Climate change: the situation is hopeless – let's take the next step

Peter Burdon

Chain Reaction #120, March 2013,

Imagine that you woke up tomorrow with complete trust in climate science. By trust I do not just mean a kind of dispassionate intellectual understanding, evidenced in people such as Al Gore, I mean a trust that combines that intellect with emotional and psychological acceptance. How would such a trust change your life?

Considered in this way, I wonder how many of us have really accepted and come to terms with the reality of climate change. Why is it that despite the overwhelming scientific evidence [1] and even personal experience [2] of climate change, many of us are not reacting? Why aren't we responding to the emergency?

Clive Hamilton offers some insight into this question in his book Requiem for a Species. Here he taps into the psychological dimensions of denial and in particular the concept of 'cognitive dissonance' developed by Dr Leon Festinger in 1957.

Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance describes mental stress that results when an individuals holds two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time. Festinger argued that individuals that have firm beliefs contradicted by evidence are the hardest to shift and often defend their belief with increasing vigour even when it is proven to be false.

The implications of this for understanding climate scepticism and denial are obvious. Indeed, Hamilton argues that those with a disposition toward scepticism “have become more vehement in their attacks on climate scientists, environmentalists and anyone who accepts the evidence of global warming."

Obviously this only explains part of the picture and yet it provides an important insight into the emergence of the climate lobby (the so-called 'Green House Mafia'), 'scientific' think-tanks funded to spread public doubt about climate science [3] and the more recent emergence of cyber bullying and intimidation of climate scientists. Professor Donald Brown captures the cumulative effect of climate scepticism: "Unfortunately there are consequences — we've lost 25 years. This is not disinformation. I think we should encourage a conversation whether this is some kind of new crime against humanity. It is really evil stuff. It is nasty."[4]

Part of the reason why climate scepticism has been so effective is that we all want the science to be false. We all want to forget about climate change and, in fact, remove that term from our lexicon altogether. Many do not want to think about radically altering their lives and the uncertainty that comes with change. Even for those who do, there is no obvious path for surviving (let alone flourishing) outside of the market society which has come to order all aspects of our lives.

Facts and projections

And yet, consider the following facts and projections. First, climate change is real and human beings are causing it.[5] In fact, between November 2012 to December 2013, 2,258 peer reviewed articles were published on climate change by 9,136 authors.[6] Of these, only one author rejected that humans are the cause of global warming.

Second, we can emit a total of approximately 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and stay below 2°C of warming: anything more than this risks catastrophe for life on earth. We are currently approaching 400 gigatons and corporations have in their reserves 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide [7] – five times the safe amount.

Fossil fuel companies are planning to burn all of this carbon and in fact have borrowed money and issued share projections against this amount.[8] As a result, many climate scientists are publically stating that restricting climate to a 2°C increase is optimistic, verging on unattainable. Many now regard three to four degrees as a realistic projection.

Third, to have any chance of limiting warming to 2°C, global emissions must peak in 2015, with rich countries starting to cut their emissions right now and pushing them to 25–40% below 1990 levels by 2020. Compare this to the Australian Government's current (non-binding) commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 5% by 2020.[9]

Such a reduction simply cannot be met with the array of modest carbon pricing or green-tech solutions usually advocated by big green groups. The drop in emissions that is required is virtually unprecedented since the industrial revolution and cuts above 1% a year have historically been associated with recession or massive social upheaval.

Naomi Klein notes that even after the collapse of the Soviet Union or the Wall Street Crash of 2008, emission cuts at the depth required now did not occur. [10] In fact, the only historical example of comparable reductions occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Great Depression in 1929. That was the worst economic crisis of modern times.

Fourth (and this might be the most difficult to accept) without a concerted push from civil society, our political representatives are simply are not going to act in time to cut emissions. In fact, unless you live in the buffered 'first world', climate change may not be a theory, but a daily reality and survival challenge.[11] Consider what it would be like struggling in the recent heat wave in Australia without air-conditioning, fans or liberal amounts of water to keep people cool and gardens surviving.

Arguably, these four points represent a dark projection for human civilization. But what I am interested in exploring in the remainder of this essay is what awaits us once we mentally and emotionally accept these facts and projections. To return to my opening paragraph, what would you do?

Would you quit your job or become an environmental activist? Have children or have a vasectomy? Write more or write less? Talk to your neighbours or build a survival bunker in the hills? Plant a vegetable garden or chain yourself to a coal fired power plant? Phone your parents? Hug your children? Go inward spiritually and bear witness to the devastation or make a cup of tea and cry?

