“This climate stuff makes me feel like crap,” a relative told me, tossing aside some ecology mail he wanted nothing to do with. “I'm tired of hearing it. Those people have an agenda.”
I stood there silent, feeling a twang of empathy. His reaction was akin to my own.
But unlike that kinsman, I’ve long hoped for concerted climate action. An “agenda,” I guess.
Seventy-seven percent of us Americans are now “those people” who want government action, including 48 percent of Republicans, according to a 2015 poll.
But even those favoring action can find all the downer climate data hard to digest. Aversion easily creeps in. People develop an allergy to the mere word “climate,” because it is so regularly hinged to bad news.
The world of psychology calls this allergy “motivated avoidance”—the brain’s device for evading punitive stimuli.
A climate article tells a person she’s causing unprecedented changes to Earth. Next, it describes the impending punishment. “No more beaches for you. No rainfall, no food for the kids!”
Is this anybody’s idea of a fun read?
That’s why petroleum-funded lawmakers, think tanks, orgs, ads, talk shows—entire news channels devised to “debunk” climate science—have been so effective. They provide pure relief.
Any science-is-the-enemy message, even the wackiest conspiracy theory can feel easier to swallow than foreboding climate data.
All this avoidance, meanwhile, has puzzled and demoralized climate scientists.
For 30 years they’ve simply presented their maps—projections now proving accurate—and watched amazed as we react with stoniness, meltdowns, even political inquisitions and gag orders.
Climate researcher Michael Mann, at Penn State, recently talked to Esquire about it.
When “you find yourself in the center of this political theater, in this chess match that’s being played out by very powerful figures—you feel anger, befuddlement, disillusion, disgust,” he said.
Mann has personally endured kill-the-messenger attacks, email raids and subpoenas.
His colleagues have been likewise dogged by character assaults, derision, censorship, even death threats. One became suicidal. Some have relocated to Europe.
But many also see these “climate wars” as evidence of a current gap in human knowledge. Not knowledge of the physical atmosphere, but a more mysterious realm the climate math doesn’t include.
Atmospheric scientist Jeffrey Kiehl noticed it when giving lectures. He would dump loads of alarming climate data on his audience, then conclude his efficient talk and exit.
“I was leaving my audience in an extremely emotionally distraught state,” he said.
So he began staying at the podium to ask audience members how they felt.
Some listeners expressed defiance. A few had stonily tuned out from the start. Others felt grieved, even despair—“completely hopeless,” one woman said.
Kiehl began recognizing the classic signs of trauma, he said—“helplessness, hopelessness, spacing out…anger, denial.”
So he went back to school for another Ph.D.—this time in psychology—to help the rest of us digest the difficult reality of climate data. No amount of evidence is enough, after all, if the human heart can’t receive it.
But this is wisdom we’ve long needed to revive.
Through most of history, humans considered the heart the deepest reality of personal and community life. It was the imaginative, mysterious core of longing, courage, sorrow, empathy, joy.
But “the heart”—along with its emotions—got exiled from science, economics and political life during the Age of Reason, and never quite returned.
Good heirs of the Industrial Revolution, we still consider heart-level concerns irrational, “extreme,” “hysterical,” an impediment to economic growth.
Sorrow is particularly disparaged, here in the U.S. where “sad” and “pathetic” are now insults and “a change of heart” a political liability. Regret, grief, compunction—any dark emotion—calls for medication, distraction, entertainment.
Isn’t that why we’re in this pickle jar of climate avoidance to begin with? Maybe it wouldn’t kill us to crack open some, and embrace what is probably the most profound event in human history. It would seem odd to ignore life while we were living it—and miss the stunning chance to influence history while we can.
The heart has resources for just such times. It remembers who we are. It yearns for more life. Just ask a kid.
Michael Mann said that when he read his young daughter Dr. Seuss’s story The Lorax, the one about a society destroyed by materialism, she burst into tears.
She hadn’t yet learned to close her heart. So it told her something valuable the book didn’t spell out: She wanted the story to end a different way.