussing these entirely plausible forecasts, the media, environmentalists and too many scientists, would rather focus on a more optimistic message, and avoid “doom and gloom.”

What they’re actually doing is tantamount to playing Russian Roulette with our children’s future with two bullets in the chamber. Yes, the odds are that it won’t go off, but is this the kind of risk we should be taking with our progeny’s future?

There is something paternalistic and elitist about this desire to spare the poor ignorant masses the gory details.  It is condescending at best, self-defeating at worst.  After all, if the full nature of the challenge we face is not known, we cannot expect people take the measures needed to meet it.

I believe now, and I have always believed, that humans are possessed with an inherent wisdom, and that, given the right information, they will make the right choices.

As an aside, Trump is now President because the Democrats followed the elitist and paternalistic path of not trusting the people – that and their decision to put corporate interests above the interests of citizens.

Watching Sanders stump against the Republican’s immoral tax cut for the rich disguised as a health care bill, shows the power of a little honest doom and gloom.

We could use a lot more of it across the political spectrum.

John Atcheson

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and he has just completed a book on the 2016 elections titled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back on Track. It is available in hardcover now, and the ebook will be available shortly. Follow him on Twitter:@john_atcheson




19 responses

20 07 2017

This gentleman is truly an optimist. He reckons on what it will be like at the end of the century. That is optimism. How about what it will be like in 20 years time? But he is right that applying a veneer of optimism on the raw reality won’t encourage any action. The ship of state is a loose federation and not like an ant nest where each ant functions as part of a whole system, the nest itself. No, we are disparate and selfish and genetically not aware of long term problems. If we see them we act. If we don’t see them we do not act. Nate Hagens points this out.
Really we are a locust species. We will consume until we have eaten or destroyed everything, then we will if lucky[?] leave a few survivors to fend for themselves in an impoverished world, no low hanging fruit to enjoy.
For a better future we needed to have done the maths way back before the industrial age took hold. It’s been a dynasty whose end time is upon us.

20 07 2017

“…humans are possessed with an inherent wisdom, and that, given the right information, they will make the right choices.”

Really? What is the right information? Surely there must be enough ‘right’ information out there in 2017, no? Wasnt there enough of this right information out there in the 60s … 79s … 80s …etc for us to turn things around?

Whenever i read this kinda thing from brainy ppl … i cant help but to think we really are #$@ked.

20 07 2017

How fucked are we, let me count the ways.
We are screwed in the breadth, the depths and the heights.
Where my mind can wander or my imagination roam, we are fucked (OK Elizabeth Browning I am not)
We are the cancer that has almost destroyed the host. When the host dies so does the cancer and the host is dying. Perhaps it is well that there is no planet B, for we would only destroy that too.

21 07 2017
Jean-Jacques @ Gypsy Café

Thank you for sharing this article by , Mike.
On the matter of causing parallelises when being too direct or straightforward – there is some truth in it, because people just tune out almost instantly – the majority that is. On the other hand, people are paralysed regardless in terms of apathy. So how does one get people’s attention and how do you strike a balance?

It is almost impossible – that’s my conclusion, but doable*. I have more or less come to the conclusion that we are not “designed” psychologically, to rescue ourselves – or rather, we have lobotomized the ability to do so through industrialisation, which removes us from being in harmony with the earth cycles and seasons. This is not the case for indigenous peoples who have remained true to their traditional cultures. They consider earth to be sacred.

In this regard, if we can re-connect to this concept by embracing ancient traditions that view the earth in such a way, perhaps we can change our mindsets.

I am presently writing a series of articles on this subject – *mentioning the doom, from a positive perspective:

21 07 2017
Jean-Jacques @ Gypsy Café

“We will consume until we have eaten or destroyed everything,”

I don’t think this is true about humans as an entire species at all – it is definitely not true of a multitude of indigenous cultures and indeed also many ancient civilisations that have come and gone.

It is true however of corrupted humans, of humans who have thoroughly lost their connection to the earth. It is true of industrialised fossil fuel based civilisations – and that is why such a civilisation can only but disintegrate in the end, by its own doing, because it never built any resilience into its base – it’s based almost entirely on finite fossil fuel based energies. As civilisations go, the industrial one will probably go down as the least wise of all in memory and history.

