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The Climate of Despair – Climate Change, COVID-19, and the Feeling of Impending Doom

“It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.” – Walter Benjamin

 

Whenever the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issues a new report, a familiar pattern plays out. First, there is the anticipatory buildup as the people and groups who work on climate change mutter amongst themselves about what the newest report will say. Second, early versions of the report start to leak out—with these tending to be particularly nerve-wracking aspects—which generate a mixture of heightened worry in some quarters while others try to tamp down the anxiety by emphasizing that we need to wait for the actual report. Third, the actual report gets released. Fourth, mainstream media outlets cover the release of the report with foreboding headlines that amplify the darkest parts of the report, even as the actual articles to which those terrifying headlines are attached provide a more nuanced analysis. Fifth, responding to the bleak headlines from the mainstream media, coverage of the report bounces around social media with many expressing deep concern. Sixth, even as those in the denial community scoff at the report, and those in the delay community express concern while planning on doing nothing, the battle for the “correct” analysis kicks off in the climate concerned community in an attempt to determine what the acceptable level of consternation should be. Seventh, coverage of the climate report moves from being a frontpage story, to slipping into the background of mainstream coverage again. Eighth, the report and climate coverage and conversations about climate change once more become a matter of concern predominantly happening amongst those who had been fixated on the topic before that latest IPCC report.

And, to be clear, steps two through eight usually play out in about a week’s time.

This was certainly the pattern that unfolded with the most recent IPCC report. And though there is a great deal in that report that deserves sustained attention, the speed with which the report was pushed off the frontpages was remarkably fast. Synthesizing some 14,000 peer-reviewed studies, the report notes that we are currently locked in for at least 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming (with us having already warmed the planet by 1.1 degrees Celsius)—with this meaning that we can expect to see more of the types of climate exacerbated disasters we have already been seeing over the coming years. While the report does make clear that 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming is pretty much inevitable, this does not mean that the report states that we have reached the “game over” screen and that we should don hairshirts and begin whipping ourselves in the streets. There is no doubt that 1.5 degrees Celsius is bad and that it will bring with it tremendous suffering, but it is precisely because of this that it is essential to do everything possible to keep warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius. Of course, there’s more to the report than just that—the full version is nearly 4,000 pages (though the executive summary is a brisk 42 pages)—and before you jump into the report it might also be useful to read (or reread) this article that helps explain the way in which these reports get written.

With the release of the latest climate report the climate movement has found itself in another round of its long running “just how bad is it?” and “what are we to do?” debates. And as these debates have played out we have seen the return of a sorrowful scarecrow who had become somewhat less prominent in the last eighteen months, namely: the doomer. The flood of headlines from mainstream publications that struck up apocalyptic tonalities provided ample opportunities for some to declare that “all is lost,” but even more than that these apocalyptic headlines provided many others with a renewed opportunity to lambast anyone who should incorrectly express their feelings of despair.

Anger and frustration with those who claim to be (or are accused of being) “doomers” is nothing new. And yet, in the latest round of doom-mongering and attacks on the prophets of doom, one can sense that something has really changed. That something significant has shifted. Thus, any attempt to make sense of the gloomier responses to the latest IPCC report—whether you call them climate despair, or climate grief, or doomerism, or [insert your own neologism here!]—needs to consider and confront what it is that has altered the tonality of despair in this moment.

To put it plainly: if you want to understand the latest spike in doomerism, you need to talk about the pandemic.

 

Disclaimers

If you study and write about issues related to doom-saying, you often find yourself accused of being a doom-sayer yourself. And thus, here are a couple of disclaimers.

One – I do not consider myself to be a doomer. While I do believe that the situation we find ourselves in is very serious (and not particularly good), I do not believe that “we’re doomed.”

