Don’t be a climate user – an essay on climate science communication

“A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.” – Saul Bellow

Jem Bendell, for the Deep Adaptation Quarterly, August 2022. 

As the heatwaves swept across Europe this summer, mainstream Western media gave some more attention to global heating. With 40+ degrees Celsius in the UK, for instance, many people were unnerved. They wanted to know more about what is happening and how bad it might become. This meant climate scientists were featured in the media. Then a curious thing happened. Some of those scientists began to ‘cherry pick’ the science to promote a particular narrative that the danger will cease if specific policies are pursued. They presented their view as following science, and some experts then admonished people who pointed out the scientific limitations of that perspective. Does this mean there is now an ‘establishment story’ on climate change? If so, why, and what does it preclude?

Observing a range of the expert commentary in mainstream media, it does seem that there is now an establishment narrative. It goes something like this: the situation is bad but solvable by the authorities if we, the general public, do what we are told while supporting subsidies for unproven technologies and criticising anyone who doesn’t share a faith in technology, enterprise, authority and obedience. This narrative means we should never become so worried as to drop what we are doing to challenge the system and its elites. Over the coming years this narrative is likely to be enforced by establishment spokespersons, media organisations and even Bigtech algorithms suppressing alternative views. That is likely because it mirrors the way elites have always viewed the masses as a danger to themselves. It reflects how they care more about avoiding threats to their privilege than being honest about how much suffering there already is and about to occur. As Dr Stella Nyambura Mbau, explained, writing from Kenya: “The millions of people being uprooted by climate change do not benefit from the ‘stubborn optimism’ of environmental elites. Instead, they will be better served by the stubborn realism of the experts and activists now brave enough to call for urgent degrowth in rich countries and fair adaptation everywhere.”

The topic of whether there is ‘committed warming’ in global climate from past emissions due to the inertia of the Earth’s systems is one recent example of this tendency of some experts towards establishment-friendly interpretations of available science. Because it works at a nerdy level of climate science, in the past year it has sometimes been presented by scientists in ways that fit the new establishment narrative on climate, without any challenge from journalists. Looking more closely at this ‘committed warming’ issue within climatology helps reveal to us how scientific communication may now be politicised, so that public opinion can be manipulated to protect power. In the Deep Adaptation Quarterly (DAQ) we provide insight into a world of ideas and actions freed from the establishment’s attempts to make us follow the story from their ‘cherry-picked’ science, rather than the fuller science that exists on the terrible predicament we face. My editorial for this edition of the DAQ is an essay on the dangers of the establishment’s narrative on global heating and what to do about it. To illustrate the problem, I will examine the mainstream presentation of whether there will be inevitable heating of the global climate from existing CO2 emissions.  

How much heat is inevitable?

Unfortunately for both humanity and life on earth, some analysis suggests that whatever humanity might do to curb future greenhouse gas emissions, dangerous levels of warming are already certain, baked into the atmosphere by past emissions. How much warming is baked in and how dangerous and how fast impacts will be is uncertain, as is how much our current and future efforts might reduce the risk of catastrophic damage. Let’s briefly look at just some of the evidence for that view.

Probably the world’s most famous climate scientist is Dr. James Hansen, formerly director of the NASA Goddard Institute. I admit I like him just as much for writing a biography of Neil Armstrong – the first man on the moon. But climate science is his day job. He brought climate change to global attention when he testified to the U.S. Senate in 1988 that global warming had been detected and was already impacting weather events. Since then he has approached his research by integrating insights from three key ways we can develop understanding of potential future climates: the reconstruction of past climates from paleontology, current observational data, and computer models of weather and Earth systems. In 2013 he wrote a paper with scientists from different academic fields which concluded that “cumulative emissions of ∼1000 billion tons of carbon (GtC), sometimes associated with 2°C global warming, would in reality spur “slow” feedbacks [that would cause] eventual warming of 3–4°C with disastrous consequences.” Therefore, only steeper and earlier cuts in fossil fuel emissions could protect young people and future generations from self-reinforcing feedbacks in the climate system.

This was a direct challenge to the international climate science and climate policy communities, which focus mostly on “fast” feedbacks, assuming that slow feedbacks like ice sheet disintegration, sea-level rise, and large-scale vegetation dieback will unfold in a mostly linear, orderly fashion over long timescales of centuries to millennia and can therefore be discounted in current carbon budgets. The idea they were challenging is that there is little relevant thermal inertia in the climate system, and therefore effectively no committed or ‘baked in’ warming from past CO₂ emissions. These questions generate lively discussion in climate scientists’ blogs, twitter, and academic papers. With further colleagues and modelling, Hanson confirmed that finding in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics in 2016, concluding that  “the modeling, paleoclimate evidence, and ongoing observations together imply that 2°C global warming above the preindustrial level could be dangerous.”

Hansen and his colleagues are hardly outliers: many scientists now argue that the mainstream climatology has been downplaying the sensitivity of the climate to increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Rather, “Climate change is hitting the planet faster than scientists originally thought,” explain even the scientifically cautious IPCC. If we use the geological records to look back about three million years ago, a time we call the middle-Pliocene warm period, we find CO2 levels at about current levels or lower, with global temperatures 3°C higher than what we currently experience. Because 3 is a small number, writing about 3°C might not seem very concerning. But it means something much more significant. Because it is an average for the whole planet, over sea and water, night and day. Already with only 1.2°C global ambient temperature rise above pre-industrial levels, countries are experiencing both incredible heat extremes and greater volatility of temperatures, winds and precipitation. At current 1.2°C warming, East Africa has already had four rainy seasons fail in succession. So, imagine if global warming impacts generally increased by a factor of nearly three. That is not even including any knock-on effects and tipping points that could be reached, which I will come back to in a moment. 

It is easy to see why the message from the rocks and ice cores was unappealing to people in the science bureaucracy and climate policy worlds. It meant we could not pretend that reform of capitalism would work. It meant we could not confidently claim that industrial consumer societies could transition to a new way of life. It is these highly human factors which help explain why over the last few decades the policy-making establishment has gone from wondering if manmade climate change would happen, to then wondering if it would be a problem, to then negotiating what levels of climate change could be dangerous. During that time, the interpretations of the paleontological records gave far more challenging data to the policy advisors than computer models of potential climates.

It is worth remembering that in the late 1980s, the series of U.S. Congressional hearings culminating in Dr Hansen’s testimony had already conclusively established in high-level politics that climate mitigation would require decarbonizing and restructuring the energy sectors of the world’s major economies. It was an economic and geopolitical challenge that no mainstream political party was willing to take on. The establishment of the IPCC came well after that and did not make such clear conclusions about the need to transform economies until 2022 – 30 years later. 

With that wider context in mind, the IPCC’s reliance on statisticians with computers saying ‘yes you can’ could be regarded as part of a bureaucratic intention of creating a credible myth of there being breathing space for industrial consumer societies. Two scientists summarised it well. Focusing on global temperature goals like staying below 2°C have been “attractive to politicians because they can allow political purposes [of being seen to act] to be fulfilled without necessarily having any specific actions follow” from their public pronouncements. You know, stuff that would inconvenience their donors, such as banning new investments in fossil fuels, punitively taxing high carbon lifestyles, and heavily regulating the banks. The only flaw in that tactic of disavowing uncomfortable realities was that ever more powerful  climate models started to say, “no you can’t.”

One published study reviewed model data to conclude that there will be a “delayed emergence of a global temperature response after emission mitigation” and achieving net zero emissions immediately would still allow further global heating until 2033. Another paper that reviewed outputs from the latest generation of climate models concluded that at current levels of CO2 we are destined to break through 1.5°C at least. The key story that should have been reaching the global headlines in recent years is that the latest models are predicting hotter, faster and more destabilising outcomes from greenhouse gases than the older models. That did not happen, as instead, a group of leading scientists including Dr. Gavin Schmidt (Hansen’s successor at the Goddard Institute) suggested dropping the ‘hottest’ models and weighting them by how well they compared relative to other metrics – something the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had already done in its recent report. 

If you prefer simpler models that might have less complex maths to ‘make strange’ during longer-term calculations, then you are in luck. One basic model that focused on melting permafrost controversially reported that it found a self-sustained thawing of permafrost even if all man-made greenhouse gas emissions were stopped in the model in 2020. To stop self-sustained warming in the model, enormous amounts of carbon dioxide had to be extracted from the atmosphere. 

While this last model was quickly criticised as not conforming to the high standards of more complex climate models and not further discussed in the scientific literature, it offers a lesson for further discussions. Even relatively simple models can show that self-reinforcing feedbacks can be triggered, where rising temperatures then melt the permafrost which releases huge amounts of methane, which then drives further global heating, and so on. It also shows how model findings could be dismissed for their mathematics being too simple or too complicated (i.e. the latest generation of models), if their findings are inconvenient to the establishment narrative on global heating.  

