Last week’s climate summit and week of side events in New York got people talking about climate change. But I looked at the 400,000 person march with a heavy heart. The climate science has moved on. It was hinted at by Leonardo DiCaprio in his speech to the UN, when he mentioned the plumes of methane rising from the ocean floor. What’s been happening in the Arctic the last few years is far beyond even the worst case predictions. It amounts to localised 5 degree warming already, and the summer pack ice disappearing in the next few years, when just 7 years ago we were told by scientific consensus that might happen in the 22nd century. The warming in the Arctic has been exponential. There are signs that this is already affecting the frozen methane on the sea floor, leading to methane release into the atmosphere. Over 20 years, methane is 84 times more potent than CO2 in greenhouse effect. Mass release of methane is a mechanism that scientists have known for years was the cause of the last mass extinction, the Permian, which ended 95% of species on Earth. (For videos on this, see Last Hours, or 10 minutes of this)
Given this information, the future debate about climate will be very different to what was considered appropriate in either the conference centres or on the streets of Manhattan last week. It is this future debate that we need to explore ourselves, urgently, even if politicians, businesses, and mainstream environmental groups are not ready to yet.
On the sidelines, I’m seeing four future lines of debate and action on climate: profound change, emergency response, local resilience, and transcendence.
Profound Change is the theme we heard from Naomi Klein, Leonardo DiCaprio and others in recent weeks. The argument is that the efforts to incorporate climate concerns into current economic systems has failed to have any significant impact on aggregate carbon emissions. The arguments that such approaches are “pragmatic” and “non-ideological” no longer have any evidence to support them. Instead, the only intellectually or morally sound environmentalism is now an explicitly revolutionary one, that seeks to change our political economic systems. Ideally, peacefully – I’ve not heard of any one calling for armed struggle! Klein’s new book (This Changes Everything) explores this Profound Change analysis.
Emergency is another approach to the latest climate science, whereby people think that a Profound Change in political or economic system is not sufficient, as we are now on course to experience abrupt climate change within the lifetimes of humans already borne. Therefore, such as emergency paradigm starts with calls for urgent geoengineering to cool the arctic to save our civilisation and even our species. The argument is that the risks are now so great that we have to take the risk to geo-engineer. The call becomes one not only of scientific research and experimentation, but also for intergovernmental frameworks for implementing such an approach and dealing with possible damaging consequences for some peoples and regions. This emergency approach can also trigger discussion about how to deal with climate-induced collapses in societies, including humanitarian responses and security responses. For instance, this could include new roles for atomic energy agencies to bring nuclear plants to cold shut down in situations of social and economic collapse. Authors exploring these ideas include Mark Lynas (The God Species) and several writers in The Ecologist. While people thinking within the emergency paradigm are often talking about physical adaptation, such as higher sea walls, they are not often discussing deeper psychological adaptation to climate change, which is where two other lines of debate come in.
Local Resilience is a third approach I have been hearing on the sidelines. This is when people consider that it is too late to avert a collapse in the current civilisation due to catastrophic climate change, even if profound change occurs in our economic systems and geoengineering is underway. A belief in near-term collapse leads to people focusing on what forms of life could be sustained, what values and aspirations might help up in a transition to that different way of life. This isn’t the well-known agenda of transition to a post carbon world, but a transition to a way of life where basic facets of our current societies no longer exist, such as the nation state, industrial agriculture, pharmaceutical drugs, and so on. The film Collapse introduced the world to the late Michael Ruppert, who expressed this view quite eloquently. Some of the more radical elements of the Transition Towns movement give space to this line of argument, as do authors like John Foster (After Sustainability), Charles Eisenstein (The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible), and projects like Dark Mountain, that encourage new cultures to emerge to help in this traumatic transition ahead. A key insight from this approach is how to not make things worse through attachments to ways of life and values. Are brands, properties, or nationalities so important? There are many things that we hold to be true and important in our societies which we need to be better at letting go of.
Transcendence is the name I’ll offer for a fourth line in the emerging debate on climate. It is when one allows oneself to consider that near-term extinction of the human race is now probable. Obviously to most people that is a harrowing and saddening thought. In my experience most people, like myself, attempt various forms of denial when faced with this idea. Many consider it would imply fatalism and risk states of despair, depression and inaction. However, those who do accept this analysis, at least for reasons of intellectual and emotional exploration, are finding a range of different insights result. For people like me, who since 15 years of age defined self-worth in terms of contributing towards sustainability and protecting the climate, this process can be extremely destabilising, involving some grief. Yet despair can be transformative. It can lead you to transcend your previous sense of self, and allow a new one to emerge, less framed by attachment to notions of self-worth or progress. Others may find they stop working on sustainability altogether. Others may enter depression, especially if they cannot cope without a story of self-efficacy. This line of debate is difficult for me to describe at this time, but appears to emphasise that we reflect on fundamental questions about the meaning of our lives and the meaning of life itself. Some will turn to religion for answers, and yet others will find existing religious explanations as fundamentally limited in how they address such dilemmas. The writings of Carolyn Baker (Collapsing Consciously) explore these issues, by deriving insights from hospice care. I think the writings of others who study what we learn from suffering will also be helpful in this line of thinking, such as those of Mark Matousek.
I recently brought these hidden debates on climate science into the classroom with our mature students at IFLAS. Most have been engaged for years on matters of social and environmental progress. None of the four perspectives I outline above suggest that “progress” has a future. As such, these ideas can destabilise one’s sense of self. I’ve always believed that real education is of the heart and soul as well as the mind… I just didn’t think it would have to involve such a difficult topic. I’m informed that the potential trauma from certain perspectives on climate science is not something that therapists have been widely discussing or have experience with treating. The climate category on “Therapy Today” indicate something of the state of the debate in this profession. I realise many people will shy away from this debate, and instead return to positive things such as the price of solar falling below that of coal. At a subconsious level people who do that will know they are simply changing the subject from what the latest climate science is suggesting about the changes we are already locked in to. Denial may be tenacious, but wont last.
I’ve mapped out here 4 lines of debate on climate science and action that were largely hidden during last week’s events on climate change in New York because I find them bubbling up in more and more conversations, and after broaching this subject I feel a responsibility to provide further information. There will likely be more lines of debate. There are also insights that can be blended from each. For instance, perhaps some forms of geoengineering could be supported by those who think that it’s too late to save this civilisation or the human race. One thing I am convinced about already is that many of our current institutions, including things as basic as our monetary institutions, are not designed to help us address this tragic new agenda. I am also convinced the more that senior decision-makers are attached to the idea of being good and self-efficacious, and being seen to be such, the more they will make things worse for humanity. Instead, we need people to approach this difficult time with greater humility, equanimity, gratitude, inquisitiveness, compassion, love, playfulness and hope. I am also convinced that the institutions we have created in our political, economic and social sphere have not promoted such qualities within them or to the top roles. So the greatest leadership challenge I see today is therefore one of unlearning a lot of deluded notions about self, success, and progress.
If this stuff is new to you, I recommend you talk to someone about it.
Im not a therapist.. If you think you might benefit from talking to one, here are a couple of links relevant to UK readers: