14 March 2010

Good Grief, Why Aren't More People Talking About the Risk of Catastrophe?

When Peter presented at the climate change conference this past week, he talked about how we have to do everything we can to eliminate all risk of climate catastrophe. (We've already got climate change impacts happening all over the world, killing or otherwise ruining the lives of millions of people we don't seem to care about as we sit in our comfortable EuroAmerican homes and communities.)

A well known Canadian IPCC climate scientist — an afternoon speaker — who had snuck quietly into the back of the audience was the first to pose a "question." He said (in front of a roomful of university-aged young people) that he doesn't think we should ever use the word "catastrophe" in front of young people. It's too overwhelming, he suggested. He also said that people who use the word "catastrophic" are being alarmist.

Peter (my first and best climate hero!) responded that it would be irresponsible not to articulate the risk of catastrophic climate change. Risk, he explained, is determined by the formula "Probability x Magnitude," and so even if there is low probability of reaching the upper end of projected increases in global temperature (according to scientists using computer models that don't include Arctic carbon feedbacks, and which have quite consistently been shown to be underestimating impacts and/or overestimating timelines), if this does occur, the magnitude of impacts could be off the scales. So, do we want to risk ANY possibility of catastrophic climate change occurring?

Peter also pointed out (as I have here in the past) that being alarmed about something alarming is not the same as being alarmist. I was so proud of his respect for the right of young people to know the state of their planet and their climate.

At lunchtime, we talked with this climate scientist. His students, he told us, are all depressed and throw up their hands. He spoke of our young friend who committed suicide (though she struggled with an anxiety disorder), and another young man who is fasting until our government passes a climate action bill it promised not to delay when it prorogued the parliament. In a sense, perhaps these young people are not unlike the martyrs of social movements in the past. But also, don't the reactions of these young adults make sense? Aren't they actually logical responses to the global situation?

But there's something else happening here. Many climate scientists who demand proof and evidence and replicability and peer review within their own disciplines have quite readily latched on to this notion that climate change "doom and gloom" cause depression, despair, hopelessness, giving up and a sense of being overwhelmed in all who hear it. But where is the proof? Where's the evidence?

First, I would question how many people are indeed actually depressed, despairing, feeling hopeless and overwhelmed, and have actually "given up." Most people in our society just don't give a flying leap about the fate of the planet and future generations. Those who work with data should demand some data, not a nebulous "sense" about what's happening from some environmental NGOs.

The point I'm trying to make is that any depression, despair, hopelessness, giving up and feeling overwhelmed could be due to several variables, such as:
  • a generation that is malnourished (raised on junk food, eating foods with depleted levels of nutrients)
  • hearing how bad the situation is and then not seeing an appropriate response from leaders
  • getting confused by (or sick and tired of) the bogus claims of the denial machine
  • feeling guilty about knowing the truth of the situation and not making any effort to change things
  • hearing how bad the situation is and not seeing us older folks getting on with implementing solutions (or not believing that we even can)
  • and psychological projection on the part of the scientists (who don't want to face their own fears about climate change)
Unless and until you have evidence, verification, corroboration, authentication, documentation, validation, substantiation and replication of this unproven hypothesis, Dr. Climate Scientist Dude, you might want to consider the possibility that you're wrong ... and start doing the right thing by telling young people the truth about the potential risk of catastrophic climate change we're all facing.


  1. It isn't 'Canadian' or polite to be alarmed...I am done with being the polite Canadian ; ) if it means I have to curtail my emotions or thoughts about this climate change catastrophe. The more we have real conversations about climate change, the better off the planet will be.

    Question everything...

    This is one of my favourite quotes from Walt Whitman;

    “This is what you shall do: love the earth and sun, and animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence towards the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men; go freely with the powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and mothers, of families: read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life: re-examine all you have been told at school or church, or in any books, and dismiss whatever insults your soul.”

  2. "Dismiss whatever insults your soul." Ah, Whitman was a wise one, Leigh. I wonder, too, about insulting whatever dismisses our souls.

    Go ahead and start roaring, Leigh. Politeness is highly overrated! I'm glad to hear that you're getting past the "I'm-not-an-expert" barrier to speaking up and speaking out about what you know in your heart and your gut, even if you don't know all the fancy science.

    We *know* in our hearts and souls that we're not living in alignment with the rest of life on this planet. And you know what? No social movement ever got anywhere by being meek, quiet — or polite!


I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?