All the models I have just described included the continued functioning of ecosystems to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. But such an assumption is no longer credible. Using high-resolution satellite datasets, one study in early 2022 found a doubling of carbon emissions from tropical forest loss over the past decade. These trends have not been explicitly factored into recent assessments, including the IPCC’s latest report. The even greater concern is that major forests will flip from being sinks or absorbers of CO2 to sources, due to forest fires and drying soils. One study reported in 2022 on “direct empirical evidence that the Amazon rainforest is losing resilience, risking dieback with profound implications for biodiversity, carbon storage and climate change at a global scale.” One of the authors was Dr Timothy Lenton, who has brought attention to these kinds of feedbacks in the climate system reaching tipping points. Working with other scientists, he has found evidence that 9 of the 15 most crucial tipping points, where feedbacks probably become self-reinforcing, may have already begun. There is the additional risk that such feedbacks unleash a domino-like chain reaction or “tipping cascade” that could push the Earth system towards new ‘hothouse’ climates. That is extremely worrying, especially as this risk exists at current greenhouse gas concentrations and current levels of warming. Another worry is because the complexity of natural systems prevents us from knowing where thresholds lie until they have been crossed. Although some scientists admonish people for implying that 1.5°C or 2°C is a threshold, as every fraction of a degree matters, the critical tipping points that definitely exist in natural systems cannot be known through scientific method until it is too late. That means it would not be scientific to express high confidence that staying below a certain amount of global mean surface temperature rise will avoid any given tipping point from activating. Current research suggests that tipping elements in the Earth system can destabilise each other, for instance by lowering the critical temperature thresholds of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the Atlantic overturning circulation, and the Amazon rainforest. 

If some of this discussion seems a little abstract, then let us return to what is being observed around the world right now. Data on temperature extremes, floods, droughts, storm damage, wildfires, ice loss, sea-level rise, diseases from the wild, ecosystems collapsing and losses in agriculture, all tell us what is happening. We can even watch wildfires, the behaviour of the jet stream or methane emissions in the Arctic in real time. Studies which warn that reservoirs below and within the Siberian permafrost could be releasing methane are accessible to anyone. Some of the most dramatic changes are being observed at the poles. What is being seen there is far ahead of what the modelling projected a decade ago. For instance, climatologist Dr Xavier Fettweis said that the 2022 summer anomaly of over +5°C warmer in the Arctic “is clearly unexpected with respect to future projections”, even for the most aggressive carbon pollution scenarios that have been modelled by the IPCC. Judged by the needs of society, rather than academia, a bigger problem than the latest climate models ‘running hot’ could be that the models have been years ‘running slow’ on many aspects of the Earth system that matter most to humanity and life on Earth. 

If it feels a bit torturous reading all this, then I understand. Examining some of the dry detail of the global carnage that awaits is not the most obvious choice for how to spend our time when sensing mortality is probably nearer than we thought. I am summarising some of this science because it is being marginalised by the establishment narrative on climate change. Escaping the confines of that narrative, we could dialogue from the perspective that a terrible future awaits, that we need to learn why we failed, consider what is wrong with all our systems, attempt to avert the worst, and do the difficult work of adapting, all the while not knowing if it is going to work. That is a huge challenge to the culture of our modern societies. Will more of us try? Unfortunately, when threatened with the collapse of one’s identity, worldview, and income, some experts might prefer to focus on yet more measurements, discussions and fanciful ideas of salvation. Which brings me to the part of this essay that I wish I did not have to write – about the activities of climate scientists that are unwittingly undermining commitment to action, from both the public and our leaders.

Hope springs digital?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) doesn’t include research in its advice to policy makers unless that research has sufficient consensus within the scientific community. On the issue of whether there is committed warming from existing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, its 2014 assessment report said: “Cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond. Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped. This represents a substantial multi-century climate change commitment created by past, present and future emissions of CO2.” However, because of the lack of consensus on the amount, the IPCC did not include any ‘committed warming’ in that report’s calculations of either future temperature scenarios or what ‘carbon budgets’ exist for countries to pollute further. 

Some modellers therefore thought that further studies could help clarify if that was a reasonable position for the IPCC to take. They set out to analyse the future global warming that would result if there were immediate net-zero emissions of CO2, something called the Zero Emissions Commitment (ZEC). One study included some of the most advanced climate models in the world. The results of that project were reported in 2020 in the clearly titled paper: Is there warming in the pipeline? A multi-model analysis of the Zero Emissions Commitment from CO2 written by Dr Andrew H. MacDougall and dozens of colleagues (as it was a large international project). Although the scenario of an immediate end to all fossil fuel burning, or even net zero, was not a realistic one, theirs was effectively a study on the future inhabitability of the planet. These are strange times indeed. 

So, what did they find? The research team reported that the “models exhibit a wide variety of behaviours after emissions cease, with some models continuing to warm for decades to millennia and others cooling substantially.” Such diversity of results means either an average or median temperature figure would not necessarily give any confidence that it corresponds to reality. That meant they concluded that there was no reason from climate modelling science for the IPCC to change its approach of not including ‘committed warming’ in its calculations and policy deliberations. However, before anyone gets excited, they reminded us of a key limitation of their study due to how it only focused on CO2, whereas “many non-co2 greenhouse gases, aerosols, and land use changes affect global climate.” Therefore, it was a problem “that many models lack feedbacks related to nutrient limitation and permafrost carbon pools, [so] the strong dependence of [the ZEC50 models examining effects of zero carbon in 2050 ].. on terrestrial carbon uptake is concerning for the robustness of ZEC50 estimates.” Consequently, “to truly explore the question of whether global temperature will continue to increase following complete cessation of greenhouse gas and aerosol emissions, the effect of each anthropogenic forcing agent must be accounted for” [emphasis added]. In other words, they could not support conclusions on the future of life on Earth. But it did allow the IPCC to maintain its position that because there is low confidence from the models on the significance of existing CO2 contributing to future global heating, “the central estimate is taken as zero for assessments of remaining carbon budgets for global warming levels of 1.5C or 2C.” Nevertheless, in the FAQ for their subsequent 6th assessment report in 2021, the IPCC openly admitted that global warming and Arctic sea ice loss will continue in every possible scenario for the coming 20 years: “In summary, it is only after a few decades of reducing CO2 emissions that we would clearly see global temperatures starting to stabilize.” 

At this point I will attempt a summary of the implications of the research I have presented so far. If global CO2 emissions reach ‘net zero’, even if that would mean atmospheric concentrations of CO2 then decrease, that will not definitely stop further global warming and not stop the increasing loss and damage. Instead, due to increasing methane concentrations, degrading carbon sinks, and some likely-triggered tipping points in the Earth system, some warming will continue – perhaps a lot – even if global CO2 emissions reach ‘net zero’ to make atmospheric concentrations of CO2 decrease (which it might not, depending on unpredictable feedbacks). Even a tipping cascade toward ‘hothouse’ climates would still be possible.

Although the ZEC research team stated that their findings were unremarkably “consistent with previous model experiments and simple theory”, in the following sections I will show how some experts presented their research as highly positive news. Therefore, those communications on this topic offer a microcosm of the misrepresentations that can undermine understanding of the situation. It is therefore a case that will interest anyone involved in climate science, activism and policy, as well as people who care about telling the truth about climate change.

Don’t get in the way of a good story?

In 2021, I began to notice some experts using this ZEC study to make the case for renewed hope. In April the industry website Carbon Brief published an Explainer: Will global warming ‘stop’ as soon as net-zero emissions are reached? Their answer was that yes, it almost will. The author, leading climate commentator Zeke Hausfather, wrote that “the best available evidence shows that…  warming is likely to more or less stop once carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions reach zero, meaning humans have the power to choose their climate future.” As you already know from the discussion above, the ZEC research team did not make such a bold claim and even the IPCC stated that is not the case. Dr Hausfather used one additional study from 2010 to support his assertion, while not mentioning all the other research on the committed warming topic that I referred to earlier. When writing the article he was working with a research centre that “promotes technological solutions to environmental and human development challenges” and which is partly funded by a major investor in climate-related businesses, Breakthrough Energy

Despite a mention of the uncertainty around methane effects in that Carbon Brief article, by October the impediments to presenting this as exciting and hopeful climate news were being ignored. One article in Scientific American used the study as a basis to claim “There’s Still Time to Fix Climate—About 11 Years.” One thing I noticed is that these discussions included a lot of data which was immaterial to real world implications. That gave the appearance of scholarliness but was utterly irrelevant. For instance, some climatologists explained how the old computer simulations of climate had failed to incorporate the amount of uptake of CO2 from the biosphere, and therefore over-played the amount of ‘committed warming’ due to existing CO2 levels or future emissions. Yet that past oversight is not necessarily material to our understanding of whether there is committed warming from all greenhouse gases in the real world. Instead, it just shows that past models can be improved and therefore any model should not be the decisive means of analysing the situation with climate change, if we want to prioritise reality over the institutional biases and limitations of climate science.

