I was half-listening to NPR's Talk of the Nation on Monday afternoon when I heard some remarks which got my full attention. Host Neal Conan was talking with various guests at the Aspen Environmental Forum on getting people to pay attention to the realities of global warming. I have numbered and emphasized the crucial passages.
George Divoki — Well, when I look at climate change, I'm always most impressed with the physical data. Given what is happening to glaciers around the world and given the fact that it is now an almost certainty that the Arctic pack ice will disappear in the 21st century, that is the sort of information and certainly what Craig is finding out and what I'm finding out are good stories to tell about climate change. But when you see that sort of data being reported by the media and the public just basically accepting, oh yes, soon we won't have a polar ice cap in the summer, it just indicates to me that somehow the story needs to be brought to the forefront and the consequences of that ice loss; 50 years down the road, what will be happening in North America due to that ice loss needs to be brought up.
Neal Conan — We're at the Aspen Environment Forum, and you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And Richard Harris, I wanted to go back to you on that point in Washington, D.C.
Richard Harris — Yeah. What in particular?
Neal Conan — Well, how are we going to get - these people are studying specific aspects of this, but how do you collect it all into some powerful argument that seems to make some difference in people's lives?
Richard Harris —
That is a very tricky question to answer because actually there's some literature - in the psychology literature - that says if you scare people too much, they'll just turn off and they'll say global warming isn't happening. So you have to be careful to stick to the facts. You have to be careful when you are able to talk about things that are in the future with what degree of confidence you have that you're actually - the forecasts are likely to come to pass.
And what also the psychological literature says is give people some hope, find, you know, suggest ways that you - we can cope with these situations.
And so just sort of piling on more and more gloom and doom does not actually end up stirring action in many cases. It actually may have the opposite effect. And I bring to mind the - what's happening in North Carolina right now, the fight over how much is sea level going to rise. And there's been a move in the state legislature there to say we won't accept any forecasts that say that it's going to raise any faster than it ever has been.
And even though many competent scientists say, well, it's actually going to rise much faster than that when you look at what's happening to melting ice, not sea ice, not in the Arctic but in Greenland and in Antarctica and just sort of the fact that the ocean waters swell up as they get warmer. So that's, I think, really quite a telling view of the kind of backlash that you can get.
Let's consider NPR science correspondent Richard Harris' two main points as called out above.
The psychological literature does indeed say that if you scare people too much, they'll just turn off and say global warming isn't happening. And it's true, that's what people do, and of course this characteristic human behavior is not helpful as we face the future. Denial only makes a bad situation worse. Those who have not reacted this way to dire climate forecasts have remained upbeat because they believe—they've been told by "experts" they trust—that solutions to the climate problem are readily available and cheap to implement. (For example, see my post Understanding Paul Krugman's View Of The Future.)
Optimists are becoming less sanguine as time goes on and no actions are taken, but if people actually understood what is required to fix global warming, many of them would probably react the way the North Carolina Senate did when they voted to ignore future sea level rise.
The second point Harris makes is more important for my purposes today. The psychological literature says you need to give people some hope, suggest ways we can cope with these situations. Again, that's what the literature says because it's true.
People require hope, regardless of whether such hope is realistic (i.e. does not involve impossibilities). That is why I use the phrase "obligatory hope" on DOTE, a phrase I stole from the great environmental writer David Quammen, who used it in his wonderfully insightful essay Planet of Weeds (Harpers magazine, October 1998).
Hope is a duty from which paleontologists are exempt…. If hope is the thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson said, then it’s good to remember that feathers don’t generally fossilize well. In lieu of hope and despair, paleontologists have a highly developed sense of cyclicity. That’s why I recently went to Chicago, with a handful of urgently grim questions, and called on a paleontologist named David Jablonski. I wanted answers unvarnished with obligatory hope.
And yes, I do pile up the "gloom and doom" on DOTE without offering you the obligatory hope I often ridicule. As Harris says, doing so does not spur action, and may have the opposite affect—people shut down, they give up. So I need to explain myself. We need to make a distinction between false hope and genuine hope. What is the difference between the two? Let's keep things as simple as possible.
Necessarily, false hope advocates more of the same behavior which created the problems we are trying to solve. It is easy to enumerate examples—the answer to accumulating too much debt is more debt, the answer to human deployment of destructive technology is more destructive technology, the answer to fixing the broken political system is to work within the broken political system, and so on. Paul Krugman is a master of false hope, which is why I criticize him. So is climate activist Bill McKibben, who I have also criticized for the same reason.
Necessarily, genuine hope requires changing the destructive, self-defeating behaviors which created the problems we are trying to solve (e.g. global warming). Genuine hope derives from our confident assurance that 1) we humans will figure out the "right" solutions to our problems, and more importantly 2) do the right thing. Without meaningful action on the "right" path, genuine hope does not exist. If we consider global warming, or human destruction of the oceans, or the current mass extinction, the "right" solution—actually, the only solution—is to shrink the human footprint on Earth, which means reversing growth in populations and economies to work toward eventually settling into some "stable" state.
Now that we've made and understood this all-important distinction, I can tell you why I do not offer up hope on DOTE. I refuse to offer you false hope, and I do not see any reason for genuine hope. As I look around at the world we've created, I do not see the required behavioral changes on scales that matter. What I do see is lots and lots and lots of false hope as defined above. I have received no assurance that humans are going to do the right thing, or have even figured out what it is. I have developed theories of course to explain this crucial observation. I sometimes write about them on DOTE. For example, I believe the human urges to grow and increase material (physical) comfort are innate (and thus unalterable in the general case). There is abundant evidence to support this view, and falsifying evidence appears to me to be non-existent.
I am simply an empiricist without illusions, a mere observer of the Human Condition. Nothing I've pointed out on this blog is not also available to you as an observer. I've told you where to look, and how to look, but it's also true that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. For example, I have tried to teach you to look out for the obligatory (but false) hope in various forward-looking articles on crude oil, the economy, the environment, and so on.
Finally, I want to leave you with one additional thought. All human nonsense has an expiration date. All false hopes will some day evaporate like a spatter of rain in the noonday sun. That's the funny thing about Reality—it always gets the last word.
If you don't believe the things I tell you now, my response is basically a shrug of the shoulders—so what? If you don't believe what I'm telling you now, just wait for it. In short, everything comes out in the wash—eventually.