People need to hear the good news about climate change
"Climate anxiety" isn't going to solve anything
Adam McKay, the director of “Don’t Look Up,” remarked over the weekend that “We’ve got 6-8 years before the climate is so chaotic we live in a permanent state of biblical catastrophe & still we’re all walking around like it’s 1997 and we’re at a Third Eye Blind concert.”
Later that same day I saw an article in The New York Times headlined “Climate Change Enters the Therapy Room: Ten years ago, psychologists proposed that a wide range of people would suffer anxiety and grief over climate. Skepticism about that idea is gone.”
And that really worries me. It’s bad to see people experiencing this level of anxiety and grief. Even people like McKay who like the doom-and-gloom rhetoric are trying to inspire action:
But what Ellen Barry describes in her article is not people who are really fired up about climate change and ready to change the world. Instead, she mentions a 37-year-old mother of two with a full-time job who seems to be suffering from depression and engaged in climate-related ideation as part of that:
In the early-morning hours, after nursing the baby, she would slip down a rabbit hole, scrolling through news reports of droughts, fires, mass extinction. Then she would stare into the dark.
She also introduces us to Thomas Doherty, a psychologist in Portland who specializes in climate anxiety and who describes a series of patients who, despite their anxiety, are not particularly doing anything to combat climate change:
As for Dr. Doherty, so many people now come to him for this problem that he has built an entire practice around them: an 18-year-old student who sometimes experiences panic attacks so severe that she can’t get out of bed; a 69-year-old glacial geologist who is sometimes overwhelmed with sadness when he looks at his grandchildren; a man in his 50s who erupts in frustration over his friends’ consumption choices, unable to tolerate their chatter about vacations in Tuscany.
The therapy aspect is interesting, and that’s the focus of the piece. But Barry never delves into the fact that these sufferers seem to be latching on to climate due in part to bad information. Climate change is a very serious problem. But both Barry and the people she is profiling seem to regard it as somehow uniquely bad in the whole of human history. And this just isn’t true.
The framing of climate risk has become increasingly fraught. If you say it’s not as bad as the risk of all of humanity being wiped out in a full-scale nuclear exchange or by a large comet, you’re now the guy who is minimizing climate change. But this is really a question of perspective. People very legitimately worry about a vast range of problems (traffic jams, opioid addiction, violent crime, school quality, the sovereignty of Ukraine) that are clearly less serious than climate change. Climate shouldn’t need to rise to nuclear apocalypse levels of concern to be a big deal!
But when I see story after story after story on climate anxiety, I am mostly not reading stories of people who decide they want to increase their level of commitment to addressing climate change and then take action to do so. Everyone might feel better and the planet would be much better off if the anxious weren’t paralyzed by depression.
Climate change is a range of outcomes
There is a lot of confusion about the difference between predictions and warnings.
But for example:
I predict that another big wave of SARS-CoV-2 infections will hit next winter (if not sooner) as new variants emerge from animal reservoirs and the unvaccinated population as accumulated immunity wanes.
I warn that there’s no guarantee the next variant (or the one after that) won’t combine super-transmissibility with being four or five times as deadly as Omicron (or worse), and unless we get cracking on next-generation vaccines, we could be staring down an epidemiological catastrophe within the next few years.
The prediction is something that I actually think is more likely than not to happen. With the warning, in this case, I am being hand-wavy about the actual probability (because I sincerely have no idea) but I’m trying to scare you a bit with a plausible small-probability catastrophe. The warning is a completely legitimate rhetorical device. In policy circles, we probably don’t spend enough time worrying about small odds of really bad things happening.
But if you are sitting around doomscrolling, paralyzed by the terror of SuperCovid, I want you to remember that this probably won’t happen and also that instead of worrying, you could take ten minutes to email your members of Congress and urge them to support the bipartisan Apollo Program for Biodefense. The odds of your email swaying a member of Congress are low, and the odds that one member of Congress getting fired up about this will cause it to pass are also low. But the odds of SuperCovid emerging are also low. We are simply trying to further reduce the probability, and every email you write counts.
By the same token, with climate change, two ideas are frequently mixed up:
The IPCC predicts that unless we hold global warming to less than 1.5 degrees centigrade, the world will suffer some irreparable harms.
The IPCC warns about cataclysmic results under the Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 scenario in which greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow unabated into the indefinite future.
These are both bad. But it’s not the case that we either hit the 1.5-degree target or else we fall into the nightmare scenario. There’s a whole range of possible outcomes.
But it’s often presented to the public as a dichotomous choice, as in this from the UCAR Center for Science Education:
Climate models predict that Earth's global average temperature will rise and additional 4° C (7.2° F) during the 21st Century if greenhouse gas levels continue to rise. But with swift action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, models project that global average temperature will only rise an additional 1° Celsius (1.8° F).