In addition, I noticed how the conversation was treated seriously by so many commentators in the wider environmental sector, despite how it could be regarded as a peak of self-obsession from the scientific community. Because humanity is not going to reach net-zero overnight. Nevertheless, by February 2022 the ‘no committed warming’ story was becoming official policy advice. The well-known and dedicated climate scientist Professor Michael Mann presented this argument to the US government (via a House Committee). His testimony included that “surface warming is likely to stabilize rather quickly, i.e. within a few years, once net carbon emissions reach zero.” When mentioning his testimony, I am sensitive to how difficult it can be for a scientist acting in good faith to provide an accurate and comprehensive summary of complex science to either the public and government. In addition, there are personal, institutional and cultural pressures to downplay the idea that humanity is not in control of our situation if we now wake up and try to change. As someone who went through the process of deciding to accept how bad our situation is, and then to communicate it to others, I know what a heavy emotional burden is involved. Yet if we choose to be in the business of science communication then that is a burden we must accept. It also means we must consider how to question experts if they are telling a story about the science which is preferable to specific commercial and political interests. 

Some experts have argued the ‘committed warming’ issue is not one to spend time arguing about. I have hopefully explained its significance in revealing the problematic way some experts are approaching the topic of science communication. But it is even more important than that, at the level of social discourse, in at least two ways. First, that there is likely to be more warming even if the whole planet reaches net zero means that everyone needs to do more to prepare practically and emotionally for a future of greater disruption. It means both transformative adaptation and deep adaptation should be central topics for whole societies, not just environmental policy. Second, the existence of committed warming reminds us that there is a significant historical injustice arising from past emissions. We must not pretend that historical emissions from richer nations are less responsible for the terrible effects of climate change in poorer parts of the world. What people decide to do about ‘climate justice’ with such an awareness is another matter, but we should never downplay the harm caused from past emissions.

Don’t get in the way of a good business?

The bitter truth on the situation sometimes slips through, with articles by climate scientists Professor Bill McGuire, Professor Will Steffen and Dr. Wolfgang Knorr. Each of these men has explained that the climate will further disrupt societies whatever we do. However, most scientists keep quiet on the issue of inevitable warming and inevitable impacts. Some scientists even lambast colleagues for what they call ‘defeatism’ or ‘doomism’ and argue that we need to stay positive about the possibilities for averting catastrophic change. Such criticisms arise from incorrect assumptions on what psychology, politics and philosophy tells us about the radicalisation that can occur from ‘catastrophic imaginaries’, and how optimism can be the enemy of action.

The idea there might be no committed warming from existing CO2 emissions is particularly attractive to a range of business interests and their friends within the establishment. Some professionals do not want the public to believe anything that might undermine state subsidies for nuclear power and CO2-removal machines. To question the future viability of highly complex industrial consumer societies immediately puts further doubt on these technologies. Recognising the likelihood of ‘committed warming’ adds to such questioning.

The trillion-dollar nuclear industry seeks to benefit from climate concern but might be undermined by an anticipation of disruptive changes to weather, sea levels, and societies. Wider anticipation of the latter scenario would mean less government support and a higher cost of capital. Although the role of some forms of nuclear power is recognised by many people who anticipate societal disruption, the industry has a natural affinity with anti-doomism. The trillion-dollar renewable energy sector also benefits from climate concern. However, it does not benefit from a questioning of the inadequacy of rare earth metals to realise full electrification, the damage caused to do so, and the heating spike caused by the end of the masking effect from burning fossil fuels.

The new industry of carbon capture is also attracting multi-billion dollar investments in recent years. Looking at the energetics and economics of the Direct Air Capture (DAC) machines which suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, reveals they are not a sensible part of the necessary response to the climate crisis. That was the finding of the research team after “Assessing the feasibility of carbon dioxide mitigation options in terms of energy usage” in the top journal Nature Energy. As this message was not being heard, Peter Dynes of the MEER Reflection project attempted a simple summary. He explained that over two years the Climeworks current DAC plant will capture the equivalent CO2 of pop star Taylor Swift’s annual emissions. He said their bigger plant that is taking 18 months to build, will capture 4 years’ worth of her emissions annually. Although technologically savvy humans like to think they are not superstitious, the DAC machines may be acting like ‘lucky charms’ that are clasped by people faced with threats to their identity and worldview. Though they are far more expensive and energy-intensive than, say, a bead necklace.

The author of the Carbon Brief article that I described above is now the research lead for Stripe, a technology company that invests in CO2 removal start-ups. There are now multi-billion-dollar commercial interests in DAC machines, where the business model might involve promoting the story that they will be effective, so that they obtain subsidies from governments. To help garner that support, the venture capitalists are finding friends in foundations and universities who help to promote DAC machines as an important part of ‘climate restoration’, or ‘climate repair’.

Not using climate concern for personal benefit

In private, climate scientists tell a different story to the one most of them tell in public. According to a survey by the journal Nature, 88 of 92 IPCC-author climate scientists believed we will not keep warming below 1.5 degrees to avoid widespread catastrophic damage. Despite this, every mainstream media journalist who gets in touch with me quotes the one or two climatologists who say we can still stay below 1.5 degrees.

Evidence from social psychology suggests there may be deeper psychological factors involved in the way some climate experts limit what they say in public. History and sociology show us that, whether conscious or not, members of the establishment tend to fear the public becoming ‘unruly’ and rejecting their status and authority. That is partly the result of the indoctrination into an attitude of hierarchical managerialism that we all receive through education, media and organisational cultures. It is the attitude that managers, officials and experts are the ones to be trusted with public issues, and the general public is ‘othered’ as people needing to be controlled or guided for their own benefit.

The public reticence and private openness of some scientists may have significant societal repercussions. It means that behind closed doors the scientists are sharing their personal views. Which means some authorities have been hearing a different version of events. That may be why we read of military strategists already preparing for some of the worst-case scenarios. It might also be why we learn through leaks that some of the top banks in the world are doing the same. I hold a different view. I want civil society to be fully informed of the latest science and engaged in urgent dialogue about what to do about the terrible predicament humanity faces.

That there are patterns of communication, or discourses, that reflect and protect establishment and specific commercial interests is sociology 101. So please do not be dissuaded if someone brands this analysis in this essay as ‘conspiracy’ thinking. In doing so they would be disregarding hundreds of years of sociological critique of the nature, reproduction, and power of ideology in society. I am not interested in imagining some mythical cabal that controls everything, so that I could angrily blame ‘them’ while descending into apathy. Instead, I am keenly aware of how capitalist dynamics shape ideologies, including through the way science is interpreted and communicated. On this matter, let’s remember what Dr Nyambaru Mbau in Kenya said about this issue – privilege in the West may be leading some scientists to grasp at straws of hope in ways that help maintain their lifestyles, worldviews, and identities for as long as possible. That’s got to stop.

I now realise it is time to stop avoiding arguments within the environmental sector. It is time for more scientists to break ranks. It would be a self-involved irrelevance to complain about disrespecting climatologists. Instead, all professionals should be held accountable by society. Just because someone works in medicine does not mean they are primarily concerned with everyone’s health. Just because someone works on social issues does not mean they are primarily concerned with social justice. Just because someone works on climate does not mean they are primarily concerned with climate change. Just because someone works on change does not mean they do not distract us from more significant approaches to change.

Without any rancour or judgement, it is nevertheless time to get more personal. By that, I mean it is time to admit that those of us working on environmental issues risk becoming ‘climate users’ rather than climate defenders. Climate-users are professionals who leverage climate concern for their own wealth, status, influence, and self-esteem. Many climate users start their careers with a passionate commitment to the cause but then become part of the establishment. At that point, anyone relating to climate change in ways that challenge the systems sustaining the climate-users’ privilege are particularly aggravating to them. Therefore, some climate users even try to ‘cancel’ people they label ‘doomers’ by making false accusations and character slurs, both in private and in public. Irrational and personal attacks against ‘doomers’ may therefore be a sign that someone subconsciously perceives a threat to the psychological ‘drug’ of wealth, status, influence, and self-esteem that they gain from working on the climate crisis.

‘Climate use’ is something that those of us who work on these topics need to be wary of falling into. Because ‘climate users’ may impede us all in addressing climate change as effectively as we can. When we were in the era of climate concern, the climate users warped the policy focus onto carbon ‘cap and trade’ schemes, renewables, and corporate sustainability initiatives, rather than means for equitable systemic change. Many climate users flew around the world feeling heroic. Some became millionaires. I speak of this addiction with confidence because I was connected to that world for years, within the field of corporate sustainability. I also see evidence of this approach regularly on my LinkedIn feed – especially during conferences on climate change. 