Two – We have a cultural tendency to think in terms of clearly defined conclusions such as “the end,” “game over,” or “happily ever after.” This way of making sense of events is a poor fit for ongoing crises like climate change. There is a tendency to search for and think in terms of a definitive looming stopping point, as it helps give a clear sense of “how much time we have left;” however, arguments over how many pages we have left tend to distract us from recognizing the role we play in determining what words get written on those pages.

Three – This is not the first time in history that some people have thought the world was ending. This is not the first time in history that some people have thought the world was ending as a result of techno-scientific forces slipping out of human control. There is much to be said, in the present moment, for reading up on the history of technology, disaster studies, and the history of apocalyptic thinking. Climate change is the result of choices stretching back in history, and our responses to climate change are similarly influenced by history.

Four – The point of this piece is not to advocate for doomer views or to encourage despair. The goal is to attempt to explain the sorts of conditions that give rise to apocalyptic beliefs around techno-science. We cannot properly respond to doom-laden views when we encounter them in others, or when we hear them rumbling up from the back of our own minds, if we are unwilling to think critically about what is driving these views.

These disclaimers are offered here in the full knowledge that they will be ignored.

 

Defining “Doomer” (again)

Generally speaking, most attempts to define “doomer” say more about the person putting forward the definition than about the people they are trying to define as doomers. The term is largely a derisive epithet that gets hurled at individuals, though it is also one that certain individuals have seemed to embrace. That being said, doomer does not neatly describe a single set of political beliefs, the devotees of a certain thinker, the members of an organization, the activists in a particular movement, the subscribers to a specific publication, or the endorsers of a single manifesto. As a descriptor, doomer attempts to fit a single label onto a nebulous group of people and ideas—which is part of the reason why it works so well as an accusation, and also the reason why it is an easy identity to casually slip into.

Though there are more people who have been labeled doomers than who describe themselves as such, it is worth recognizing that there really are people who refer to that way. Most of these self-described doomers emphasize that they believe in climate change, they pride themselves on following the latest coverage closely, and can be found actively weighing in on the discussions around climate change that take place on social media. What truly sets these self-described doomers apart from the other voices in these spaces is a tendency to emphasize the worst-case scenarios, a predilection to highlight the negative trends, and a somewhat cynical political attitude that is doubtful that meaningful reform will come from the politicians who have been blocking meaningful reform for decades. While a handful of old-school Kaczynski quoting anarcho-primitivists have sewn the doomer patch onto their faded battle-jackets, most of those who describe themselves as doomers are members of the environmental movement (broadly defined) who have burned out after too many years of feeling as though they are just watching the situation deteriorate .

To the extent that one can synthesize the beliefs of self-described doomers into a coherent ideology (and thus a definition of doomerism) it would likely be: “due to how long we have delayed, and the unlikelihood of the scale of political change needed actually taking place, we are doomed to experience catastrophic climate change.” In virtue of the fact that most of these self-described doomers are still participating in discussions around climate change, it stands to reason that they have not truly given up entirely—rather they seem to be arguing that instead of putting all of our energy into trying to get the Green New Deal through Congress, we need to start preparing for things getting worse. There are hardcore doomers out there, but more than anything else self-describing as a doomer seems to be something of a mood that a person can slip into or out of depending on the moment. To play the doomer allows a person to fully give voice to feelings of despair.

The group that has done more to make doomers a thing than any of the folks who self-describe as doomers are the people who have seized upon doomer as a useful weapon with which to chase those who disagree with them to the fringes. Within mainstream environmental discourse (especially as it plays out on social media) the accusation of doomer is used to police boundaries and establish the strictures of what passes for acceptable responses to climate change. The charge of doomer is one that generally flows downward, as it is a label bestowed by a person with more clout unto a person with less clout that serves to banish the doomer from the conversation. And those who accuse others of being doomers frequently give voice to sentiments that are denounced as doomerism when made by others. For those who shout doomer, the philosophy of doomerism amounts to a misanthropic argument that “we’re all doomed, so there’s nothing we can do” with the further charge being the idea that a doomer mindset leads to apathy, lethargy, and inaction. Within the community of those who have elevated the doomer into the villain du jour of the climate movement, the doomer is the new denier.

