Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Audacity of Hopelessness Redux

Related to the previous post, along comes this long article from Esquire detailing how many climate scientists who know how bad things are going to get are dealing with depression and hopelessness. Their work is being attacked and smeared by the business community, and serious attempts to deal with the crisis are hitting a wall. No one can challenge the power of globalized corporate monopoly capitalism. Meanwhile, people just go from day-to-day living in their little information bubbles. It reminds me a lot of the reaction to Peak Oil and Neoliberal austerity. The fatalism is starting to set in.
For more than thirty years, climate scientists have been living a surreal existence. A vast and ever-growing body of research shows that warming is tracking the rise of greenhouse gases exactly as their models predicted. The physical evidence becomes more dramatic every year: forests retreating, animals moving north, glaciers melting, wildfire seasons getting longer, higher rates of droughts, floods, and storms—five times as many in the 2000s as in the 1970s. In the blunt words of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, conducted by three hundred of America's most distinguished experts at the request of the U. S. government, human-induced climate change is real—U. S. temperatures have gone up between 1.3 and 1.9 degrees, mostly since 1970—and the change is already affecting "agriculture, water, human health, energy, transportation, forests, and ecosystems." But that's not the worst of it. Arctic air temperatures are increasing at twice the rate of the rest of the world—a study by the U. S. Navy says that the Arctic could lose its summer sea ice by next year, eighty-four years ahead of the models—and evidence little more than a year old suggests the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is doomed, which will add between twenty and twenty-five feet to ocean levels. The one hundred million people in Bangladesh will need another place to live and coastal cities globally will be forced to relocate, a task complicated by economic crisis and famine—with continental interiors drying out, the chief scientist at the U. S. State Department in 2009 predicted a billion people will suffer famine within twenty or thirty years. And yet, despite some encouraging developments in renewable energy and some breakthroughs in international leadership, carbon emissions continue to rise at a steady rate, and for their pains the scientists themselves—the cruelest blow of all—have been the targets of an unrelenting and well-organized attack that includes death threats, summonses from a hostile Congress, attempts to get them fired, legal harassment, and intrusive discovery demands so severe they had to start their own legal-defense fund, all amplified by a relentless propaganda campaign nakedly financed by the fossil-fuel companies. Shortly before a pivotal climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, thousands of their e-mail streams were hacked in a sophisticated espionage operation that has never been solved—although the official police investigation revealed nothing, an analysis by forensics experts traced its path through servers in Turkey and two of the world's largest oil producers, Saudi Arabia and Russia. 
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. 
At the darkest end of the spectrum are groups like Deep Green Resistance, which openly advocates sabotage to "industrial infrastructure," and the thousands who visit the Web site and attend the speeches of Guy McPherson, a biology professor at the University of Arizona who concluded that renewables would do no good, left his job, and moved to an off-grid homestead to prepare for abrupt climate change. "Civilization is a heat engine," he says. "There's no escaping the trap we've landed ourselves into." 
The most influential is Paul Kingsnorth, a longtime climate activist and novelist who abandoned hope for political change in 2009. Retreating to the woods of western Ireland, he helped launch a group called Dark Mountain with a stirring, gloomy manifesto calling for "a network of writers, artists, and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilization tells itself." Among those stories: progress, growth, and the superiority of man. The idea quickly spread, and there are now fifty Dark Mountain chapters around the world. Fans have written plays and songs and a Ph.D. thesis about them. On the phone from Ireland, he explains the appeal. 
"You have to be careful about hope. If that hope is based on an unrealistic foundation, it just crumbles and then you end up with people who are despairing. I saw that in Copenhagen—there was a lot of despair and giving up after that." 
Personally, though he considers them feeble gestures, he's planting a lot of trees, growing his own vegetables, avoiding plastic. He stopped flying. "It seems like an ethical obligation. All you can do is what you think is right." The odd thing is that he's much more forgiving than activists still in the struggle, even with oil-purchased politicians. "We all love the fruits of what we're given—the cars and computers and iPhones. What politician is going to try to sell people a future where they can't update their iPhones ever?" 
...At NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which early in the year was threatened with 30 percent budget cuts by Republicans who resent its reports on climate change, Gavin Schmidt occupies the seventh-floor corner office once occupied by the legendary James Hansen, the scientist who first laid out the facts for Congress in 1988 and grew so impassioned he got himself arrested protesting coal mines. Although Schmidt was one of the victims of the 2009 computer hacks, which he admits tipped him into an episode of serious depression, he now focuses relentlessly on the bright side....Schmidt, who is expecting his first child and tries to live a low-carbon existence, insists that the hacks and investigations and budget threats have not intimidated him. He also shrugs off the abrupt-climate-change scenarios. "The methane thing is actually something I work on a lot, and most of the headlines are crap. There's no actual evidence that anything dramatically different is going on in the Arctic, other than the fact that it's melting pretty much everywhere." 
But climate change happens gradually and we've already gone up almost 1 degree centigrade and seen eight inches of ocean rise. Barring unthinkably radical change, we'll hit 2 degrees in thirty or forty years and that's been described as a catastrophe—melting ice, rising waters, drought, famine, and massive economic turmoil. And many scientists now think we're on track to 4 or 5 degrees—even Shell oil said that it anticipates a world 4 degrees hotter because it doesn't see "governments taking the steps now that are consistent with the 2 degrees C scenario." That would mean a world racked by economic and social and environmental collapse. 
"Oh yeah," Schmidt says, almost casually. "The business-as-usual world that we project is really a totally different planet. There's going to be huge dislocations if that comes about." 
But things can change much quicker than people think, he says. Look at attitudes on gay marriage. 
And the glaciers? 
"The glaciers are going to melt, they're all going to melt," he says. "But my reaction to Jason Box's comments is—what is the point of saying that? It doesn't help anybody."..."Particularly in the Indian subcontinent, that's a real issue," he says. "There's going to be dislocation there, no question." 
And the rising oceans? Bangladesh is almost underwater now. Do a hundred million people have to move? 
"Well, yeah. Under business as usual. But I don't think we're fucked." 
Resource wars, starvation, mass migrations . . . 
"Bad things are going to happen. What can you do as a person? You write stories. I do science. You don't run around saying, 'We're fucked! We're fucked! We're fucked!' It doesn't—it doesn't incentivize anybody to do anything." 