In this new era of climate chaos, some climate users are now warping the focus onto wasteful carbon capture machines, mega infrastructure projects, and schemes for authoritarian power. They will likely maintain the establishment narrative on climate despite unfolding reality. In which case some scientists will reframe whatever happens in the real world as not undermining that narrative. For instance, they will downplay the relevance of a Blue Ocean Event in the Arctic happening decades ahead of mainstream predictions; perhaps by saying that is an invented term. They will claim breaking through 1.5C degrees warming will be just a momentary phenomenon if we use more precious energy for stupid carbon removal machines. They will imply that the enemy of carbon drawdown through forest conservation is the poor people who live in or near the forests – despite their low ecological footprints. They will blame ecological disasters from the mining needed to electrify high income countries as the fault of ‘bad management’ in ‘badly regulated’ countries. And in the most extreme and illogical irony, they will blame us climate realists as the cause of future climate chaos events, because they will say we undermined hope. Because addiction precludes reality. So climate users will be forever creative in justifying and feeding their habit.

Fortunately, any experts who want to ‘kick the habit’ of using climate concern for their own wealth, status, influence, and self-esteem can find support from a range of professional guides listed by the Deep Adaptation Forum. They offer counsel for people to find and maintain ways of engaging positively without needing the drug of deference to elite interests.

The need for more scientists to rebel, and effectively

We must move beyond the ridiculous situation where it falls to striking students to bring attention to an existential crisis for humanity. Or where it falls to me, a sociologist, with only a distant past in climate science, to join the dots on the bad news in my 2018 Deep Adaptation paper and accidentally radicalise people to join Extinction Rebellion. We need more scientists to break ranks. After scientists Dr Wolfgang Knorr and Dr Peter Kalmus approached me after the release of the Deep Adaptation paper, I put them in touch with the campaign groups Extinction Rebellion and Scientists Rebellion respectively, and they have each made great contributions, trailblazing for others in their profession. Many more need to follow, and to more effectively challenge the establishment narrative on climate which I identified at the start of this essay.

It could help if more scientists admit where they have gone wrong in the past by criticising or isolating experts who were public about anticipating climate chaos. I recall when, in 2009 the group Dark Mountain was launched by environmentalists who said that it is too late to prevent catastrophic change from environmental change, including climate, I quietly sided with the people who criticised them, such as the British journalist George Monbiot. It was emotionally easier to agree with his accusations that they had given up and might undermine change – so I did not even look further into the science nor into any assumptions about psychology that George may have been making. I had to go through my own period of emotional turmoil and reconstitute my sense of self before being able to recognise my resistance to reality was about me, not about reality. Now that I have studied some psychology, I realise that it is helpful to speak out on this issue, and not project onto others the ideas and behaviours that arise from our own fears of experiencing difficult emotions. If any of us feel upset because of other people with different perspectives to us, who are simply going about their lives without direct infringement of us, then it is not their fault we feel bad. Shooting the messenger in myriad ways is almost an instinctive human behaviour. But as the reality floods in, shooting the messengers on climate breakdown will require the rhetorical equivalent of the world’s nuclear arsenal. Instead, it’s time to make peace.

Apart from more scientists rebelling individually, there is the need for collective action to shift the narrative more broadly. That must involve challenging any commercial or establishment influences on climate communication and policy deliberations. Perhaps one practical step would be for groups of activist scientists such as Scientists for XR and Scientist Rebellion to promote more transparency about the financial interests of the individuals, organisations and publications that influence climate discourse. Large sums of money from industries with a direct interest in shaping professional and public understanding of climate change are now circulating amongst a variety of organisations. Therefore all publications that report on climate should clearly declare whether they receive any money from a source that is either directly or indirectly funded by investors in climate-related businesses and energy companies. Likewise, individual authors should declare whether they are paid or whether their employers are funded by such companies or organisations that they fund. Then we could be sceptical of any publication which does not make such declarations or require them of their authors. If we don’t attempt such shifts, then the handful of rebel scientists will remain a handful with little impact on official narratives on climate change issues. In addition, we risk the science of climatology losing trust and respect within both politics and society, due to it advancing narratives that align with specific powerful interests. (To make a start, I can declare that I believe I do not receive any funds from a climate-related business, either directly or indirectly. I am also unaware of any commercial interests that might benefit from the analysis in this essay).

Rebellious scientists could also push for a deeper epistemological shift in their profession. Currently the protocols for how to interpret data were developed prior to the existence of an emergency situation, as were the institutional norms. During emergencies, there is a need for ‘post-normal science’ where real time observational data and interdisciplinary approaches are used to inform rapid policy decisions. To help with that shift, more climate scientists could admit the failure of existing approaches to properly predict the impacts of our now-changing climate. Or the failure to sufficiently enable understanding of risk amongst the public and policy makers. With Dr Rupert Read, I discuss this issue in some detail in our book’s opening chapter: “What Climate Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Our Predicament.” We are not unusual in our critique and recommendations, as others also argue that “climate science needs to take risk assessment much more seriously.” Clearly the challenge is institutional, and so while rebellious scientists are commendable, without a strategy for institutional change they will not be able to shift conversations beyond establishment-friendly narratives. 

The wider ideological trap of sustainability

The climatologists who communicate an establishment-friendly interpretation of the science are not unusual within the environmental sector. Whether it is wilful ignorance or their chosen communication strategy to pacify the rest of us, it is something I witness in the wider field of people working on environment and development. Individually, chatting with former colleagues, they admit how the world is backsliding on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) because of systemic reasons, and that the future looks really bad. But then they ‘trot out’ the same stories of sustainable development for their employer, funders, colleagues and audiences as they have done for years. As they are paid to make a difference on social and environmental issues, maintaining this self-serving parallel reality should not go unchallenged. Therefore, along with 100 scholars, I signed a public letter calling on the international community to ditch the – now unhelpful – ideology of sustainable development. I explained why in a blog for my former colleagues in the UN, where I call for a greater focus on disaster risk reduction. Fellow signatory to the public letter, Dr Stella Nyambaru Mbau also invites the scientists and international civil servants to consider the effects of their privilege: “As I witness millions of people newly displaced and in need of humanitarian aid due to the current impacts of climate change, I wonder who has the luxury of staying positive? I have discovered that I am not alone in thinking that more scientists need to stop pretending that the future will turn out fine.”

My main reason for sharing all this critique of climate science communication is not simply for more scientists and sustainability professionals to be honest about how bad the global situation is becoming. Rather, it is to invite more awareness of how our internal drives and aversions shape the way each of us perceive reality, and the way we then communicate and act on that reality. That is important because those same inner processes will shape how we respond to whatever the reality that we come to recognise. If we remain addicted to wealth, status, influence and self-esteem, we are likely to promote problematic responses to societal breakdown. That is why I explained how there will be more support for environmental authoritarianism from the emotionally avoidant, and how to address that, in my paper in a psychology and psychotherapy journal. Many of the people engaged in the Deep Adaptation movement are taking a different approach. We recognise the seriousness of the predicament and seek to engage as positive pessimists while upholding universal values as times get tough. The latest issue of the Deep Adaptation Quarterly gives you a window on what that can involve, around the world.

What has the UN Disaster Risk Reduction agency got to do with you?

I was interviewed this week by the Independent newspaper about why more than 100 scholars from around the world issued a public letter to delegates at the UN’s event on disaster risk reduction. This provides more depth than my opinion piece in the newspaper.

Q – What was the impetus behind this letter?

Jem – The impetus for this letter is a widespread experience that many of our fellow professionals working on social and environmental issues privately know that we have been using a failing approach, with all the indicators heading in the wrong direction, but that they are hesitant to say so in public. We perceive that is because they are not yet clear on how to make sense of that failure or what might come next. They also see professional risk in criticising both capitalism and the story that our world will improve with more technology and investment. Whereas more people in the general public now sense that our systems are broken, many experts in establishment institutions continue to think they must remain upbeat in public. But signatories to the letter clearly think that attitude could undermine the needed reckonings and radical changes.

Q – Who are the signatories?

Jem – The first 100 signatories come from 27 countries and cover a range of disciplines, including climate science. They all have doctorates in their relevant specialisms. Signing in their personal capacities, they include Professor William Rees (University of British Columbia, Ecological Economics), Dr Malika Virah-Sawmy (IASS, Climate Adaptation), Dr Peter Kalmus (NASA, Climate Science), Dr Yves Cochet (Former Minister of the Environment, France), Dr Stella Nyambura Mbau (LOABOWA, Climate Adaptation) and Dr Ye Tao (MEER Framework, Climate Adaptation). [You can see the full list of 100 scholars here and read a press release about the letter here.]

Q – Why do you think the SDGs have failed?

Jem – The world is halfway through the time allocated for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the UN reports countries have gone backwards on most of them. That is even before the inflation, energy and food polycrises of 2022. This failure was predicted at the outset, by scholars who identified the impossibility of promoting ecologically-demanding consumer lifestyles as the means of progress for all. 

The ideology of Sustainable Development is so ingrained after 30 years that the UN’s own report on near total absence of progress towards achieving the Global Goals – now half way through the time period – has been largely ignored. The potential from having such goals is measurability and accountability. Yet the implications of failure are being ignored. So I think many people working in the international field of cooperation on environment and development could be in denial. To address that, we produced the ‘owngoals’ graphic, which makes the situation more stark. I hope we do not see too many professionals in this field more annoyed by this graphic than the reality of suffering and loss which it describes. Because such reactions would raise uncomfortable questions about their current motivations. Thankfully, I already know that many colleagues are grateful for the chance to challenge the complacency and lack of accountability.