Amongst those who accuse others of being doomers, there is a solid belief in the possibility of political change, a cheering approval of activist movements, and a stubborn commitment to the idea that things will get better. Those who accuse others of being doomers, may often slip into glum moods, may express that they are dealing with “climate grief” or “climate anxiety,”  and may even confess that they have doomer moments themselves—but they emphasize that what sets them apart from the  real doomers is that they never allow such momentary lapses to become their overarching belief system. Within most climate related discourse, when someone accuses someone else of being a doomer what they are saying is that the other person is 10% more pessimistic than the person making the accusation.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting, that from the perspective of climate change delayers even the mainstream climate change movement is full of doomers. And from the perspective of climate change deniers, anyone who even acknowledges the reality of climate change is a doomer. The point being that doomer functions as an easy cudgel with which to attack anyone with slightly gloomier views than your own.

Nevertheless, to make the primary juxtaposition clear: those within the climate movement who accuse others of being doomers tend to say that doomers misrepresent the science to make it seem like there is no time to act. But this response reveals the significant way in which self-described doomers, and those who describe others as doomers  are talking past each other. The problem is not so much that the two groups disagree on what the science says, but that the two groups disagree on what the social science and the political science says. Those who accuse others of being doomers tend to believe, that given the scientific evidence on climate change, there will be a suitable social/political response. Those who self-describe as doomers tend to believe, that given the scientific evidence on climate change, there will not be a suitable social/political response.

What is at issue here is not so much a debate over scientific facts, but a thornier debate over how societies will respond to those scientific facts.

With their sackcloth attire, and raspy voices telling everyone to just give up—a fearsome amount of political and cultural power has apparently become vested in the skeletal hands of the “doomers.” And yet, some perspective is necessary. There really are people who describe themselves as “doomers,” some of those people have a tendency to badger prominent climate change communicators on social media, and there are books and podcasts out there that really do say that “we’re doomed.” Nevertheless, the power and influence of “doomers” tends to be ridiculously overstated. How many “doomers” are there in the Senate? How many “doomers” are there in the House of Representatives? Good luck naming five. But how many delayers are in the Senate? How many delayers are in the House of Representatives? Good luck naming only five. And what about how many deniers are in the Senate? How many deniers are in the House of Representatives? How many major think tanks backed by buckets of fossil fuel money are out there advocating for doomerism? How many doomers are regular guests on cable news shows? You can see where this is going. And while it is certainly true that “doomers” have their own websites, social media accounts, podcasts, and some sympathetic publishing houses—a figure commonly castigated as a doomer occasionally getting to publish an op-ed in the New York Times does not mean that doomers have become dominant cultural forces.

Throughout history it is not particularly difficult to find groups of people screeching that “the end is nigh!” And though apocalyptic beliefs are not always linked to techno-science, you can also find plenty of historical examples of people screeching that “the end is nigh [because of this scientific/technological force]!” Yet, when things are going fairly well, such doom-sayers are laughed off to the fringes of society where they can be ignored. The elevation of the doomer, and the fact that folks in the climate movement feel they must devote so much time to blasting those guilty of doomerism, unfortunately suggests that things are not going particularly well at the moment.

The latest IPCC report makes it abundantly clear that things really are not going particularly well at the moment. And if the IPCC report was not proof enough, there were the wildfires that have raged in the weeks after the report was issued, as well as Hurricane Ida. Nevertheless, to the extent that we seem to be seeing a spike in people self-identifying as “doomers,” and a resurgence of climate communicators warning their followers against the siren song of doom, it may well be that it is not climate change alone that is driving people to lament at the moment.