They also have this chart with the orange bad line and the purple good line.
Climate realism is when you see that it’s extremely unlikely that the world is going to stay on the purple track or anything like it. But climate despair is when you decide that “not purple” means “definitely orange” and that averting the harms associated with orange requires us to get to purple. I’d be paralyzed with depression, too, if I thought that were true! But it’s a logical error.
The good news on RCP 8.5
The orange line on that chart roughly represents what the IPCC calls Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5, a scenario for the future path of the atmosphere from which a lot of nightmare scenarios about climate change are drawn.
But people should know that we’ve gotten a lot of good news about RCP 8.5 over the past few years. Think about every optimistic climate story you’ve ever read: the falling cost of solar power, improvements in lithium-ion batteries, surging sales of electric vehicles. Even closures of coal plants under economic pressure from cheap natural gas — a fossil fuel that, while not exactly clean, is definitely cleaner than coal.
The upshot of all of this is that future industrial development is on track to be cleaner than past industrial development, even without any new policy changes or technological breakthroughs. Is it on track to stabilize global emissions and limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius? It is not. But we can pretty confidently say that scenarios that just project the past upward emissions curve forward are very unlikely. For that to happen, we’d need a huge resurgence of the coal industry and for every single auto company in the world to be somehow wrong about electric cars.
Unfortunately, we now have a pipeline where academics can publish a research paper showing some bad stuff that would happen under RCP 8.5, which gets written up in the press as a warning about climate change and which a reader can understandably interpret as a prediction.
But this extreme scenario is actually very unlikely. The current International Energy Administration energy market projections suggest we’re on track for two to three degrees Celsius of warming (median forecast of 2.2 degrees). This is bad, which is why world governments agreed to a lower target. But it’s a lot less than the warming involved in scenarios where “those living in coastal areas from Texas to New England … will face dramatic increases in hurricane-driven flood risk as the Earth heats up.” Math from the UN looks at what happens if everyone lives up to their 2015 Paris Agreement pledges, and they find 2.7 degrees of warming is likely. That, again, is pretty bad — there’s a reason the stated goal is less warming than that — but it’s a lot less bad than the 4.4 degrees of warming in the worst-case scenario.
Indeed, the current projections of 2.2 or 2.7 degrees are closer to 1.5 degrees than to 4.4 degrees; we are more than halfway there. This is pretty good news! As David Wallace-Wells wrote back in 2019, “We’re Getting a Clearer Picture of the Climate Future — and It’s Not as Bad as It Once Looked.”
I find this dialogue a little bit frustrating. Many climate communicators are so dug in on forecasts grounded in RCP 8.5 and loose apocalyptic rhetoric that a lot of the communication that emphasizes accurate forecasts comes from people who’ve adopted a quasi-denialist view, as if 2.5 or 3 degrees of warming is nothing to worry about. But there’s genuinely quite a bit to worry about! If we can park at 2.2 rather than 2.7, that’s a lot better. And if we can improve policy to get 2.1 degrees rather than 2.2, even that is a very substantial improvement.
We should be concerned about climate change, but we shouldn’t be paralyzed by apocalyptic dread and feelings of helplessness.
Cognitive behavioral therapy for climate anxiety
I think it’s helpful to return to the basic reason why modest increases in average global temperatures are bad in the first place. The answer, roughly, is that when you shift the mean of a normally distributed quantity (like weather), you get a wildly disproportionate increase in extreme events. The temperature rises on average by 4.4 degrees celsius, but the incidence of record hot weather events goes up twenty-fold.
The flip side of this is that if you can hold the average increase to 2.2 degrees rather than 4.4 degrees, you limit more than half of the increase in record heat.
It’s also helpful to remember that nothing is yet written in stone. As Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and the Center for Climate and Weather Extremes noted recently, a lot of doomer rhetoric is uselessly fatalistic:
There are tons of opportunities for further improvement in the policy space. If progressives in Congress choose to genuinely prioritize climate in making a deal with Joe Manchin, I think they can get a deal. If members of Congress from both parties who’ve already said on record that they want the NRC to start approving new reactor designs take the time to yell at them until they actually do it, that could make a big difference. Germany had an election last year that brought the Green Party into government and is generating a huge new set of climate investments. If we backslide on policy, we might end up with closer to three degrees of warming. If we redouble our efforts, we could get to two degrees or lower.
It’s also really important to remember that the climate change we’re talking about is largely a negative side effect of economic growth. But the growth itself is good. The amount of severe poverty that exists in the world today is morally unacceptable, and 30 years ago we had much more. All those people becoming less poor creates some problems, but on net it’s good.
