Sunday, February 6, 2022

Climate Doom

Grimly fascinating article by Ellen Barry in the NY Times about all the therapists who now mainly talk to people about their anxiety over climate change:

A 10-country survey of 10,000 people aged 16 to 25 published last month in The Lancet found startling rates of pessimism. Forty-five percent of respondents said worry about climate negatively affected their daily life. Three-quarters said they believed “the future is frightening,” and 56 percent said “humanity is doomed.”

The blow to young people’s confidence appears to be more profound than with previous threats, such as nuclear war, Dr. Clayton said. “We’ve definitely faced big problems before, but climate change is described as an existential threat,” she said. “It undermines people’s sense of security in a basic way.”

I suppose the problem is this: people worried about climate change feel like they are meeting enormous resistance to their efforts to reduce our impact on the planet. So, they keep getting ever louder and more shrill. But their rhetoric has no effect on many and maybe most people, so the resistance remains. Instead, their rhetoric has a catastrophic effect on sensitive people and especially sensitive, young people. The level of doom-mongering needed to achieve even modest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is enough to send some of us crawling into therapy.

You all know what I think: we're not going to solve any of our problems if we're too depressed and anxious to work at solving them, so this is completely counter-productive.

I wonder why climate change is doing this? I think humanity is objectively in a much better place than we were during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the chance that climate change is going to kill a few billion of us strikes me as much lower than the danger that nuclear weapons posed during the Cold War. My own personal environmental nightmares were all bound up with population growth, and it looks like we are solving that problem so fast that rapidly falling populations might soon be one of our biggest problems.

I have a sense that climate change is not really the source of this anxiety, just a convenient target for our anxious world to focus on. And as to why we are so anxious, I have no idea.


G. Verloren said...


I wonder why climate change is doing this? I think humanity is objectively in a much better place than we were during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the chance that climate change is going to kill a few billion of us strikes me as much lower than the danger that nuclear weapons posed during the Cold War.

Nuclear war was never going to kill billions - at least not directly. It was going to devastate America, Russia, and lots of places in Europe, but the rest of the world would be more or less unscathed.

The actual danger was always the threat of climate change - nuclear winter (and the lesser known concept of nuclear summer). The way you reach billions of deaths is through famine caused by crop failure, not through blowing up a bunch of first and second world cities and military installations. The danger was always the pollution of the atmosphere, blocking out sunlight and reducing global temperatures drastically.

Now, projections for nuclear winter often cite a figure of a drop of 10 degrees celsius for the global average temperature. Calculations for a subsequent nuclear summer suggest that within just a few years, a runaway greenhouse effect could counteract the cooling, and then surpass it by a comparable amount.

Ten degrees celsius is a massive amount, and in both cases if it persisted for anything other than a short period of time, most life on the planet would die.

But you don't need anything like such massive amounts to wreak havoc on the world. The Little Ice Age averaged a temperature drop of only 2 degrees celsius, and it wreaked havoc on human society far and wide.

G. Verloren said...


You will find a range of estimates for how much the planet will warm by the end of the century, but it's sobering to consider both the upper and the lower ends of the range - at best, "only" 2 degrees celsius, but at worst about 10 degrees of warming.

So at a minimum we'll be having a "Little Heat Age" which will almost certainly cause sustained global food crises (the Little Ice Age significantly depressed crop production for nearly two centuries to come!) as well as severe societal upheavals as we struggle to adapt to the new, harsher conditions with fewer resources...

...and at worst, at around 10 degrees of warming, the earth will have reached temperatures matching those of the "Cretaceous hothouse" - a time when the oceans were 600+ feet higher, no glaciers existed anywhere on the planet, and palm trees grew at the arctic and antarctic poles. Not the end of all life on the planet, by any means, but certainly a mass extinction event and the end of human civilization as we know it, if not the outright annihilation of our own species.

Even if we split the difference, and assume somewhere in the neighborhood of "only" 5 or 6 degrees of warming, the outcome is still horrific. Twenty thousand years ago, the world was "only" 4.5 degrees or so colder, and much of North America was buried under a sheet of ice over a mile thick. Invert that into a temperature rise, and essentially every extant domesticated crop humanity relies upon fails catastrophically and irrecoverably.

When people tell you they are anxious about climate change, they're serious - and it's because AT THE VERY BEST, we're going to see a "Little Ice Age" worth of hardship.