 

A Climate of Despair

Responsible writing on climate change talks about more than climate change. Instead of treating climate change as if it exists in a perfect vacuum, neatly sectioned off from other factors, the most successful writing/thinking about climate change works to situate the climate crisis into a broader social/political/economic/historic narrative. To be absolutely clear, there is quite a lot of excellent work that has been done on climate change that highlights the ways in which any understanding of, and any discussion of, the crisis needs to properly situate it in a broader assessment of the state of the world. And the same work of situating also needs to be done for discussions of people’s reactions to the climate crisis.

In other words, you cannot make sense of the doomer phenomenon simply by looking at climate change.

A great deal has changed since the IPCC’s 2018 report. That report, as a quick reminder, was the one which was largely covered using ominously irresponsible headlines along the lines of “we have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe” (that was an actual headline from The Guardian). While “doomers” did not first appear in 2018, it was in the aftermath of that report that the figure of the “doomer” truly moved from the fringes of climate discourse to a more central position. The clear placement of a looming deadline (12 years!) created the perfect space for some to wax apocalyptically about how there wasn’t enough time, even as others responded by highlighting that there was still time and noting that it was not as though a massive “game over” sign will appear in the night sky at the end of those 12 years. In the years between that 2018 report and the one that was released in August of 2021, quite a lot has happened: there have been wildfires, there have been heat waves, there have been worrying signs from the arctic, there have been hurricanes, and even as the cost of renewables has continued to drop there have been plenty of reasons to worry that the urgent action needed was not being taken. And as all of these climate related stories (some for the better, some for the worse) played out, there was a standard volleying back and forth in climate discourse about whether we were on the point of damnation or if we were on the point of salvation.

One of the factors that always looms in the background of climate discourse is the matter of politics (the focus here is on the US). Indeed, this is often one of the lines that divides self-described doomers from those who accuse others of being doomers. Most self-described doomers tend to take a rather dour view of US politics, it is not so much that they doubt climate scientists when they say “we can prevent this from getting too much worse if we take the necessary action” but that the self-described doomers doubt that those serious changes can get through Congress (and survive the Supreme Court). During Trump’s presidency, political pessimism in the climate community was largely directed towards the Trump administration, with optimistic emphasis being placed on the belief that serious climate action would be possible if Democrats could retake Congress and the White House. Since taking office Biden has made good on his promise to rejoin the Paris Accords, but many in the climate community (including many of those who accuse others of being doomers) have been disappointed (thus far at least) by the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats actions on the climate front.

And yet, the political factor that seems to be especially feeding into foreboding sentiments has less to do with what Biden has done since his inauguration and more to do with the ways in which Trump fought to keep Biden from ever getting inaugurated. Democrats currently control very thin majorities in Congress, across the country Republicans are openly putting in place policies to make it nearly impossible for Democrats to win, and the right has achieved its decades long dream of using the Supreme Court to effectively overturn Roe v. Wade—and in the face of this the Biden administration and the Democrats still appear to be sitting on their hands. Granted, thanks to Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, it’s questionable how much Democrats can really get done. All of which is to say that any appeal to optimism based on the idea of getting major legislation passed through Congress continually smashes against the rock of Congressional reality—and as challenging as it is to imagine major climate change legislation happening before the midterms, it is even harder to imagine major climate change legislation happening should Republicans retake one (or both) Congressional chambers in 2022.

It is easy to tell people to call their elected officials, but many of them have been calling their elected officials for years to depressingly little effect. To restate the point: the developments in climate change are certainly feeding into doomerism, but the refusal of elected officials to rise to the challenge feeds into this even more. The IPCC makes it abundantly clear that serious action is needed, Congress makes it abundantly clear that maybe if we’re very lucky we can get some slight tweaks that might have made a difference forty years ago.

Yet the factor that has had the most significant impact on the tenor of climate discourse since the 2018 IPCC report is undoubtedly the pandemic. Indeed, it is likely that COVID-19 has done more to push people into the doomer camp than any IPCC report, or climate exacerbated event.

