Part I: A Generation of Climate "Doomers"
Updated: Sep 16, 2022
This post is Part I of a V part series analyzing the current status of climate change, through to its potential solutions. My beliefs on this topic are twofold: 1) we cannot possibly find solutions until we truly understand the problem. Indeed, a problem properly understood is half solved; and conversely, a problem not understood can never be solved. And 2) we have enough problems in this world, and I am interested predominantly in solutions. So - this series is intended to dissect our models and systems that need to be addressed, but offer realistic and implementable solutions. Fear not, I am not a Doomsdayer. I only hope this thread may catalyze some hope, activate some minds, and mobilize more solutions.
The climate change zeitgeist is upon us. With its immediacy being constantly imprinted on our collective psyche, adaptive responses tend to oscillate from denial straight to despair. Thanks to the assault on our senses that is 21st century media, a whole generation of Doomers has arisen. Unified by the belief of hopelessness, this archetype embodies the axiom: “cares, but knows there is nothing he can do”. How is it possible that an entire generation has grown up with such despondence for the future?
My belief is that this nihilistic sense for the future is a consequence of what trauma counsellors refer to as the “freeze” state. The third and late-stage of the involuntary neurobiological responses to perceived threats (following the familiar “fight or flight”) the freeze state occurs at the point in which you no longer have agency to change your situation. At this stage, the autonomic nervous system programs a physiological response to become still, but not the peaceful meditative type of still, the completely empty kind, a natural state of paralysis. Our bodies are chemically programmed to shut down sensations to mute the pain when we enter this territory of threat. Real or perceived, the body is saying, game over.
Applying this to climate change, it makes a lot of sense that we would have evolved an entire generation of apathetic, disengaged, Doomers. When an individual’s fear response gets triggered over-and-over again in situations in which they cannot defend themselves, withdrawal becomes deeply wired into neural pathways. Feeling helpless, they become unable to tap into the biological systems designed to assist them in changing their circumstances. Being exposed to ongoing stress or multiple traumatic experiences – like looming climate existentialism constantly humming in the backgrounds or foregrounds of our minds – is precisely the type of catalyst for this type of trauma. Freeze survivors “struggle with a chronic sense of isolation, cycles of shame, guilt, and often, complete dissociation”. Bingo – the Doomer.
But how did we get to this point?
These past few decades have seen mind-boggling dissents on science; a ‘through-the-looking-glass type of distortion of scientific history that has until recently, left climate studies to the domain of academia and Birkenstock-donning environmentalists. The denial and rejection of basic facts leaves many feeling gaslit. The presentation of conflicting, confusing, and overwhelmingly inconsistent facts has ostracized many to the fringes of science and faith. The term “Green Gaslighting” was actually coined recently, indicating an experience beyond deception; it also disempowers and undermines the potential to identify the root causes of climate change and ways to address them. Green gaslighting is another form of climate denialism, albeit, more pernicious.
The explosion of information and misinformation around this field, acts as an oppressor, as an abuser would, on the limbic brain.
The truth is that we have been brain mashing climate change solutions in earnest on a global scale since the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988, when the United Nations convened the sub-group to provide a scientific analysis of climate change and its geopolitical and economic impacts. But climate change science far predates this. Two decades prior, President Johnson told the nation that “this generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through ... a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels”, and at the turn of the 20th century, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius proposed the possibility that human activity indeed influenced atmospheric temperatures.
We have been at this a while.
Before we get into the why of this story, let’s talk about the what.
I feel we need a bit of a hope infusion here. So let’s discuss what can really be done to fix climate change?
Globally, we have enormous resources under our command, but we aren’t applying them wisely to prevent ecological cataclysm. In fact, as eloquently illuminated by historian Yuval Noah Harari presented at this year’s TED, solving climate change is well within our economic realities. According to his research, if humanity increases its annual investment in clean technologies and infrastructure by around two percent of global GDP, we can prevent catastrophic climate outcomes. Since global GDP in 2020 was about USD $85 trillion, we are talking only USD $ 1.7 trillion. For context, buying the whole Amazon rainforest to protect local forests, biodiversity, and human communities from destructive business interests, would cost about $800 billion dollars, or a “one-off payment of less than one percent of global GDP”.
As he aptly points out, when faced by a major crisis, governments swiftly shift outsized resources to fight it. For example, in 1945, the US spent about 36 percent of its GDP on the Second World War. During the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the US government spent about 3.5 percent of GDP to save financial institutions that were deemed ‘too big to fail’. As he somewhat facetiously suggests, “what if we decided that the Amazon rainforest was also, too big to fail?”
More recently, we proved that we can also globally mobilize resources quickly when the threat is serious enough. In just the first nine months of 2020, governments around the world announced stimulus measures worth nearly 14 percent (!!) of global GDP to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. This happened like, yesterday.
Harari goes on to reveal some frustrating stats about where our money currently goes instead of fighting climate change. Governments spend about 500 billion US dollars annually on -- wait for it -- direct subsidies for fossil fuels. Even worse: our economic system also does this fancy trick of allowing companies to privatize the gains and socialize the losses, without impunity or accountability. So when factoring in the long-term social and environmental costs (what economists like to call ‘externalities’, but are in fact, directly associated with operations) that the fossil fuel industry causes but isn't required to pay for, the value of these subsidies actually reaches close to $6 trillion per year, a staggering seven percent of annual global GDP! This is $11 million dollars every minute of every day making the climate emergency more acute. We are literally paying Big Oil to poison our oceans, our air, and our lungs, 3.5x the amount required to save the planet. What. Do. You. Mean.
The point of this story being: the money is there. It is the will that is missing.
If citizens pressed them hard enough, politicians can do the same to deal with the ecological crisis. So why aren’t they?
Stay tuned for the next post on Coordination Failures, to provide the answer.