My own reaction resonated very closely with the process of acceptance articulated by Hamilton in Requiem. I felt relieved that I could finally accept what my 'rational brain had been telling me' and let go of the fantasy that industrial society would voluntarily transition to a sustainable way of living.

And yet following this relief was a wave of despair that stayed with me for a very long time. While no two people will react in exactly the same way, I think that anyone who is willing (and able) to reconcile their inner emotions with climate science is embarking on a painful emotional process.

Transition tools

What then, are some tools that can assist others in making this transition? This is not the place to offer a complete prescription but I would like to offer a few ideas and perhaps some hope for those grappling with climate science and the future scenarios that it presents.

To begin, I want to validate the emotion of grief. As Joanna Macy suggests "Confronting such a vast and final a loss as this brings sadness beyond the telling."

How we grieve will be influenced by how our society and those around us are responding. For some it manifests not in sadness but in humour. For others it feels like a cocktail of emotions ranging from anger, isolation and disempowerment. As Hamilton suggests, these 'early mourners' often feel lonely and keep their thoughts to themselves for fear of social alienation.

There is no 'one right way' to grieve but if you have strong networks of support the experience can be liberating and even enriching. Grieving can help us detach from our old vision and expectations for the future and adjust to a new reality. We all have capacity to readjust and in fact many of us have experienced something similar after a family member dies or a relationship unexpectedly ends.

Following this, it is well documented that a healthy and effective response to grief is to join with others and take action using whatever skills and opportunities available to us. As the cellist Pablo Casals said: "The situation is hopeless; we must now take the next step."

History offers many examples where human beings have found meaning and ethical courage in seemingly hopeless situations. It is this human quality that we need to collectively summon again.

Even though it is too late to prevent a 2°C rise in temperature there is still much we can do and any success in reducing emissions will greatly improve the survival odds of communities around the world.

One essential task is to prepare for the inevitable impacts of climate disruption or 'adaptation'. There is no shortage of opportunities in this space. For example, we need to think about how to strengthen our communities so that they are open, resilient, democratic and can accommodate and support the poor and most vulnerable members of our society.

Groups like Transition Towns are facilitating the most exciting movements toward these goals. Other initiatives like Intersection Repair focus on community building by converting private property into public space on a neighbourhood street. While other organisations such as Post Growth or the Simplicity Institute remind us that much of the social and community infrastructure for the post-carbon world already exists and is being implemented by communities around the world.

Transitional projects like these need to be nurtured and expanded. However, without collective and targeted political action to avert the climate catastrophe all of our communities are vulnerable. This point was made by Bill McKibben in his recent book, Oil and Honey: "You can have the most resilient communities you want, but if temperatures rise above 4°C, there will be no communities left."[12]

Political action

To have even a modest chance of avoiding this scenario all of us need to become politically active. Our actions should be collaborative, work to our strengths and concentrated in areas over which we have some agency or influence.

More concretely, our actions might involve raising awareness about climate change; speaking to politicians in your electorate; campaigning to stop carbon intensive developments; supporting sustainable technology such as solar thermal energy; joining a campaign group to encourage banks and other businesses to divest from the fossil fuel industry; or joining an international push to prevent the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline or oil drilling in the Arctic.

Finally, I want to say something about hope. Many prominent activists have abandoned this emotion on the basis that it represents a 'longing for a future condition over which you have no agency'. According to this interpretation, 'hope' renders you powerless. I do not accept this perspective and maintain that hope is a useful emotion if it is connected to something generative and real.

What gives me hope today is not our political leaders who are wedded to the strictures of State-capitalism. Nor the big environmental NGOs, many of whom have traded their integrity for the opportunity to become insiders and walk the corridors of power. Rather, I place my hope in ordinary people who throughout history have shown an incredible ability, even in brief flashes, to resist, to join together and occasionally to win.

Significant social advancements have always depended on ordinary people who came together to do extraordinary things. Whatever gains we have made toward human progress were not given, they were demanded. And I believe that the key to gaining whatever ground we can in the climate movement also lies with ordinary people − with us.

I end with a quote from historian Howard Zinn: "To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage [and] kindness."




[3] Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (2011) Merchants of Doubt. How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloomsbury Publishing









[12] Bill McKibben 2013, Oil and Honey The Education of an Unlikely Activist. Times Books

Peter Burdon is a senior lecturer at the Adelaide Law School and a member of Friends of the Earth, Adelaide.