Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Reading New Thoughts: Lifton’s Climate Swerve and the Proper Attitude Toward Climate Change

Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.

One of the major issues among the “good guys” in climate change is, what attitude should we take towards the future in our political maneuverings?  Should we focus on the bright spots, the signs of hope, such as solar technology, knowing that we may be accused later of deception because these do not meet the needs of mitigating carbon pollution effectively?  Should we be brutally realistic, at the risk of persuading people that nothing effective can be done?

I find that Robert Jay Lifton’s “The Climate Swerve” provides a boost, more or less, to my own view of what we should do.  Based on his experience as a psychiatrist and physician fighting against nuclear war, he identifies 3 “psychologies” that dominate discussion of an oncoming catastrophe:

1.       Denial.  We are all familiar with climate deniers.

2.       Psychic numbness”.  In this case, we “numb” the idea of nuclear war or climate change so that we can function in daily life without extreme anxiety.  The result of psychic numbness is that we feel that there is nothing we can do about the situation, and so we do very little.

3.       Facing the truth head-on.  The point here is that because we no longer self-deceive, this does not necessarily lead to extreme anxiety that makes one unable to function.  Instead, says Lifton, it leads to “realistic hope.”  That is, in terms of anxiety, in the long run some hope is better than none.  

Thus, Lifton’s “climate swerve” is a global “swerve” – a global change of direction in thinking, towards psychology (3) as discussed above.

Note that this analysis is not the usual glib, other-oriented, sickness-focused psychoanalysis.  Rather, Lifton is talking about a global set of non-patients and personal experience.  Also, he is talking about the long term:   While climate denial is usually evidence of the usual psychological problems right now, psychic numbness is akin to what most of us do often in our lives, and its costs often outweigh its benefits only in the long run.

Facing What Truth?

Climate change differs from nuclear war in one key way:  In nuclear war, the catastrophe is immediate and total, while in climate change, the largest effects in the catastrophe are always in the future.  That means that in facing the truth, we need to face two things:  (1) What is the sequence of catastrophe in “business as usual” climate change, and (2) What are the effects of our efforts to mitigate and adapt instead of “business as usual”?

I find that the best analogy I can come up with for climate change’s sequence of catastrophe is an image of an enormous rock rolling down hill, picking up speed and momentum (I wrote a “children’s tale” short story about this once).  At first, it only kills a few shepherds high on the hill; but next it will kill the poor folk partway up the hill that cannot afford the housing of the well-off and rich; and then, finally, it will roll over us, the relatively well-off and rich.  Crucially, however, the earlier we push back against the rock (mitigate, slow the rate of carbon emissions), the easier it is to stop it, and the higher on the hill it stops.  In other words, no matter whether we’re talking now or 50 years from now:

·         Some of the disaster to come is has already happened and will continue to happen; but,

·         A far greater amount is already built into the system; BUT,

·         A far greater amount than that is not yet built into the system; AND,

·         The more we mitigate now, the less of that not-built-into-the-system “business as usual” catastrophe will happen.

The details of the sequence of the “business as usual” catastrophe are still far from completely clear.  The best analysis I can find is a 2007 book called “Six Degrees.” I hope to write about that book at some point, but the main point to bear in mind is that the sequence of events still seems to be following that book’s horrifying projections, although each step they lay out may require more than 1 degree C warming over the long term. 

What about how we are doing?  What constitutes facing the facts about our efforts to mitigate?

Right now, I have argued in blog posts, CO2 readings at Mauna Loa tell us that all our previous efforts, if they have had an impact on carbon emissions, have had an insignificant one.  I ascribe part of this to a well-known IT law:  the actual implementation of a new technology or approach is actually far slower than what we perceive superficially from the outside.  Even with the best will in the world, the details of implementation slow us down drastically.  The other reason, of course, is the extensive denial and psychic numbness out there that lead to pushback and lack of implementation.

The other important point about our efforts to mitigate is that they are hindered by our institutions and our attitudes towards them.  History shows that looking for a purely market-based solution is not only far from optimal but a fantasy about a “free market” that never existed.  Governments and the global society are hindered by past assumptions, and especially in the legal system, about what can be done in a democratic government to face climate change.  A “face the facts” view of what is going on says that institutional efforts to combat climate change have an orders-of-magnitude greater impact on mitigation than individual efforts, and that these institutional efforts have barely begun. 

What hope are we left with?  This one:  that eventually our best institutional efforts will kick into overdrive and actually mitigate climate change significantly. 

Solar Vs. Fossil: One Step Forward, Two Half-Steps Back

I find that one way to summarize this view to myself is to put it in terms of the computer industry’s Agile Manifesto, where saying one thing should be put before another is saying not that the latter should not be done, but rather that I value the former more highly:

·         Realistic facing of present and future facts of climate change catastrophe before blind hope.

·         Institutional change before individual change.

·         Mitigation before adaptation.

·         Agility before flexibility (I’m not sure whether this should be included, but it would be a good way to improve our institutions to fight against climate change better).

How to end this?  Well, there’s always T.S. Eliot’s “As Wednesday” on psychic numbness:

“Because I do not hope to turn
Because I do not hope …”

First, face the facts of turning.  Then, understand the small hope in those facts.  Then you can hope to turn.

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