...Camille Parmesan of the University of Texas...announced that she'd become "professionally depressed" and was leaving the United States for England...She was living in Texas after the climate summit failed in 2009, when media coverage of climate issues plunged by two thirds—the subject wasn't mentioned once in the 2012 presidential debates—and Governor Rick Perry cut the sections relating to sea-level rise in a report on Galveston Bay, kicking off a trend of state officials who ban all use of the term "climate change."...The politics took its toll. Her butterfly study got her a spot on the UN climate panel, where she got "a quick and hard lesson on the politics" when policy makers killed the words "high confidence" in the crucial passage that said scientists had high confidence species were responding to climate change. Then the personal attacks started on right-wing Web sites and blogs. "They just flat-out lie. It's one reason I live in the UK now. It's not just been climate change, there's a growing, ever-stronger antiscience sentiment in the U. S. A. People get really angry and really nasty. It was a huge relief simply not to have to deal with it." She now advises her graduate students to look for jobs outside the U. S. 
No one has experienced that hostility more vividly than [hockey-stick graph originator] Michael Mann...He was investigated, was denounced in Congress, got death threats, was accused of fraud, received white powder in the mail, and got thousands of e-mails with suggestions like, You should be "shot, quartered, and fed to the pigs along with your whole damn families." Conservative legal foundations pressured his university, a British journalist suggested the electric chair. In 2003, Senator James Inhofe's committee called him to testify, flanking him with two professional climate-change deniers, and in 2011 the committee threatened him with federal prosecution, along with sixteen other scientists...
Jeffrey Kiehl was a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research when he became so concerned about the way the brain resists climate science, he took a break and got a psychology degree. Ten years of research later, he's concluded that consumption and growth have become so central to our sense of personal identity and the fear of economic loss creates such numbing anxiety, we literally cannot imagine making the necessary changes. Worse, accepting the facts threatens us with a loss of faith in the fundamental order of the universe...  
[Jason Box] seems oddly detached from the things he's saying, laying out one horrible prediction after another without emotion, as if he were an anthropologist regarding the life cycle of a distant civilization. But he can't keep his anger in check for long and keeps obsessively returning to two topics: 
"We need the deniers to get out of the way. They are risking everyone's future.... The Koch Brothers are criminals.... They should be charged with criminal activity because they're putting the profits of their business ahead of the livelihoods of millions of people, and even life on earth." 
Like Parmesan, Box was hugely relieved to be out of the toxic atmosphere of the U. S. "I remember thinking, What a relief, I don't have to bother with this bullshit anymore." In Denmark, his research is supported through the efforts of conservative politicians. "But Danish conservatives are not climate-change deniers," he says. 
The other topic he is obsessed with is the human suffering to come. Long before the rising waters from Greenland's glaciers displace the desperate millions, he says more than once, we will face drought-triggered agricultural failures and water-security issues—in fact, it's already happening. Think back to the 2010 Russian heat wave. Moscow halted grain exports. At the peak of the Australian drought, food prices spiked. The Arab Spring started with food protests, the self-immolation of the vegetable vendor in Tunisia. The Syrian conflict was preceded by four years of drought. Same with Darfur. The migrants are already starting to stream north across the sea—just yesterday, eight hundred of them died when their boat capsized—and the Europeans are arguing about what to do with them. "As the Pentagon says, climate change is a conflict multiplier."... 
But let's get real, he says, fossil fuels are the dominant industry on earth, and you can't expect meaningful political change with them in control. "There's a growing consensus that there must be a shock to the system." 
So the darker hopes arise—maybe a particularly furious El Niño or a "carbon bubble" where the financial markets realize that renewables have become more scalable and economical, leading to a run on fossil-fuel assets and a "generational crash" of the global economy that, through great suffering, buys us more time and forces change. 
So ...when you are among the most informed and most concerned, the ordinary tender mercies of the home conspire in our denial. We pour our energy into doing our jobs the best we can, avoid unpleasant topics, keep up a brave face, make compromises with even the best societies, and little by little the compartmentalization we need to survive the day adds one more bit of distance between the comfortable now and the horrors ahead...
When the End of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job (Esquire)