Q – What do you propose as the alternative?

Jem – Our main proposal is that we all stop pretending that we can grow economies, reduce poverty and avert environmental disasters. Once we drop the myth that economic expansion is always helpful, a variety of ideas can come into view for either reducing or coping better with social and environmental problems. In the research paper ‘Replacing Sustainable Development’ I cite a range of philosophies for organising society, ranging from the Vatican to Bali. The problem is that the current monetary systems impose a need for economic growth in order to maintain a stable economy. That is not a natural feature of the way economies work but one designed by bankers over many years for their own ends.

But in that paper, and in this letter, the focus is on the UN and international aid. We think that the existing capabilities and networks in Disaster Risk Reduction need to be made central to future policy-making, at home and abroad. That doesn’t sound fun or hopeful, but people don’t need experts to do their dreaming for them. We can pursue our own dreams, while government and aid agencies help with the increasing risks that we all face due to environmental breakdown.

Q – Why do you suggest “degrowth” of wealthy economies?

Jem – It is impossible to decouple resource consumption and pollution from economic growth sufficiently to reduce risks of catastrophic damage to all societies from environmental changes over the coming years. The UN’s own research shows we don’t have the materials to electrify everything worldwide, so the implication is richer countries, and richer individuals in particular, must reduce their consumption levels. Clearly that idea isn’t super appealing to the folks at Davos. Neither is it appealing to anyone if it not done fairly and with a focus on wellbeing. Crucially, the economic and monetary systems need to change to allow that kind of contraction without bankrupting small businesses and households.  A chapter in my co-edited book Deep Adaptation explores aspects of the re-localization of economies that is now necessary.

Q – Why did you choose to release this letter at this particular summit?

Jem – Some of the people involved the UN Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) agency are exposed to the harsh realities of increasing disasters around the world. That was shown by their most recent Global Assessment Report. Many of them know that we are entering an era of ‘metadisaster’, by which I mean an ongoing global disaster of environmental breakdown that affects every aspect of our societies.

The UNDRR only convenes government officials every two years to discuss trends, policies and assistance. Whereas this event is largely ignored by the world’s media and national leaders, we think that the agenda it works on will become central to international relations in future. It can’t copy the mistakes of 30 years of sustainable development policy making being deferent to global capitalism. We want to encourage them to break with that and develop a more realistic and helpful response.

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Q – You say the “assumptions that underpin the SDGs are invalid” — what would you say are those assumptions?

Jem – In the research paper “Replacing Sustainable Development” I explain that the ideological worldview behind the SDGs one where “material and technological progress is both good and inevitable; where humanity will balance social, economic and environmental issues to progress materially, and; that it is a priority to foreground corporate economic interest.”

I argue that these assumptions are politically convenient for some people, and have avoided irreconcilable priorities over the past 30 years:

“Sustainable Development became a systemic greenwash, undermining challenges to structural power that were posed by people and organisations we might loosely describe as anti-imperialist. Therefore, the apparently apolitical quality of Sustainable Development was actually highly political in its consequences. By framing the generic planetary need as one of more and better management and technology, rather than more freedom from manipulative and oppressive systems, it justified the further extension of managerial power, both corporate and bureaucratic.”

I argue the worldview within Sustainable Development is based “a range of underlying cultural assumptions as necessary for societies to organise the destruction of the living world so effectively. One is anthropocentrism, where humans are considered the centre and purpose of all Life. Second is androcentrism, where patriarchal ways of being and organising are privileged so that aspects of being and knowing that are regarded as feminine are systematically marginalised. Third is the desacralisation of nature, where all Life is seen as merely material phenomena with no intrinsic worth, without mystery or sanctity, so it can be utilised or substituted whenever those with the power choose to do so.”

Whereas such critiques have been seen in the past as too radical or esoteric, the harsh human implications of environmental breakdown remind us that, speaking purely pragmatically, nature was always the boss. The paper is currently under review, and I am looking forward to the feedback.

Q – Why is this important?

Jem – People’s lives are increasingly in danger from the effects of an environmental breakdown that is made worse by the current economic system and those who promote or apologise for it. The people who manage large budgets and make policies need to recognise the new situation we are in, so as not to make matters worse and have a chance to reduce harm as societies are disrupted. On the other hand, people who have given up on expecting any meaningful action from large institutions need to recognise the harm that could be done by those institutions when panicked and operating from a redundant paradigm. Of course, none of these attempts to shift attention may work at scale, with complacency, cowardice, or greed characterising the behaviour of managerial elites over the coming decades. However, it feels important to many of us to try.

Q – Anything I haven’t asked?

Jem – Perhaps, what can a member of the general public do? At this stage there needs to be a global awakening to the precipice that humanity has reached, so that we might all individually explore our own responses in our own communities. It starts with simply talking. Not just sharing on social media, but actually talking to each other about this information, in an open-hearted and open-minded way. Not rushing to blame, shame, fix or deny. Allowing our shock and worry to exist – and supporting each other as we experience those emotions. Then deciding if we want to become ‘positive pessimists’, where we openly try to make the best of a bad situation, by doing good and finding joy, no matter what is to come.

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Read the article in the Independent newspaper about the letter and drawing on this interview.

If you have a PhD and would like to engage other scholars in helping shift the policy agenda to one that recognises reality and the unfolding societal disruptions it entails, then please consider signing the original International Scholars Warning on Societal Disruption and Collapse.

If you are interested or working on related themes, but not a scholar, then I recommend the Deep Adaptation Forum.

If you are in the UK and would like to study leadership and communications on these topics in a 5-day starting on June 13th, then the deadline for your application is June 8th!

I attended the event to present the letter to delegates

Telling Uncomfortable Truths to Progressives

Despite us having learned to be human within capitalist societies, more of us are breaking free from its limiting ideologies. Those ideologies include deep stories about dominating nature, competitive humans, constricted knowing, and perpetual material expansion, which surround us nearly all the time. That is why those ideologies also express themselves within social movements, political agendas, and some of our friends’ social media postings about latest fixation of legacy media. And as those ideologies shape our habits of thought, to separate ourselves from them can be difficult. Which is why it is so heartening to witness more people breaking free and beginning to live differently – and now calling on others to do the same. Whether staying in their jobs and promoting different ways of working, or quitting to make time to create local cooperatives, permaculture projects, emotional support groups, or to promote needed technologies and public policies, many people are improving their lives and those of others.

We do not read about them in the headlines of the legacy media or its echo chambers in social media. More often than not, such people are just getting on with their new way of life. However, we all still live within societies where the various elites jostle for status and control, producing their stupid political agendas and policies in the process. That means it can be helpful when those of us freeing ourselves from capitalism’s diminishing ideologies also try to influence public understanding and public policies. The outcomes from public engagement can seem rather limited, while also generating angry responses from people who have made it their place to influence public attitudes from the confines of dominant ideology. That means that some of the worst commentary from ‘progressive’ social activists and political pundits is directed neither at the right wing nor at institutional power. Instead, their criticism is sharpest for people who break a consensus on what is ‘progressive’ to say, by sharing truths that undermine those stories that allow people to maintain self-esteem through comfortable opposition. I will share a few examples before explaining why this reaction is deeply unhelpful to necessary social change, and then cite some of the wonderful work and people who are not being limited by such negativity.

In the UK, starting from 2015, the politician Jeremy Corbyn was disliked by much of the centrist Left because his presence challenged the idea that we must always find an upside for big business for any policy proposed. In 2020, after the Deep Adaptation paper had energised a couple of years of activism after it had gone viral, I was criticised by the eco-modern centrist environmentalists for not helping climate activism. Such criticism also included some imaginative concoctions that made me seem distasteful to their readers. Many British professional environmentalists applauded that critique, perhaps because maligning the messenger would seem to keep their reformist hopes alive. The alternative would involve asking themselves, as I had done, whether their work was futile, and they were lying to themselves to keep their income, status, and identity.

Fast forward to 2022, and the uncomfortable truth for Western environmentalists is that the ecomodern vision of economies thriving on renewable energy within a stable climate is, I am sorry to say, utter bullshit. Worse, it is the kind of bullshit that will promote destructive policies that damage the environment and indigenous communities. If that isn’t bad enough, it will distract many of us from the need for policies that could help shrink Western economies in as equitable and life-enhancing ways as possible. When looking at the data from organisations as authoritative as the UN IEA, as well as relevant academic studies, it is obvious that ecomodernism is bullshit. Therefore, much of the support for it is due to the corporate and venture capitalists’ interests in further plundering the planet for profit, while distracting us from real change, which requires a Real Green Revolution. Some of the people who are promoting the ecomodern fairy-tale know that it is not possible. That might explain why they demonise people who openly point out the limitations and call for more of a focus on degrowth and re-localisation of economies. But unless environmentalists pursue our freedom from oppression by ideologies maintained by capitalism, we may end up with misanthropic and authoritarian attitudes and proposals.