You can still find Mayans, Peruvians, San Bushmen, Mongolians, Eskimos and other tribes or groups who still live very much like they did centuries ago – THEY have resilience. They don’t need fossil fuels to keep their systems running. In that sense they are much more advanced – because they will be around longer that us. That is, if we haven;t condemned them with us due to our over-exploitation of resources and nature and all the pollution and warming we have caused. Not much of a legacy to leave…

21 07 2017
Jean-Jacques @ Gypsy Café

My second comment above is in reply to the first commenter: ejhr2015

23 07 2017
Chris Harries

Very good. This (related) link was sent t me in a previous email today.

I’ve never been happy with the 1:3 ratio theory…. one bad story for every three good news stories is as much as what people can handle.

It probably is, but then why pander to that sociology if we are on a trip to hell regardless?

24 07 2017
Jonathan Maddox

“we aren’t doomed—we are choosing to be doomed by failing to respond adequately to the emergency,”


25 07 2017

Isn’t that why we’re doomed……..? We can’t even agree on how to respond.

25 07 2017
Jonathan Maddox

Touché. No, and yes. It’s a people problem, a political problem. The physical and technical solutions *are* available, and not only in the form of “degrowth”. In so far as people and politics are unknowns, whether we are actually doomed remains unknown, though we can make educated guesses based on past performance in the face of existential threat. I am optimistic that people can respond adequately for the purposes of ultimate survival; the second world war is evidence that it’s possible and even likely — but I’m also grieving in advance, because the second world war, and current experience, also present ample evidence that the response will be late and therefore insufficient to rescue many of the victims.

We’ve already lost people and species to pollution and to pollution-related climate change. There is no doubt whatsoever that we will lose more. I grieve. But I do not give up hope. We will *not* lose all people, nor all species, nor the planet. How bad this idiotic, ideologically-driven disaster ultimately turns out to be is not for us to assess now, but for the historians of the 22nd century or later.

26 07 2017
Chris Harries

Unless the Club of Rome got it awfully wrong there’s no chance of avoiding a major disruption. Society is still fixated on growth and the world financial system utterly relies on growth in order to prevent a catastrophic global economic collapse. De-growth is a plaything of a very few thoughtful commentators, it’s not on the radar of macro politics or economic planners.

We are living in a weird era when even hard core environmentalists now believe that instead of putting on the brakes its possible to avoid the crash by swerving sharply in a new direction and flattening the accelerator to the floor…. manufacturing renewable energy devices and electric cars by the billions to create a zero-carbon utopia.

As for me… I think the switch in environmental thinking from conservation to focussing on supply-side solutions was a fatal strategic mistake because it has engendered a broad societal delusion that we can keep the industrial / consumer society on the rails after all. It boils down to a very successful sales pitch that solar panels can easily take over from fossil fuels… ignoring all of the other Limits. Most citizens really want to believe that this simple shift will save the day and thus we are now running society on wishful thinking.

This pragmatic switch in thinking came about as a result of the popularly accepted meme that we have to be optimistic at all costs. Nearly all environmentalists I know admit to faking optimism in the belief that this works better than saying it as it is. I have to accept that this meme is solidly locked in place, for better or worse, but there’s something in me that’s distasteful in not being truthful. It’s like engaging in a conspiracy of silence.

1 08 2017
Jonathan Maddox

testing … is it possible for me to reply at all?

1 08 2017

Yes it is….. but sometimes WordPress does weird things like putting your comments in the moderation section.

1 08 2017
Jonathan Maddox

Chris, I’ve tried several times to reply to you (at length) over the last few days. WordPress is telling me variously that the comment can’t be posted, or is awaiting moderation, or is a duplicate. Whichever it is, I can’t see it so I doubt you can. Maybe a shorter one will work. Hi Chris.

2 08 2017
Chris Harries

Hi Jonathan, Yes it’s a puzzle how some posts go straight onto this site and others appear to get lost. Though if you wait Mike will eventually see them and give them the tick.

I think it could be that long posts don’t get up and posts with more than one link may also get shunted for approval?

2 08 2017
Jonathan Maddox

Each time I try to re-post my long “Club of Rome” reply comment now, it tells me it’s a duplicate. Well yes … but the original is nowhere to be seen.

The Club of Rome definitely got it wrong because they lumped all “resources” in just two categories, non-renewable (petroleum, metals and other minerals all together) and renewable (land, soil, timber, fish etc.). Fortunately the world is not so reducible. I’d argue that solar radiation in particular is a category all its own: it’s the one resource that the Earth imports in quantity on a continual basis, free of charge, the one significant thing that means that Earth is not a “closed system” in thermodynamic terms. They included “pollution” as a single variable too, when there are of course many different sorts of pollution with profoundly different effects.

