Thursday, June 20, 2024

How to talk to a climate doomer (even if that doomer is you) » Yale Climate Connections

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So someone you love is feeling doomy about climate change. Maybe they’ve experienced a catastrophic storm and know there’s more where that came from. Maybe they lost hope when the latest round of temperature records were shattered. Maybe they think it’s too late to fix the problem (it’s not), or that not enough people care.

Maybe the doomer is you. At least on some days.

To help ease those doomist feelings, we asked a couple of experts for their take: Susan Joy Hassol, the climate communication veteran who served as senior science writer on three National Climate Assessments, and Emma Lawrance, who leads the Climate Cares Centre at the Institute of Global Health, Innovation, Imperial College London, which works to understand and support mental health amid today’s climate and ecological crises.

Read on for their insights on climate doomism, why it’s decidedly not too late to tackle climate change, and how you might talk to a doomer (even if that means talking to yourself).

You’re not alone

Whether you’re thinking of a doomer you love or the one in the mirror, know that no one is alone in feeling a sense of hopelessness from time to time. Among U.S. residents who worry a lot about climate change, less than half are “extremely” or “moderately” confident they can affect what governments do about the problem, according to surveys by Yale University and George Mason University. (Editor’s note: Several study authors work with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, the publisher of this site.)

More people are experiencing climate impacts firsthand, so it makes sense that more of us are getting anxious about the future. A 2023 survey found that roughly nine in 10 Americans have experienced at least one extreme weather event in the past five years — including drought, extreme heat, severe storms, wildfires, or flooding.

“As we hear more about climate science — much of which is cause for alarm — there can be an adaptive response to feel afraid or worried,” Lawrance says. “Sometimes that anxiety can be a motivation to act. But when we feel like, ‘This is too big, too overwhelming,’ and we feel powerless, it can be really defeating and overwhelming. Our body sort of shuts down to it, trying to keep us safe in what feels like an unsafe world.”

But our feelings about climate change are rarely one-dimensional.

“Sometimes people report it’s not one feeling or the other,” Lawrance says. “They feel a lot of ways at once, and feelings can change day to day.” One day might bring a mix of fear, grief, anger, guilt, hopelessness, or numbness.

Especially when you read the news.

“The headlines in the media are almost always about the problem,” Hassol says. “It’s about this terrible heat wave, this terrible storm, this terrible — whatever it is! And then there are the headlines that say something like, ‘We have X years to act on climate’ that lead people to think, ‘Well, if we don’t act in five years, then what? We’re screwed, right?’”

Doomism comes easy when you think it’s too late (it’s not)

“Is there still time to reduce global warming, or is it too late?” is one of the top questions Americans have about climate change, according to a recent survey by Yale University and George Mason University.

“We can’t afford to think that way — and it’s not true,” Hassol says. “The science is very clear that it is not too late to avoid the worst. … The temperature in the atmosphere should not keep rising once we get emissions to zero.”

There is no threshold past which we should stop trying to address climate change, according to climate scientist Michael Mann, who has frequently collaborated with Hassol. Every tenth of a degree change in temperature affects the extent of climate disruptions. That means the sooner we accelerate efforts, the better, but it doesn’t mean all hope is lost because we haven’t already solved the problem.

“It’s already dangerous. It’s already here,” Hassol says. “But what we can avoid still is global catastrophe. And we need to start from where we are now.”

“If we had started 30 years ago, yes, that would have been better. But you don’t pass your exit and say, ‘Screw it.’ You just get off the highway when you can,” she adds.

Lawrance agrees. “I think ultimately when you examine it, doomerism doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny because it’s too black or white, too win or lose,” Lawrance says. “At every point in time, there are better or worse paths forward. There are always things that can be saved.”

What can be done about climate change?

To achieve that better path forward, the International Energy Agency says the world needs to do much more this decade, including tripling renewable energy capacity, halving energy intensity, and cutting methane emissions from fossil fuels by 75%. It’s going to be hard work. But we can do hard things; people have done hard things for millennia.

“This is the fight of our lives, and it’s a multigenerational task,” Hassol says. “We need what’s been called ‘cathedral thinking.’ That is, the people who started working on that stone foundation, they never saw the thing finished. It took generations to get these major works done. This is that kind of problem. And we have to all do our part.”

Which may require putting doomish feelings at bay, at least long enough to contribute to efforts in your community.

“The more I act, the better I feel, because I know I’m part of the solution,” Hassol adds. “I just turned 65. And like Martin Luther King said, I may not get to the mountaintop, but I believe that we as a people will eventually get there.”

How to talk about climate doomism

It can help to talk honestly about feelings of doomism, but it’s not an easy topic. People might worry about feeling judged. They might not want to focus on a topic they find overwhelming. They might feel protective of their position or have deeply held arguments for why a doomist point of view makes sense.

There’s no perfect script for these conversations, but some basic rules of thumb can help.

First and foremost: “Give yourself grace,” Lawrance says. “It is quite hard to have these kinds of conversations. You can plant seeds, but take the burden of having to change someone’s mind off yourself.”

Listen more, monologue less. Try to understand what’s behind the person’s position. “Is it fear that’s driving it? Is it a sense that they just really don’t know what can be done? Have some compassion for that because it is a really hard thing to grapple with,” Lawrance says.

And when it makes sense to get into the science, keep it simple and focus on the bottom line: The science is clear that it’s not too late to avert the worst climate impacts in the future.

As Mann said in a 2022 interview, “The science does indicate that there is still hope for averting the worst impacts. And because of that, it would be so tragic if we fell into doom and despair at the very moment where we most need to act.”

Talk about how participating in climate solutions doesn’t just help reduce emissions — it can be good for people who take part, too. Not only can climate action support a brighter climate future; it can also bolster mental health. Experts like Lawrance think addressing climate change must include building up psychological resilience to its impacts. To do that, they suggest investing in adaptations that make living through climate change more manageable.

“We know the things that support good mental health and well-being are often very aligned with the things we need in societies that will point us towards a safer climate future,” Lawrance says. “Whether that’s less polluted air, food and water security, access to green space, reduced inequalities — all of these societies that have those things will have better mental health and lower emissions.”

Include examples of solutions in action. Doomers aren’t the only ones who can point to headlines. Solutions abound when you look for them: We can still save glaciers, restore wetlands and sagebrush habitat, protect whales, improve community resilience, store carbon in soil — the list goes on. And we can get inspired by progress already made on embracing renewable energy and electric vehicles.

“So you can point to the places where [climate action] is working,” Hassol says. “And say ‘Look, they did it, we can do it, too.’ It’s so important for people to understand that we can get this done.”

For Hassol, knowing we can rise to the climate challenge is different from trusting it will happen.

“I know we have the technologies we need and that we know what policies work. So I have hope because I know we can do it,” she says. “But I also have constructive doubt. Will we rise to this challenge? Will we do what we have to do in time? I’m not sure. But having that constructive hope knowing that we can do it keeps me working for it.”

Tom Toro is a cartoonist and writer who has published over 200 cartoons in The New Yorker since 2010.

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