Even as climate change exacerbated calamities play out on a regular basis, climate change continues to be situated in the future. Yes, this logic goes, we are seeing frightening things happening now…but the true horrors are coming in the not too distant future. And this focus on the future fits with the emphasis on “12 years” and in the calls that we need to take serious action now in order to minimize what is coming. Certainly, we can point to certain climate related disasters unfolding, but the all-enveloping climate catastrophe continues to be treated as if it is not here just yet. And thus, people have been able to retain a stubborn hope that when faced with a worldwide existential threat, people will come together, governments will step up, and in the moment of our greatest need we will prove ourselves up to the task.

If climate change provided people with an occasion to puzzle over how the world might respond to a major all-encompassing challenge, the pandemic has provided them with an answer.

And it has not been an answer that people have liked.

 

A Climate of Despair – COVID-19 

Few things impact a person’s worldview quite as thoroughly as the experience of a catastrophe. Particularly, if the experienced catastrophe is one that challenges a deeply held view of the way in which the world was thought to work. And the COVID-19 pandemic has given all of us the experience of living during just such a catastrophe. According to the Global Health Security Index released in October of 2019 (which came from the Nuclear Threat Initiative at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Economist Intelligence Unit) the country that was best prepared to deal with a pandemic was the United States, with the United Kingdom in second place. That report has become something of an ironic joke at this point in which COVID-19 has claimed more than 640,000] lives (just in the US), with the delta surge still going strong, and with projections claiming that there will be another 100,000 deaths by the year’s end. And yet it is essential to remember that the Global Health Security Index accurately captured the way in which many people in the US viewed threats like a pandemic: “it can’t happen here.”

COVID-19 has turned life upside down for people in all walks of life. And while sickness and death from the virus have not touched everyone (though they have certainly touched many), everyone has seen their life disrupted to a greater or lesser extent. What’s more, COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to see exactly how the world responds to a complex international crisis that thoroughly shakes the world as we knew it. While many individuals have had the experience of seeing how their government reacts to relatively localized disasters (such as hurricanes and wildfires), the pandemic has been everywhere at once (even as some areas have been hit harder than others). Optimistic discourse around climate change has often been filled with hypotheticals—the type of questions that begin with “what if…”—but the pandemic has pushed some of those questions out of the matter of the imaginary.

Climate change raises questions of how politicians will respond to a complex problem that upends a society—and COVID-19 has shown how politicians will respond to a complex problem that upends a society. Climate change raises questions about the way in which mistrust of scientific expertise can exacerbate crises in which that expertise is greatly needed—and COVID-19 has shown the way in which mistrust of scientific expertise can exacerbate crises in which that expertise is greatly needed. Climate change often tangles with the question of the extent to which relying on people being willing to make personal lifestyle changes is an adequate response to a largescale crisis—and COVID-19 has shown that personal lifestyle changes are by themselves insufficient. Climate change discourse has often wondered about what would happen if a techno-scientific solution appeared—and COVID-19 has made it clear that a techno-scientific solution (vaccines) does not by itself instantly solve the problem. Climate change discourse has time and again emphasized the importance of following the science and taking the science seriously—COVID-19 has shown that when you follow the science you also need to be mindful of the social science and the political science. Climate change raises questions about how a vastly unequal world will respond to a crisis that touches the entire world—as much of the world desperately awaits the vaccines, COVID-19 has provided an answer to that one as well. Climate change routinely wonders over the ability of media institutions to maintain a sufficient focus on a crisis while clearly pointing to those responsible and providing guidance on what steps people can take—COVID-19 has shown how quickly the media moves on to the next thing. Climate change emphasizes the importance of social cohesion and a sense of solidarity in withstanding disaster—COVID-19 has provided a clear view of the state of our severely frayed social cohesion.

Climate change asks us to think of how the world will respond to an existential threat—COVID-19 has shown us what that response looks like.