And if we're not so lucky as to chance into a best case scenario? Billions will die of starvation, with countless others going to war over what little food there is, all in the midst of the worst refugee and human displacement crisis ever known by several orders of magnitude as the world's largest cities succumb to the tides of the rising ocean, and climate change forces wholescale crop relocation (and human relocations to go along with it).

And that would just be the "middling" possibility - not great, not terrible. In the upper range of possible scenarios, the human race likely dies out utterly, and brings countless other species along with us. And in the worst case scenario, all advanced life on the planet is wiped out.

Global warming is not, and has never been, any less of a threat than nuclear war.

szopen said...

The 5 to 6C is absolutely unlikely now. Currently the most likely scenario is _at most_ 3,5C in the course of 100 years, but most likely it's around 2.7C (if the current policies will be same; if CO2 emissions will be reduced and if there will be breatrhoughs in sequestration of CO2the change will be lesser. This assumes the greens won't be able to block the most green energy, i.e. nuclear power).

The climate change is a serious issue, it must be and IT IS addressed, but a lot of people just do not seem to realise that we have now a lot of reasons to a cautious optimism

To quote extensively:

"Firstly, on the assumption that the direct or indirect global catastrophic risk (defined as killing >10% of the global population or doing equivalent damage) of climate change depends on warming of more than 6 degrees, the global catastrophic risk from climate change is at least an order of magnitude lower than previously thought. If you think 4 degrees of warming would be a global catastrophic risk, then that risk is also considerably lower than previously thought: where once it was the most likely outcome, the chance is now arguably lower than 5%. None of this is to say that climate change is solved. But we need to acknowledge progress when it occurs and those of us trying to find the best ways to make a difference on the margin should adjust priorities accordingly. This is also not to say that warming of 2-4 degrees would not be bad. We have ample reason to transition to a zero carbon economy from the effects of climate change and also of air pollution. "

szopen said...

Ah, and even in the most disastrous, completely unrealistic scenario, earth will be still habitable for mammals near the poles. There is no scenario in which climate change would realistically wipe all human race, and even less likely to kill off all the mammals.

"a “runaway greenhouse effect”—analogous to Venus--
appears to have virtually no chance of being induced by anthropogenic activities."

For more about new scenarios and why RCP8.5 should not be considered "business as usual", see:

As you can read, while it's not impossible, it's irresponsible to treat it as "average" or more likely than other scenarios. In fact this is the worst scenario.

szopen said...

And here is more reader-friendly article in nature from 2020:

If you have no time read, a take-away is this picture:

"Happily — and that’s a word we climatologists rarely get to use — the world imagined in RCP8.5 is one that, in our view, becomes increasingly implausible with every passing year5. Emission pathways to get to RCP8.5 generally require an unprecedented fivefold increase in coal use by the end of the century, an amount larger than some estimates of recoverable coal reserves6. It is thought that global coal use peaked in 2013, and although increases are still possible, many energy forecasts expect it to flatline over the next few decades7. Furthermore, the falling cost of clean energy sources is a trend that is unlikely to reverse, even in the absence of new climate policies7.

Assessment of current policies suggests that the world is on course for around 3 °C of warming above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century — still a catastrophic outcome, but a long way from 5 °C7,8. We cannot settle for 3 °C; nor should we dismiss progress"

David said...


It's notable that your go-to explanation for the anxiety a lot of people feel about climate change is that they've been manipulated by the rhetorical of anti-climate change activists.

I'm always suspicious of an analysis of someone's feelings that says, "I don't share this feeling, and so the feeling must be about something else. Or it must have been artificially hyped up."

Consider if I, who famously have not the slightest interest in sports, tried to explain why so many people are sports fans by saying, "well, they must have been brainwashed in high school by school admins desperate to build school spirit." Or, "it must be all the advertising and hype they see on TV." Or whatever. Maybe the explanation is "a huge percentage of people really, truly, madly, deeply like sports." One could then try to understand that. But it always seems to me best to start by taking something on its own terms.

(Incidentally, taking something on its own terms doesn't mean one has to like it, agree with it, not hate it, or even respect it.)

David said...

I feel compelled to add that, for a lot of us, anxiety is kind of the default position. It doesn't necessarily require a lot of special explanation.