Emma Marris recently quoted climate scientist Brian O’Neill making some excellent points about this:
So what does this SSP 2 world feel like? It depends, O’Neill told me, on who you are. One thing he wants to make very clear is that all the paths, even the hottest ones, show improvements in human well-being on average. IPCC scientists expect that average life expectancy will continue to rise, that poverty and hunger rates will continue to decline, and that average incomes will go up in every single plausible future, simply because they always have. “There isn’t, you know, like a Mad Max scenario among the SSPs,” O’Neill said. Climate change will ruin individual lives and kill individual people, and it may even drag down rates of improvement in human well-being, but on average, he said, “we’re generally in the climate-change field not talking about futures that are worse than today.”
It’s worth trying to dispel the sense of helplessness.
You are obviously not in a position, as an individual, to alter the whole course of the global economy or to drastically alter the electricity mix in your community. But the climate anxiety shrinks were saying this is a worse problem than the nuclear war anxiety of prior generations. And compared to nuclear war, climate offers plenty of scope for individual initiative.
You can make a difference!
Calculating individual carbon footprints is overrated, and trying to guilt people about personal lifestyle choices is pretty pointless. If you’re worried about other people’s impact on the climate, you need to push for policy changes that make it easier for them to do what they want to do in an ecologically sustainable way or else that outright ban them from doing something destructive.
But as a matter of personal well-being, it’s critical to recognize that if you are, in fact, gripped with worry and guilt about climate change, you can do something about it.
If you’re young, you can pursue a career path where you’re working directly on zero-carbon electricity generation, on batteries, on green hydrogen, on new ways to manufacture ammonia, on carbon-neutral steel, or on direct air capture projects. There are probably a dozen other areas with an urgent need for technical and engineering progress and for the work of more good people as scientists and engineers, but also in management, marketing, sales, and everything else. There are tremendous opportunities to make a difference.
And then, yes, there are the dread lifestyle changes. But they matter.
If you buy an electric vehicle, that reduces your CO2 footprint. But more importantly, it adds a consumer for EV charging, which spurs investment in EV charging stations. And that makes it easier for the next person to buy an EV. Conversely, removing a customer from the market for gas stations accelerates the moment at which they start closing and internal combustion engines become a low-convenience option. If you start ordering Impossible Whoppers, that encourages more fast food companies to develop their own plant-based menu options.
And of course, there’s politics. If you help Democrats beat Republicans at almost any level, the odds of financial support for renewable energy go way up. But there’s lots of scope for policy change beyond partisan politics, too. One reason I like the geothermal and nuclear issues is they’re not sharply partisan — they have support in both parties but it’s kind of tepid. Your member of Congress or senator or state legislator might plausibly become more supportive of either (or both!) regardless of current partisan affiliation if he or she heard from fired-up constituents.
Depression and anxiety are not the answer
I’m never comfortable telling people how they should feel about things.
Personally, appreciating the basically tragic nature of the vast majority of human existence makes me feel more zen about the problems of today and tomorrow. But if you feel very upset about the consequences of two to three degrees of global warming, I don’t think it makes sense for me to try to convince you that millennia of pre-industrial agriculture were even worse. At the end of the day, it would definitely be better to have less warming, and as long as we agree on the facts and the analysis, we can have different subjective emotional responses to it.
But depression and anxiety are mental health problems, not political diagnoses. Nothing about climate change is world-ending or unavoidable or beyond the capacity of an individual human being to alter at the margin. And the margin matters a lot because it has a disproportionate influence on the extremes. So either take more action on the topic or else decide that other things are more important to you. But whatever you do, don’t give in to despair or doomscrolling.
I think depression is basically what the doomers ordered in the first place. It's this very Dostoevskian belief that what we need, as a society, is more repentance, more sense of obligation; you see the same thing in the segment of writers on race that runs from Robin DiAngelo griftwards, who claim we are making progress as a society inasmuch as people are getting yelled at. You see the same thing from Covid hawks whose response to questions about when we go back to normal is to claim that we live in an excessively "individualistic" society with no sense of "the common good". (When people invoke "community", it means "you should be taking orders from me, personally.") This is of course not exclusive to the left; until recently I would have thought it was a right-wing viewpoint. But it turns out when you give people orders about what feelings to feel, it does not yield social progress; it yields people feeling miserable all the time.
Climate dooming doesn’t cause depression — depression encourages people to hyperbolize climate doom. The depressed brain is path-dependent and thus wants to “stay depressed,” so it looks for any reason it can find to justify the current state of affairs. I can’t think of any depression-maintenance belief more seductive than “Holy shit the planet is on fire and will only get worse from here!”
As a general rule, the external explanation is never the primary cause of depression — just the thing the brain needs to maintain its story of pain and suffering.