“Society is still fixated on growth and the world financial system utterly relies on growth in order to prevent a catastrophic global economic collapse.”

The planet doesn’t care about the “world financial system”, or about paper growth of paper money. That’s legal fiction. As for dependence on growth, there are established mechanisms for coping with failure to grow, and/or pretending that growth is ongoing whether physical growth is happening or not — deficit spending, bankruptcies, bailouts, inflation. Governments have control over all the necessary variables. When governments fail to do the right thing, we the people can stage a revolution, hit the reset switch, and start counting all over again (or even in an entirely new way). What matters is *not* money or “economic growth” as measured in money. What matters is consumption and distribution of real resources. Financial “collapse” doesn’t hurt the planet; quite the opposite, as it helps to decrease physical resource consumption through economic recession. But you don’t need collapse to decrease resource consumption, regulation can also achieve it. Financial collapse certainly does hurt people who lose their allocation of resources in the process. Poverty is a bad thing and we should work to eliminate that, too.

“De-growth is a plaything of a very few thoughtful commentators, it’s not on the radar of macro politics or economic planners.”

That’s because there is no way in hell that we’re going to “de-grow” our way to sustainability. People won’t stand for the mass unemployment and poverty that mere economic recession entails. As Monbiot wrote, “nobody riots for austerity”.

We do need to de-grow pollution and consumption, but not employment or welfare or “the economy”, whatever that might mean.

What’s required is a massive transition away from destructive consumption of resources, without plunging people into poverty in the process. That transition requires massive *constructive* use of resources.

“even hard core environmentalists now believe that instead of putting on the brakes its possible to avoid the crash by swerving sharply in a new direction and flattening the accelerator to the floor…. manufacturing renewable energy devices and electric cars by the billions to create a zero-carbon utopia.”

I resemble that remark! Even as we reduce the energy and resource intensity of our consumption activity, we do need to *produce* a very large quantity of energy capture equipment, sufficient to meet the energy requirements of that reduced consumption.

A single billion EVs should be more than enough. Many billions of solar panels, sure … we do after all currently consume 155 TWh of energy per annum and a 100W solar panel produces only around 142KWh per annum. About one trillion solar panels should do the trick 😉

And what we end up with, after that all-out “war effort”, will still have 99% of the problems that the world already has, such as depletion of non-energy resources, species loss, overfishing, and loss of wilderness habitat. We must surely *begin* to address some of those problems at the same time as addressing carbon pollution (we already have, to a very small extent), though carbon pollution *must* be top of the list: that one issue accounts for over half of humanity’s impact on the planet as accounted by the Global Footprint Network. And so much of it is now low-hanging fruit! It has become easy and cheap to generate electricity without direct carbon emissions, and it is becoming easier to do other things with electricity that once required direct fuel burning. The transition away from fossil fuels is well under way. Nothing could make me happier than to see it reach a successful and timely conclusion.

It wouldn’t be utopia and I’m sure not everybody would be happy. But it would be a lot safer and happier than any conceivable scenario in which we *fail* to achieve a decarbonisation of the energy economy.

2 08 2017
Chris Harries

The Club of Rome got it wrong in principle – in prescribing that there are limits to growth in a finite system? In other words that premise is wrong altogether? Or the precision of their work in determining at what point a disruption to business as usual is likely to happen? They predicted about now, and certainly things are looking quite messy so I’ll stay with them.

On the timing issue, the jury is still out. Numerous commentators other than Mike are acknowledging that we are now already well into overshoot or are perilously close to irreversible harm being unavoidable. The climate science community alone, comprising many thousands of top scientists, is mostly in this category.

Sure, there are plenty who say all will be right and we’ll live happily ever after via technology fixes. This is one area where the renewables crowd and the pro nuke crowd seem to be in unusual, rapturous agreement.

If I was a betting person I would put a few bucks on each table, but would put strong odds on Mike’s bet being odds-on favourite.

25 07 2017
Chris Harries

Here’s an article which says that it’s possible too be optimistic and radical at the same time…. if you follow the solar-punk movement. I’m not sold on it, but I do find it interesting that the whole of society seems to be saying that unless you are optimistic you can’t get anywhere.


4 08 2017
Chris Harries

And here’s a mainstream news article that illustrates our civilisation’s non viability from a different perspective.


I don’t think we should dwell only on these negative illustrations, but insofar as they may get some people to think a bit….

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