For far too many climate change activists, 2021 and the beginning of 2022 have plunged people into feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. The inertia of the existing fossil fuel infrastructure and governments inability/unwillingness to implement tangible, collaborative, global solutions to the climate crisis is deeply entrenched, and seemingly intractable. Remember, inertia is defined as “a property of matter which continues in its existing state of motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force,” or “the resistance of any physical object to a change in its velocity. It is the resistance of any phenomenon in its current condition to change. Inertia is resistance to change.
Helplessness is defined as the belief that there is nothing that anyone can do to improve a bad situation. It is also a feeling; “I feel helpless!” The field of epistemology suggests our behavior emanates from what we think we know. Thus, helplessness begins in the mind. We “think” there’s nothing we can do. (Note: Recognizing that some people have chemical imbalances in the brain that promote the feeling of helplessness). We also “feel” a sensation that accompanies the notion of helplessness. Oftentimes, this feeling is a profound sadness.
Hopelessness is the sibling of helplessness. It is reportedly “caused by the expectation that highly desired outcomes will not occur, or that highly aversive outcomes will occur.” Remember, expectations are also beliefs. They are inhabited by emotions – some more intense and prevalent than others.
Why are climate activists currently inhabited by feelings of hopelessness and helplessness by virtue of this ‘H’ bomb’? Let’s examine this question.
Sources of the current climate crisis sadness
According to Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate and Energy Research Analyst at Net-Zero Business Daily, COP26 and the Glasgow Agreement were a “glass half full.” She states: “Many analysts present at the meeting and outside lauded the first-time acknowledgment of fossil fuels and the role coal power plays in increasing GHGs emissions and global warming. But what remained conspicuously absent from this language was a timeline for this action.” Scientists at the Climate Action Tracker observe: “Even with all new Glasgow pledges for 2030, we will emit roughly twice as much in 2030 as required for 1.5°. Therefore, all governments need to reconsider their targets.”
In regard to COP26, the Climate Action Network has recently stated: “Incremental progress is not good enough. What we need are concrete commitments to fight the climate emergency. This includes a rapid and equitable phase-out – not phase down – all fossil fuels through a just energy transition and revisions of national climate targets in line with the 1.5 temperature goal.”
U.S. President Joe Biden’s plan to address the climate crisis has not been approved by the U.S. Congress and is intractably mired in the polarized reality of American politics.
According to Leah Gerber, director of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes at Arizona State University; “Nature is in a state of collapse, and science shows that we face a surging climate crisis and an unprecedented biodiversity crisis.”
Translation: The climate crisis is worsening and our current efforts are inadequate. This reality should make all the inhabitants of Earth both anxious and sad.
In Antarctica, the Thwaites Glacier is failing from below. The size of Thwaites is equivalent to the U.S. state of Florida (53,924 square miles or 170,312 square kilometers). According to scientists, the collapse of Thwaites might result in more than a few feet of sea level rise. This reality would endanger millions of people currently residing in coastal areas, across the globe.
Recently, the Climate Crisis Advisory Group has stated: “Warming temperatures could be pushing the Arctic toward an “irreversible” tipping point, causing the release of methane and other gases. The story is simple, “Climate change is happening faster than anticipated. One consequence—the loss of ice in the polar regions — is also a driver for more rapid global heating and disastrously rapid global sea level rise. Scientists have been shocked that the warm weather conducive to permafrost thawing is occurring roughly 70 years ahead of model projections.” Well, that should be sufficient to garner our attention, increase our anxiety, and produce even more sadness regarding this ever burgeoning threat to human life on this planet.
Permafrost (frozen ground) comprises approximately 55 million square kilometers (21 million square miles – seasonally adjusted). This is an area, that would be the size of 322 states of Florida combined. On Earth, permafrost is present in landmasses where the soil maintains a temperature at or below 0 °Celsius (32 °Fahrenheit) for at least two consecutive years. According to scientists, nearly 24% of the landmass in the Northern Hemisphere contains permafrost.
Methane (CH4) is a hydrocarbon and is a central component of natural gas. Methane is also a greenhouse gas. So, its presence in the atmosphere affects the earth’s temperature and climate. Methane is also the second most abundant manmade green house gas after carbon dioxide (CO2). Currently, methane comprises about 20 percent of global emissions. Methane is more than 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in capturing heat in the atmosphere. Over the last 200 years, methane concentrations in the atmosphere have more than doubled. So, the point here is that the rate of thawing permafrost “thawing is occurring roughly 70 years ahead of model projections.”