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Away from the rhetorical performances of people who are concerned that we might flee the ‘house of modernity’, people at the grassroots in communities and local governments have been trying their best to reduce environmental impacts and stimulate dialogues about how to adapt to a more disrupted future – both environmentally and economically. One person doing that within UK local government is Kevin Frea. He is the Deputy Leader of Lancaster City Council. He also established the network amongst the UK Councils that have declared a climate emergency. That is why I was delighted to see Kevin warn of the potential of ecomodern delusions within the reformist Left, in an article in the Morning Star newspaper, which I reprint below. It is also why we wanted to hear from him during a Deep Adaptation Q&A last week.

Kevin will be joining me and other participants on a short sustainable leadership course in Lancaster in June. During the course we explore more critical approaches to understanding the situation we face and how positive change can happen. We depart from the ecomodern lullabies that try to calm us with myths that technology, billionaires and authoritarian leaders will make the bad stuff go away. Instead, we face the present predicament and coming disasters with more sobriety and maturity. It is painful work, but nourishing when shared between brave souls, and I invite you to join us if you can get to the UK next month.

We have work to do, as most pressure groups, pundits and publications of the Western environmental sector currently flounder amidst the lies of ecomodernism. Whereas it is disappointing to witness British magazines like The Ecologist and Open Democracy stumble into aggressive and divisive defence of ecomodern delusion, in the end ‘the truth will out.’ And although it can be painful to be on the receiving end of misleading and denigrating critique, we can understand the fear that motivates such behaviour. Because it is a fear that we all share and will accompany us for the rest of our lives. It is a fear we can both name and learn from as we celebrate radical responses to our predicament. Because they already exist, as the economic re-localisation chapter in my Deep Adaptation book illustrates. The authors of that chapter have been doing incredible work, free of capitalism’s diminishing ideologies. Matthew Slater has been designing the systems for communities to trade within themselves without using money, as a way to help grow their resilience to future economic and environmental shocks. Extinction Rebellion founder member Skeena Rathor has been rolling out new approaches to help people be in community in ways that embody collaborative and matrifocal ways of organising. Like Kevin, they know it is also time to tell uncomfortable truths to progressives.

Please join us: share your stories of hopes, failures, and successes. Anywhere! But also, via the Deep Adaptation Leadership group on LinkedIn. If you are in the UK next month, please also consider participating in the free Deep Adaptation conference in Lancaster. If you want to be informed of the latest radical ideas and practices in response to our environmental predicament, please sign up to the Deep Adaptation Quarterly newsletter. You can find out about Skeena’s effort to transmute the punishment of her by the British state here.

Here is the video of the Q&A with Kevin Frea and below that is his article in the Morning Star.

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Book review of Burnt, by Kevin Frea, in The Morning Star

The recent trio of IPCC reports have amplified the urgent need for carbon emissions to be reduced by 50% by 2030, starting now. Incredibly, rather than support the demands of the ‘Just Stop Oil’ protestors to halt all new fossil fuel projects (a call supported by the International Energy Agency and the Secretary-General of the UN) the Labour, Lib Dem & Conservative parties have called for the protestors to be ‘cracked down on’ and for their demands to be rejected.

I celebrated at the Labour Party Conference in 2019 when a Green New Deal and a 2030 zero carbon target were adopted in the face of strong opposition from the big Unions and even Labour’s own Environmental Society, SERA. Chris Saltmarsh co-founded ‘Labour for a Green New Deal’, so I opened his book with high expectations. However, reading Burnt alongside other analyses of the necessary changes to the British economy and society, from ‘Limits to Growth’ published in 1972 to ‘Less is More’ by Jason Hickel, I fear that inconvenient truths about reducing energy and resource consumption are being ignored in policy discussions. We’ve had more than fifty years of strategies to address the climate & ecological emergencies yet their collective impact has hardly hindered the machine which is literally laying waste to our life-support system.

Chris sets the scene in a chapter surveying humanity’s dire situation. Perhaps to widen the appeal, it stopped short of the most recent and most apocalyptic predictions..Saltmarsh, like Greta Thunberg, leaves the details to the experts in order to make his next point about justice – the best section of the book. He gives concrete examples of how government programmes and climate interventions all-too-inadvertently hurt some of the people they intended to help. For Saltmarsh, any climate action must be steeped in notions of justice, and that brings us to politics.

He argues strongly that government engagement is a necessary part of the climate response equation, and therefore that the climate movement must win political power, then this remark: “Whichever [strategy] we choose [to win state power], we should really go all in on it.” Burnt, p.127

This is a little bit troubling because the world does not work like that anymore, if it ever did. These are times of fragmentation, plurality, when the subject of protest changes every few months, when most manifestations last a single day, when agents provocateurs and corrosive conspiracy theories attach themselves to every alternative movement. Elections are not won when half the electorate chooses a strategy. Elections are won by political messaging which is broad enough to appeal to half the electorate.

He then sketches out 9 policy pillars of a Just Green New Deal, nothing surprising there, except that he didn’t mention any of the problems with gaining traction for the whole idea of greening the economy. He could be forgiven if he missed the 2020 paper in the One Earth journal entitled “Green Sacrifice Zones, or Why a Green New Deal Cannot Ignore the Cost Shifts of Just Transitions.” Like many other analyses, it gives scores of reasons not only why there simply aren’t enough resources to green our energy systems, but also why no attempt to do so could be considered ‘just’; not only are there not enough minerals to go around, so that wealthy countries would control their allocation, but the mineral extraction itself would consume resources, and damage habitats, ecosystems and livelihoods. Given that these ideas were presented in an accessible documentary called Bright Green Lies, no serious treatment of the topic should ignore them.

Just one more piece of the puzzle remains, which is how the Left should take power. Many people would find his answer, through the trade unions, surprising. He gives many anecdotes about trades union successes, even recent ones, but even I understand that Thatcher and Reagan ‘broke’ the unions for a reason, and New Labour did little to build them up. Now most of the unions (with a handful of notable exceptions who despair of the current Labour Leadership) could be characterised as neutered, de-radicalised, infected by managerialism and representing much more middle-class interests and many Tory voters; it takes a vivid imagination to see them rising up and sweeping the Labour Party into power.

Saltmarsh’s strategy seems ill-timed to say the least. He must have started work on the book very soon after Corbyn’s election loss, not an ordinary defeat or a close defeat, but a defeat largely made possible by members of his own party who preferred to lose to the right than win as the left. Thirty-five years ago this strategy would have been apposite, five years ago would have seemed improbable but prophetic in the light of Corbyn’s rise, but now? Corbyn has been replaced by a neoliberal unelectable nobody, and the left banished to the outer margins of politics. I for one would not double down on a strategy of Labour winning the next election, or the one after that.

This is after all a climate emergency, and local councils have declared it as such as a direct result of Climate Strikers and Extinction Rebellion’s campaigning. That provides a commitment that future campaigns can and should call upon. This is a greater legacy than Jeremy Corbyn’s two lost election campaigns, but Saltmarsh, who had ‘moved on’ from direct action, considers it only as evidence of XR’s political failure. This is a shame because at the local level much can be done, and where Labour is actually allowed to govern. It also offers a viable path to work towards national influence and power, while achieving more immediate changes in the lives of citizens.

Despite its use of past tense in the title, the biggest limitation of Burnt was the whole framing of climate change as something which is coming, and which can be averted. Anyone versed in the climate justice discourse knows that global heating is already ruining the lives of the most vulnerable, and will certainly worsen considerably, before any of our mitigative attempts can make a dent in it. Talk of evading it is simply naive. This false ‘we can still evade it’ also brings with it a relentless focus on a very clear, but very improbable notion of success, which sets us up to fail very badly. It is time for the climate movement to admit that it has tried everything and not even come close to tackling the causes of the climate and ecological emergencies, which are very deep, and in which our elites are very invested. A significant amount of effort must now be given over to adaptation to the new reality. In that context, a union powered neo-Corbyn victory and a just Green New Deal might be worth fighting for, or they might not.

But one remark toward the end cast the whole book in a new light and somewhat redeemed it, at least for me. It turned a political what-if into a psychological thriller. For one moment, another Saltmarsh, hitherto doubtless cowed into embarrassed silence, piped up with five words. Even though bracketed, it was music to my ears.

“We don’t have to be optimistic (On most days I’m not) but we can be hopeful.”

That Saltmarsh, hesitant and vulnerable, who stuck his head above the parapet to be shot at by the fake optimists, gets my salute. Those five meek words reveal that the louder Saltmarsh, and many big environmentalists besides, are proclaiming to us the comforting lies they tell themselves to avoid the pain of thinking realistically about the future. But neither volume nor repetition are measures of Truth.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that the book inaccurately dismisses a movement which is all about helping people through climate despair, Deep Adaptation, as ‘austere primitivism’. Instead, a more sober and inclusive range of ideas, big and small, are being pioneered after despair within that movement, as chronicled in a book about it. If young people could be guided through their despair rather than drowning it under reams (in this case chapters) of wishful thinking, something more impactful could emerge to shape the difficult future they must now live into.

Kevin Frea is Deputy Leader of Lancaster City Council and the founder of Climate Emergency UK. He originally joined Labour in the 70’s (and SERA when it had eco-socialist tendencies) and then re-joined in 2015 to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign and became a Councillor in 2017. He resigned from Labour with several fellow Councillors when the new leadership of the Labour Party abandoned the Conference net zero commitments, and is now an Independent Eco-Socialist.

It’s time they heard from you on societal breakdown

EDITORIAL for the Deep Adaptation Quarterly, Issue 10, April 7th 2022.

Over the past months, a few new terms have appeared in the news as pundits seek frameworks to explain what is happening around the world. I have read that we are in a period of polycrisis, or permacrisis, or even World War 3. There are various reasons offered for why more of us are experiencing tougher and increasingly anxious circumstances. Since the pundits work for legacy media organisations, the explanations we hear are anything other than the death throes of global capitalism as it hits natural limits. And since they speak from within the ‘Overton window’ of respectable conversation, neither do we hear that our situation can be described as the beginning of the breakdown of industrial consumer societies. Instead, a superficial, distracting, and sedating hope of returning to something more ‘normal’ is a compulsion for them. So I am pleased to greet you here in this Quarterly, outside that narrow scope of perception. 

Continue reading “It’s time they heard from you on societal breakdown”

Where Wisdom and Geoengineering Meet

More climate scientists say emissions cuts are not enough and we face imminent catastrophe unless deliberately altering the climate. What are the options and challenges? I interviewed Dr Ye Tao who is proposing we use massive amounts of mirrors to reduce harm in the short term.

By Jem Bendell

In 2018, Dr Ye Tao was a Harvard engineer working on nanoscale magnetic resonance imaging. He read the Deep Adaptation paper on climate disaster, then cross-checked it with over a thousand peer-reviewed papers across several climate-relevant fields, and realised the growing existential risk to modern civilisation. So that included everything he was working on. He wondered what would be the point of continuing with his engineering work in such a scenario. Instead, Dr Tao decided to repurpose his expertise to try to give humanity a better chance of reducing the catastrophe ahead. Dr Tao has since been developing and promoting what he argues is a scalable, safe, green and flexible form of climate engineering. It proposes using mirrors to reflect the sun, mostly from the ground and over coral reefs at sea, to cool agricultural land, save fresh water, and preserve ecosystems. He arrived at this idea after analysing and debunking the science and economics behind other approaches to geoengineering (which is also known today as ‘climate repair’ and ‘climate restoration’). 

Continue reading “Where Wisdom and Geoengineering Meet”

Don’t blame Putin or Covid for your sky-high grocery bill

Today I launched my essay about the biggest scam in human history, which is the Central Bank buying of corporate bonds. The essay is available on the P2P Foundation website. I am delighted a promoter of radically democratic economic alternatives published the essay, as the scale of the ‘Quantitative Sleazing’ scam is an indicator of how it is hopeless to attempt reform of the monetary system. The multi-millionaires and their relatives in charge of the relevant financial institutions will continue to risk the collapse of monetary systems while enriching themselves and making us poorer through high inflation. You can read the full essay Responding to Inflation From a Pandemic of Quantitative Sleazing – P2P Foundation or browse below the twitter thread I produced to summarise some of the issues arising.

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Don’t blame #Putin or #Covid for your sky-high grocery bill. Blame the elites who collude with the biggest scam in history, involving #CentralBanks and their friends in finance, under the cover of the pandemic. A thread on #QuantitativeSleazing…

Continue reading “Don’t blame Putin or Covid for your sky-high grocery bill”

Hoarding Green Righteousness Will Not Get Us Far – dialogue will

Looking at how some people in the West use the term ‘climate justice,’ I wonder if we are seeing the latest in middle class Western instrumentalization of the suffering and injustices of the world, for the purposes of further self-appreciation. That can occur because of the way commentators within the contemporary Western environmental movement have been inculcated in the hierarchical ideology of the Professional Managerial Class. Within that ideology, there is an instinct towards what Professor Catherine Liu calls ‘virtue hoarding’ where any issue of moral consideration is material for adding to one’s story of being an ethically superior self, who needs to impose one’s ideas on other people, particularly the working class. As decolonial scholar Professor Vanessa Andreotti explained in her Q&A with me, there is a lot more ‘composting of our shit’ from modernity that we need to do first before being useful in promoting either justice or healing after centuries of colonial domination.

Perhaps an example of this phenomenon is the discussion emerging around a rather ‘uppity’ damning of the Deep Adaptation movement that was published in The Ecologist Magazine. In an open letter by one of the authors on the receiving end of their ire, Matthew Slater wrote the following to the author:

Continue reading “Hoarding Green Righteousness Will Not Get Us Far – dialogue will”

Annual update from Jem

This is the update I sent to subscribers to my personal professional newsletter, which I hadn’t sent for a year.

Many of us intuited, or calculated, that life would not really return to ‘normal’, even if we did not expect war in Europe. I hope that despite the stresses and strains, that your past year has had some silver linings. For me, it was a year of change. Workwise, it was a big year for my written outputs, with a book and journal articles out on Deep Adaptation to climate chaos. But it was also a creative time, with more poetry, art and music than ever before. For that, I blame the virus. But more on that later. First, I want to mention one thing that didn’t happen. I didn’t teach in person at all! So, I am super happy that in June I will once again lead a weeklong leadership course in the English Lake District. I hope I remember how to stand in front of people, rather than sit in front of a screen. And I hope that rationality and ethics prevail over jingoism, pride and hidden agendas, so that we see a resolution to the conflict in Europe well before then.  

Deep Adaptation now has a nice Wikipedia page, which tells people that it is not just a painful paper from 2018, but also a framework and international community – perhaps even a movement. A book I co-edited with Rupert Read was released that illustrates the many ways people are positively engaging after anticipating societal disruption, or even collapse. We had a great book launch with Joanna Macy and Professor Jonathan Gosling amongst the contributors. I gave an extended interview to FacingFutureTV about what this book and topic means for me, and was delighted to read a reflective review of the book in World Literature Today (perhaps start with that to decide if the book topic is of interest).

As an academic, I sought to produce research that is relevant to practice. The journal Sustainability published my co-authored paper Group Facilitation on Societal Disruption and Collapse: Insights from Deep Adaptation, which we hope help will people that hold space and design education on this topic. A journal of psychotherapy published a paper I wrote about Psychological insights on discussing societal disruption and collapse. In that paper I summarised the sociology and psychology on the way that some members of the general public can become supporters of authoritarian policies when they feel increasingly vulnerable, anxious and confused. That paper and topic was picked up by a founder member of Extinction Rebellion when she discussed the need to consider collapse and not respond with authoritarianism. More on that in a minute.

During the year I gave a few presentations, such as a panel talk at the International Leadership Association. However, my main interest for online live conversation continued to be hosting other people to share their views relating to societal disruption and collapse. I discussed topic with a variety of people, including the chairperson of Amnesty International, Dr. Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, Scott Williams the UN Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) agency and Asiya Odugleh-Kulev of the – newly controversial – World Health Organisation (WHO). A full playlist of past Q&As is available.

As you might have noticed, although the topic of societal collapse was super weird and annoying for most people in 2018, it is much less so now. Instead, as the Deep Adaptation agenda is more widely accepted as useful for reducing harm as societies destabilise, it is just me that remains super weird and annoying. I jest, but my aim was to help Deep Adaptation to become a global conversation, and then step away from the curation of that to offer my views on what it might involve. Those views can be triggering for some people who might not be as radically eco-socially libertarian as myself. Although I instinctively have human rights, social justice and anti-patriarchy at the heart of my thinking, the stuff I critique or promote from that starting point can be different to what others think. Obviously, when us woke-folks disagree, we think that each other should not have existed 😉 OK, not true. Even when they call upon people to ‘cancel’ me. Henceforth, my main outlet for a radical rights-based and solidarity agenda on responding to societal disruption is the newly revamped Deep Adaptation Quarterly, which I recommend you subscribe to (unlike this, it does come out every 3 months!).

A year after I had left the Deep Adaptation Forum, I wondered out loud whether we could do a bit more to bring attention to kinder and wiser forms of responding to calamity than the denialist, reactionary, prepper, authoritarian or technology-will-save-the-day narratives that are increasingly heard. To do my bit, I kept developing the Scholars Warning initiative, which released a paper on the ethics of collapse, and also a public letter signed by over 200 scholars in response to the failure of the COP26 climate conference, like all before it, to address the capitalist elephant in the corporate boardroom. [If you are a scholar, please visit the website and consider signing the letter, as then you can get involved in a range of activities and receive support in the form of courses and communications advice]. 