Any attempt to speak about climate change at this point needs to bear in mind the way in which the experience of the pandemic has shifted people’s view of the world.

While the content of the IPCC’s 2021 report is certainly important to consider in its own right, if your goal is to make sense of the reaction to it what you need to focus on is not the content of the report but the context in which people were reading that report. The 2021 report was just another thing that appeared on the screen of people who had already been doom-scrolling for over a year. It was a report that came out at a time when people were already exhausted and depressed. In many respects the IPCC report has come out at the worst moment of the pandemic. After all, in the fall of 2020 and even in the disastrous peaks of the winter 2020/2021 spike, people could still remain confident that they just needed to get through a little longer and then the vaccines would bring an end to the pandemic. But now? Now we watch as the calamitous delta surge continues, with some preparing to go get a third vaccine dose even as many of our neighbors regurgitate disinformation, and even as much of the world is still desperately waiting for a first vaccine dose. In the fall of 2020 it was easy to tell ourselves that we just had to make it to the spring of 2021. And, to be clear, there was a moment in the spring of 2021 (and early summer of 2021) when it really did feel like we had emerged from the tunnel…but now it feels like we have just entered an even darker tunnel, and we have no idea when we shall emerge from this one.

To the extent that doomer sentiments seem to be more widespread at the moment, it is imperative to understand what it is about this moment that is feeding into those sentiments. And it is worth recognizing how the experience of the pandemic (and Trump’s presidency) have significantly impacted many people’s confidence in their society’s ability to adequately respond to major crises. At issue here is not what the science or the scientists say. What is at issue is that there are legions of people who have done absolutely everything right, and who have followed the expert advice to the letter, but who still find themselves embroiled in a pandemic. There are certainly large parts of society in which there has been a loss of faith in science, but those sectors remain the province of deniers and delayers. The challenge of doomers is not a loss of faith in science, but a loss of faith in a society’s ability to respond to that science. And given the extent to which many climate communicators are themselves struggling to have confidence in social and political forces it isn’t really much of a surprise why they’d prefer to attack doomers as being anti-science. After all, it’s far easier to say “you’re misinterpreting the science,” than it is to say “I know how we’ll finally get Joe Manchin to budge.”

There is nothing particularly new about some people thinking the world is coming to an end. It also isn’t particularly new for some people to think that the world is coming to an end as a result of techno-scientific forces. Whenever these apocalyptic sentiments are voiced it is always worth trying to make sense of what it is that is really undergirding the premonitions of impending cataclysm. In many cases it may turn out that there really is a belief that some technological tool wielded by hubristic humans will bring about the end, but in some other cases it may turn out that there is a belief that human civilizations lack the willingness to trigger the emergency brake even as they careen past the warning signs.

At this point the figure of the doomer is not going away. It has become too much of a convenient strawman/punching bag for many people, even as it has become an appealing identity that others can slip in and out of when the mood fits them. And it is precisely for this reason that it is worthwhile to try to make sense of the doomer (and doomerism).

All of which is to say: it is not a surprise that people who are still experiencing a catastrophically mismanaged pandemic would feel pessimistic about the world’s ability to respond to even more complicated problems.

Even more complicated problems like climate change.

 

Coda

“I have published these words in order to prevent them from becoming true. If we do not stubbornly keep in mind the strong probability of the disaster, and if we do not act accordingly, we will be unable to find a way out. There is nothing more frightful than to be right.—And if some, paralyzed by the gloomy likelihood of the catastrophe, have already lost courage, they still have a chance to prove their love of man by heeding the cynical maxim: ‘Let’s go on working as though we had the right to hope. Our despair is none of our business.’” – Günther Anders

 

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About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

One comment on “The Climate of Despair – Climate Change, COVID-19, and the Feeling of Impending Doom

  1. Pingback: Look Around – Yet Another Piece about “Don’t Look Up” | LibrarianShipwreck

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