Translation: The climate crisis is morphing into a force that is occurring at a pace, and magnitude, beyond the capability of current models to project. Why? Because, unanticipated changes in our interconnected climate system continue to emerge. As author Michael Lewis writes: “We often decide that an outcome is extremely unlikely or impossible because we are unable to imagine a chain of events that could cause it to occur. The defect, often, is in our imagination.”
The climate crisis and human behavior
As I have written extensively on the subject of the climate crisis and the human condition. I have addressed the challenges of human cognition, collaboration, creativity and the intersection where these three capacities collide with chronology.
In October 2002, Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman, PhD, was awarded the Nobel Prize. He, along with his colleague Amos Tversky, contributed psychological insights from their research to economic theory. Tversky observed “that people feel greater regret for bad outcomes that result from new actions taken than for bad consequences that are the consequence of inaction” (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982). Furthermore, their research indicated “losses loom larger than gains” (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979). “It is thought that the pain of losing is psychologically about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. People are more willing to take risks (or behave dishonestly; (e.g. Schindler & Pfattheicher, 2016) to avoid a loss than to make a gain.”
The term status quo bias was introduced in 1988 by Samuelson and Zeckhauser. This pair suggests that status quo bias “is evident when people prefer things to stay the same by doing nothing (see above: inertia) or by sticking with a decision made previously (Samuelson, & Zeckhauser, 1988). This may happen even when only small transition costs are involved and the importance of the decision is great.”
The status quo bias is deeply entrenched in the climate crisis. Unfortunately, “people prefer things to stay the same by doing nothing.” Furthermore, as Tversky’s research confirmed, people “feel greater regret for bad outcomes that result from new actions taken than for bad consequences that are the consequence of inaction.” Thus, the manner in which the human species is wired, does not portend well for the climate crisis. There exists an inherent tension between the inertia of the status quo and the necessity for rather drastic, immediate and ongoing systemic change to address the climate crisis. This tension is ubiquitous and keeps governments, individuals, groups and industries heavily invested in avoiding disruptions to the immediate economic benefits available.
The sheer fear intertwined amidst the climate crisis is palpable. What will we do; freeze, fight, or flight? Consider the following quote:
At its core, our tendency to freeze and resort to fight or flight mode the moment we sense any sense of danger (however small) typically stems from a sense of helplessness.
Yes, helplessness – and hopelessness. This ‘H’ bomb has detonated and spread its devastating effects upon human souls.
I will close this piece with a quote from Executive Editor of the Scientific American, Fred Guterl:
The trouble with the foreseeable future is that it has a way of arriving sooner than you think… Nobody can predict the future. All we can do is avoid a gross failure of imagination… The best argument against fiddling with the ecosystem and with the genetic makeup of wild things is that we don’t possess the knowledge or the wisdom to do so without screwing things up. Homo Sapiens cannot predict the future. Creativity is just one essential component of our ability to avoid a gross failure of the imagination. This is the preeminent global challenge we do not have the luxury of screwing up.
Will the world continue to respond with disconnected promises from our respective governments? Will we continue to measure the various dimensions of the worsening climate crisis, while failing to work proactively together to implement a global solution? Are humans capable of responding to this crisis in a vastly more effective, coordinated strategy?
Elin Kelsey, Ph.D. (in environmental policy) from the University of Victoria School of Environmental Studies says: “To be hopeless is to be uninformed,” regarding the climate crisis. Well, that’s like speaking to someone who is experiencing clinical depression and telling them to “snap out of it.” To be fair, Kelsey advocates for more solutions and progress based journalism and communication strategies.
Currently, the situation remains terribly sad. What will our collective response be? Freeze, flight, fright – allow the status quo to continue to reap economic benefits unabated while the Earth disintegrates? Or are we capable of imagining a vastly more productive way to collaboratively approach the search, development and implementation of practical, systemic solutions? Governments around the world need to acknowledge the helplessness and hopelessness people are experiencing. Honestly, people are waiting for their governments to act collaboratively, cohesively, and systemically. People are desperately hoping for help.