For reasons I am not certain about, in the past year I spent more time engaged in poetry and art. I worked with an artist and film maker to put one of my poems to music and film, which was also released as a nonfungible token (NFT) as a charity fundraiser. But the main creative thing for me in the past year was discovering that I can write songs, sing them and release them. Also, that I can appear in my own music videos without too much awkwardness about how stupid I look. This creative episode came about because I got Covid and spent a few weeks in my bedroom, quite bored and lethargic, but angry about the state of the world. Not a good combo. So my guitar and song writing became my therapy. I wrote, sang and recorded songs for the first time in my life. I released 4 of the songs as an EP called Fevered Folk, which is available on all major streaming services and online shops. One of the songs is intended as an anthem for unity amongst all forms of non-violent protest, as our rights are removed by governments worldwide and characters demonised by mass media (#LoveAndRage). Another of the songs is a dark comedy about the aggressive polarisation on the pandemic (#PositiveSong). Another song is about trusting that people, myself included, will get through periods of combativeness and return to kindness and wisdom (#TrustWeGetThere). The fourth song is called “Something’s Needling Me” and is a protest against the orthodox policy agenda on the pandemic and the mass media ignoring, censorship or demonisation of any experts and doctors who question aspects of that orthodoxy. Which brings me to the other big thing of my last year – learning about epidemiology and public health, while also applying my skills of analysing frames and narratives to what was happening in the mass media during the pandemic.

I tend to start on this topic by reminding everyone that journalists of large media outlets have admitted they have been deliberately trying to manipulate attitudes on the pandemic and our responses to it. In itself, that is wrong and means that the potential for reasonable conversations about policy options for public health are impaired. It means that if you have not looked into things for yourself, and sought opinions from expert epidemiologists, immunologists, and vaccinologists who do not work as spokespersons for government, ministries and related professional bodies (i.e. the medical establishment), then you are misinformed. I don’t mean to be impolite – and some people can be thankful for being informed they are misinformed. But it is worse than that. The misinformation has targeted your values and morals to manipulate not only your thoughts but your feelings about this issue – because that is what professionals in persuasion techniques do, and they have been advising the authorities and media. If you come on my course in June you would learn about how these ‘dark arts’ weaponize moral psychology to manipulate us, and the complicated issues that arise for those of us who want to communicate powerfully at times but abhor manipulation. I also give examples in my writings on Covid, which I will link to below.

My view is that the orthodox agenda was overly influenced by pharmaceutical companies and a managerialist ideology which meant societies did not first focus on how to empower each other to take responsible decisions. For instance, people in precarious working arrangements were commuting to work despite being symptomatic, because otherwise they would not get paid or risk their employment. As the months passed and media became nastier about open discussion and governments became oppressive about personal health choices, I grew more uncomfortable. Then, as roughly about half the people I knew in either the environmental fields or Deep Adaptation communities seemed to begin dehumanizing people and supporting the removal of their human rights, I decided to share my ideas on an alternative approach. In October, I explained why a more citizens-based approach to the pandemic is sensible and some of what it could involve. It was very close to the ideas of the Great Barrington Declaration, but with more attention to workers’ rights. If you are interested in contrarian views that are neither conspiracy nor hard right, then I list my series of writings on the topic here. In one of my essays, I explain how the reaction to Covid can be regarded as a step towards societal breakdown, and thus clearly a topic for Deep Adaptation. If you prefer videos, then I recommend my recorded presentation to an African audience, that summarises my views on what we could learn from how Africa has been the world’s leader in avoiding public health harm from pandemic.

Given how confident the followers of the orthodoxy are that they are intellectually and morally correct, I knew that sharing my ideas would generate a painful backlash. Despite that backlash, I know I am lucky not to have experienced the kind of medical aggression from family members, neighbours, shopkeepers and employers, that so many people have experienced due to their personal health decisions and views. That medical aggression was even a contributing factor to someone I know committing suicide. Therefore, I helped to launch a network of support circles called Freedom To Care, which are free to join if you have been experiencing difficult because of not agreeing with the orthodoxy of the pandemic. Ironically, or tragically, some people have prevented information about these emotional support circles reaching people in the networks they support. And so I am mentioning them here in my personal newsletter.

Looking back, the year since I last sent an update has often been quite stressful. I have a particular sadness at seeing that the efforts of the Deep Adaptation Forum to promote curiosity, compassion and respect in response to growing anxieties about vulnerabilities have not always prevented some participants from expressing bigotry, hate and disrespect in ways encouraged by state officials, mass media and BigTech censorship. It is also sad that some people then consider I am being divisive by criticizing such behaviours, rather than reflecting on their own by-standing to hatred allied to state power and corporate greed. I am also sad, although understanding, that whereas many people involved in either environmentalism or Deep Adaptation have written to me to express support, nearly all of them explain that either they cannot speak out due to professional concerns, or because they do not wish to expose themselves to the disgust of their peers. Given that people outside such communities of interest have been far quicker to speak out, I wonder what this indicates about where solidarity with truth, rights, peace and justice will be found as societies crumble. Perhaps not from people who live in middle class ‘comfortable opposition’ within advanced consumer societies? Or perhaps it is just taking a little time for people to work through their fears and recommit to resisting authoritarian responses to social concerns. I hope so!

To help me with the stresses of the past year, I have been grateful for the weekend retreats every two months that I co-lead at a Buddhist Temple. On one of those retreats I rescued a kitten who had been abandoned there. He has reminded me of the simple yet profound stuff that all of us lifeforms both need and give.

If only we could teach the world to purr, in perfect harmony. But first, here’s that first music video I released…

I posted this newsletter as an article on LinkedIn and welcome your feedback shared over there.

Subscribe to my biannual (twice a year) bulletin.

Leading in disruptive times – support yourself with a short course

“The mix of gentle, reflective and meditative practices, joyful play, hard academia and questioning debate and conversation allowed me to engage with each element in a different way, and preventing me from becoming weary mentally or emotionally from too much of one thing.” A past participant in a week long leadership course in the Lake District, UK, with Jem Bendell and Katie Carr.

Most leadership courses that I know about are taught with assumptions that the world is getting better, that we know what better means, and that students of leadership want to play a larger role in that success. Whether leadership is being developed in management schools, public policy schools or by professional development consultants, those assumptions seem pervasive. As a Professor of Leadership, over the past decade I have attended many such courses, from the hills of Bali to halls of Harvard Uni. Even those leadership courses that are themed on the problems of environmental sustainability and social justice incorporate those three assumptions. If you think they are reasonable, perhaps even aspirational, then you would not be alone. Because they are assumptions that relate to some of the core ideas of modern societies. However, I take a different view. I believe that seeking personal success within a society that one assumes to be progressing is now an unhelpful starting point for learning leadership that meets the predicaments of our time. Courses that respond to that idea can even encourage people to regard themselves, others, and the world, in counterproductive ways. Instead, helpful forms of leadership in disruptive times can start from the perspective that the world is not going to get ‘better,’ that we can drop inherited ideas of what ‘better’ means, and that students of leadership can seek to engage positively in society without attachment to pre-determined outcomes. Rather, we can engage in leadership learning as a way of exploring what to become, and what to do, as societies become more unstable and the old ways of life break down.

Since 2014, I have taught a leadership course over a week that grows from this alternative starting point. Many participants have found the shifts in perception of both themselves and our times to be life changing. They have come from many walks of life – UN, governments, political parties, local governments, corporations, banks, NGOs, the police, academics and activist groups – and from many parts of the world. Since 2018, after I personally concluded that the collapse of industrial consumer societies is inevitable, the context of increasing disruption and the framework of ‘deep adaptation’ have become more important to the course. If this concept is new to you, I recommend listening to the introduction to my book on Deep Adaptation. Over the years, many of the alumni have stayed in touch and provide ongoing mentoring to each other. Because making a positive contribution to societies in crisis requires constant re-evaluation and looking after one’s own emotional wellbeing, that ongoing support is important.

Continue reading “Leading in disruptive times – support yourself with a short course”

The Wisdom of Play in Times Like These

I first met Zori at an Improvisational Theatre workshop. I set up the free weekly gathering as I had recently discovered Improv and knew I needed it in my life. It is the perfect therapy for a perfectionist, for someone who feels they need to know and calculate everything before doing something. Because you can’t do that with Improv. After the workshop a group of us went to dinner and I told Zori the paper I had been working on. As a former IT entrepreneur and someone exploring the possibility of starting a business, she was interested in the environmental theme. I explained how during my year unpaid sabbatical from my University job, I had returned to reading the scientific literature on climate change, and had concluded that it is too late to sustain the industrial consumer societies that we depend upon. I had also concluded that this scenario was not in the distant future, but that many of us would suffer and die as a result of the breakdown of the systems that feed, cloth, house, protect and motivate us. 

“How long do we have?” asked Zori, as we waited for our dinner.  

Continue reading “The Wisdom of Play in Times Like These”