Related, I read this recently in a book called The Carbon Age:
Agriculture is responsible for about a quarter of the carbon that terrestrial plants patch into their tissue every year, an unprecedented impact by a single species, particularly given the geological instant we've taken to do it. Volcanoes and weathering typically reshape the Earth's face. Today industry may sculpt the Earth every year more than they do. Human activity has transformed virtually every ecosystem on the planet. Human technology accelerates evolution by altering the ecosystems of bacteria, crop-loving insects, influenza viruses, fisheries, and really just about everything else on the planet's surface and much beneath it. Bacteria quickly evolve immunity to antibiotics, swapping genetic material through horizontal gene transfer. Thin, long fish escape trawlers' nets     and live to populate the ocean with offspring slinkier than captured fish. Farmers buy more and more pesticide every year, as bugs evolve their way around them. Technology imposes unnatural selection like nothing else.
Perhaps a generation or two from now, leaders will look back and wonder how American universities graduated class after class into an economy run on carbon-mineral fuels, without requiring any of them to take introduction to geochemistry courses, or why an environmental "movement" sprung from toxic chemical pollution produced so many lawyers and so few chemical engineers. The way things are going, students are showing more interest in the Earth system and the chemicals we invent for it, but perhaps not as much as the gee-whiz revolution in biology that could provide some important tools to address the causes of global warming. Science helped create and diagnose the planet's fever, and it is our only hope to slow its acceleration. 
David Rind of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies is less than sanguine about modernity's likelihood to change. "Nobody's really going to sacrifice the present for the sake of the future, no matter how much they say it," Rind says. "People who are born in 2050 will have a lower quality of life, but they won't know any better. The sun will still shine and people will live their lives, but it will be a different world and nothing will change that." The real goal should be to prove Rind wrong. If he's right—which so far he is—forty years from now some of those Americans living a lower quality of life may wonder about the generation that knew they had it all and set decline in motion, unfazed. Ours will be a generation of narcissism. Each one of us is competitive with Nero, who fiddled while Rome burned, frittering away time on bread and circuses. Each of us is Tsar Nicholas II, whose attention to traumatic personal circumstances—an ill son—distracted him from his empire, crumbling toward what would become the Soviet dictatorship. The climate debate stands at an analogous point. There is still some hope that industrialized nations can transfer civilization on to an energy system that will not scorch the Earth. Hope springs eternal. Opportunities pass.
Eric Roston; The Carbon Age, pp.189-190

This Onion article seems apropos to the world as a whole right now:
“At one point, I would’ve done anything if it meant having America around for just a little longer, but I can’t watch it slowly waste away like this anymore,” said Tampa, FL resident Kathy Muniz, adding that it “breaks [her] heart” when she sees how hard the U.S. struggles to put on a brave face and pretend that everything is fine. “The kindest thing now is to just do what we can to keep the nation’s spirits up while nature takes its course.”  
Experts Say Best Option Now Is Keeping Nation As Comfortable As Possible Till End (Onion)

BONUS: Exxon knew of climate change in 1981, email says – but it funded deniers for 27 more years (Guardian)

1 comment:

  1. Bug-Out Scenarios
    How do climate scientists cope with existential dread


    There’s been a rush of dystopic news on climate change in the past week or so. An off-the-charts burst of west winds in the Pacific Ocean is locking in one of the strongest El Niños on record, virtually guaranteeing that 2015 will be the hottest year in human history. The weather system has spawned a rare triplet of China-bound typhoons. All-time temperature records were set in Spain, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany in a crushing heat wave. Widespread wildfire in Alaska is burning through permafrost, and lingering smoke from huge Canadian fires gave Minneapolis its worst air quality in a decade. In the Pacific Northwest, under intensifying drought, even the rain forest is on fire.

    If this is what climate change looks like already, the future is pretty much screwed, right? Well, maybe. Despite a few memorable moments of intense realism on the global stage, world leaders have essentially done nothing. Existential dread is fairly common among those who work on climate change on a daily basis.

    That’s the theme Esquire’s John H. Richardson explored this week in a fascinating and frank discussion with Jason Box and other climate scientists. I’ve had my own run-ins with climate change despair, and this article strikes me as a fascinating insight into the psychology of an increasingly apocalyptic science."

    more... ... n_box.html


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