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Psychology

Is a Sense of Impending Doom from Climate Change Inevitable?

Updated on 2023-02-03 by Adam Hardy

Extreme weather, floods and wildfires on top of stories about melting polar ice-sheets should trigger a sense of impending doom in any psychologically healthy individual. The mind can react in three distinct ways: ignore it, deny it, or act on it. This impact on the human psyche is a very recent thing, despite the fact that the United Nations has been fighting climate change for 30 years. It is only in the last 5 years that people in wealthy nations have perceived themselves to be victims of the climate crisis. Before this, there were victims, but the mainstream media dismissed the idea.

Now with the advent of swift climate attribution studies from meteorology labs around the world, the blame lies incontrovertibly with climate change:

An event such as the Pacific Northwest 2021 heatwave is still rare or extremely rare in today’s climate, yet would be virtually impossible without human-caused climate change

World Weather Attribution Service[1]Western North American extreme heat virtually impossible without human-caused climate change

Climate change made 2022’s UK heatwave ‘at least 10 times more likely’

Carbon Brief[2]Climate change made 2022’s UK heatwave ‘at least 10 times more likely’

The Ahr Tal flooding in 2021 (184 dead in Germany) up to 9 times more likely due to climate change

World Weather Attribution Service[3]Heavy rainfall which led to severe flooding in Western Europe made more likely by climate change

Despite the supercomputers and complex algorithms, this only works in hindsight. It doesn’t help predict the extreme weather or wildfires or flooding. This is essentially just weather and subject to the same unpredictability and vagaries as every newshour weather forecast. That it will happen again is certain, but where and when can never be predicted.

Extreme weather has been a blind spot in the minds of economists right up to the time of writing. Economics professor Steve Keen[4]One of EcoCore’s supporters – see About published a detailed critique of mainstream economists and specifically the Nobel prize winning Prof. William Nordhaus, who seemed to have suffered a complete lapse of imagination:

[Nordhaus] assumes that about 90% of GDP will be unaffected by climate change, because it happens indoors…

Prof Stephen Keen[5]2020 academic paper, The appallingly bad neoclassical economics of climate change

It beggars belief that Nordhaus’s research was deemed worthy of a Nobel prize. Nordhaus ran cost-benefit analyses that demonstrate how 4°C should be optimal for economic growth over the next 100 years. This thinking dominates all economic research covered by the UN IPCC reports up to and including the Assessment Review 6 published in 2022.

As climate change worsens and extreme weather, wildfires, flooding, drought, crop failures and so on weigh on the economy and leach away the wealth and high standards of living that our western economy produces in the near term, the long term prognosis is becoming clearer to non-scientists in alarming ways that are bound to stoke the lay person’s feelings of impending doom.

The Potsdam Climate Institute among others has built global climate models which highlight the boundaries of Earth’s current, stable, human-friendly climate, and the dangers and consequences of breaching those boundaries. Potsdam Professor Johan Rockström highlights the issue in these videos.

Some IPCC climatologists are now reaching out to other disciplines to highlight how global warming of 4°C being optimal flies in the face of research into Earth systems. Geo-physical changes on a 4°C warmer planet bring implicit socio-economic impacts, to the extent that even non-economists foresee significant risk of economic collapse.[6]Keen, Lenton, Garrett, Grasselli 2022 “Estimates of economic and environmental damages from tipping points cannot be reconciled with the scientific literature”

A growing sense of impending doom

Existential fear of the coming destruction of civilisation is exacerbated by the difficulty that climate scientists have of putting probabilities on such outcomes. The planet’s tipping points are not only very difficult to model and predict on their own, but their mutual interaction is very under-researched and an order of magnitude more difficult to model. This is the stuff that impending doom is made of.

The climate science is complex and has even more potential spanners to throw in society’s works, such as the impact of aerosols from air pollution. In an ironic twist, burning fossil fuels releases so much non-CO2 pollution into the atmosphere that its aerosol composition has a global cooling effect. According to the science, it could be anything between 0.2°C to 1.5°C of cooling.

Impending doom is a normal feeling of anxiety brought on by exposure to climate science with concomitant climate action taking place
Hiding behind the sofa is not an option. Image by giselaatje from Pixabay

To the lay person, the obvious conclusion then is that giving up fossil fuels globally will stop the pollution’s global cooling effect, and result in even higher levels of global warming. So society is damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. Fortunately though, there is as of writing no scientific consensus on the subject, with some academic papers[7]James Hansen Global Warming in the Pipeline still in the process of peer review.

The Minefield Metaphor

Professor Michael E. Mann is one significant climatologist who would debate Hansen’s research and in contrast, after years of fighting for his reputation against targeted fossil fuel funded disinformation campaigns, he won’t be drawn on possible futures or impending doom, instead obstinately reiterating that the way forward is to cut fossil fuel usage and invest heavily in renewable energy.

Rather than the common metaphor of society hurtling towards the edge of a cliff beyond which our doom awaits us, he lays out a picture of the future as minefield we have stumbled into. This is particularly appropriate in the absence of clear risks associated with individual or collective tipping points. The metaphor can also be extended to illustrate the dangers of exceeding 1.5°C with the intention of man-made global cooling to bring the rise back down to safer levels in future. “It’s a minefield” as the saying goes, and engineering a safe exit is just as dangerous as ploughing into it in the first place.

Fear is the mind killer

Frank Herbert, Dune.

Please indulge the Frank Herbert quote. However difficult or easy it may seem, avoiding or exiting that climate crisis minefield is a noble goal and adopting that goal is the perfect antidote to fear. On a psychological level, taking climate action helps reduce one’s perception of uncertainty, it brings a sense of control and it allows us to paint a more positive picture of ourselves and our social group.

A psychological precondition in the human psyche for alleviation of the feelings of impending doom, or any anxiety, is that the plan of action is credible. For many people, reducing their personal CO2 emissions in itself isn’t a credible plan. EcoCore promotes it as part of a package of actions that include personal behaviour change, watching the impact of your money, communicating in your peer group and workplace, protesting, and political advocacy for an economic system based on carbon allowances that works on a national and global scale, a policy that would bring benefits not just to ordinary people, but to business and industry and to government as well.

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