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The Banker. Underwater sculpture. Jason de Caires Taylor.

Climate Doomsday Essay 'Is Exactly What We Don't Need'

By James Wilt

It's not often that an article about climate change becomes one of the most hotly debated issues on the internet—especially in the midst of a controversial G20 summit.

But that exact thing happened following the publication of a lengthy essay in New York Magazine, The Uninhabitable Earth: Famine, Economic Collapse, a Sun that Cooks Us: What Climate Change Could Wreak—Sooner Than You Think.


In the course of 7,200 words, author David Wallace-Wells chronicled the possible impacts of catastrophic climate change if current emissions trends are maintained, including, but certainly not limited to: mass permafrost melt and methane leaks, mass extinctions, fatal heat waves, drought and food insecurity, diseases and viruses, "rolling death smog," global conflict and war, economic collapse and ocean acidification.

Slate political writer Jamelle Bouie described the essay on Twitter as "something that will haunt your nightmares."

It's a fair assessment. Reading it feels like a series of punches in the gut, triggering emotions like despair, hopelessness and resignation.

But here's the thing: Many climate psychologists and communicators consider those feelings to be the very opposite of what will compel people to action.

"Based on my research on climate communications, this article is exactly what we don't need," said Per Espen Stoknes, Norwegian psychologist and author of What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action, in an interview with DeSmog Canada.

"It only serves to further alarm the already alarmed segment of people. "

Climate Psychologists Recommends 'Positivity Ratio' of 3:1

Let's get one thing out of the way.

Critics of the New York Magazine article—and other instances of doomsday journalism—are not anti-science. These are all people who firmly recognize the severity of catastrophic climate change, and are certainly not petitioning for a bury-your-head-in-the-sand approach, shielding the public from the potential horrors.

Rather, they suggest that most people will only process such facts about climate change if it's framed in an appropriate way that acknowledges how individuals and societies respond to potentially traumatic threats.

"It's really important to understand that it's not just about facts and numbers, but having a way for people to interpret them and know there's something they can do," said Kari Marie Norgaard, associate professor of sociology and environmental studies at the University of Oregon and author of Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life, in an interview with DeSmog Canada.

Stoknes noted there's a well-known "positivity ratio" for optimal engagement of a 3:1 ratio of opportunities to threats. He said the New York Magazine piece was around nine threats to every one proposed solution.

In other words, a tripling of the ratio in the wrong direction.

Article Sticks to Hard Science, Ignoring Role of Social Sciences

The author of the New York Magazine article has already responded to a series of criticisms on Twitter, including on the scientific merit of some of his claims.

A rather revealing moment was when Wallace-Wells replied to a critique from renowned futurist Alex Steffen—who had described the article as "one long council of despair"—by suggesting that "my own feeling is that ignorance about what's at stake is a much bigger problem."

The clear implication is that Wallace-Wells assumes a confronting of ignorance about scientific facts could help compel people to action and avoid the most dangerous manifestations of climate change.

But Daniel Aldana Cohen—assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the response piece in Jacobin, New York Mag's Climate Disaster Porn Gets It Painfully Wrong—suggests in an interview with DeSmog Canada that Wallace-Well's approach indicates a failure to engage with any questions about broader sociopolitical systems.

"I think in the politics of climate change, a narrow idea of climate science is fetishized," said Cohen, adding that even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change largely fails to include social sciences in working group reports.

"It feels like the most realistic, the most unvarnished truth is what the science predicts," he continued. "But the thing is that in some way, climate science registers the impact of human activity, but it's not actually an integrated account of the dynamic feedback between social and political activities and physical events in the atmosphere."

In other words, Wallace-Wells' article sketches out a narrative of catastrophic climate change that assumes people don't act on the knowledge of the situation.

But in a cruel twist, by only focusing on the science without any attempt to contextualize it in society or political systems, it could well have the reverse effect by making readers feel even more powerless.

This isn't a new problem: Stoknes noted that as identified by James Painter of Oxford University's Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, about 80 per cent of media coverage on the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report used "catastrophe framing," with less than 10 percent using "opportunity framing."

"It's not just about pointing your fingers at the climate skeptics and saying that's the problem," Norgaard said.

"Of course, it's a major problem. But the apathy or acquiescence of the majority of people who are aware and do care is a larger problem. It's about how we mobilize those people."

If Framed Correctly, Idea of Apocalypse Can Help People Imagine Alternatives

Stoknes argues that thinking about such a sobering subject as apocalypse or death, if done correctly, can actually help people conceptualize new ways of thinking and being.

"This psychological approach to the apocalypse is very important, and I found it completely absent in the article," he said. "It is not about predicting a certain year in the future of linear time, when everything will be collapsing. Maybe this notion is more like a call in the here and now, calling attention to the urgent need for a deep rethink of where we are and letting go of some cherished Western notions that we've been stuck in over the last century."

Such a sentiment is echoed by climate psychologist Renee Lertzman and author of Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic Dimensions of Engagement, who emphasizes in an interview with DeSmog Canada that predictable fault lines have formed in the wake of the New York Magazine piece.

A key factor for her is how humans actually process information that may be challenging and bring up difficult feelings. She said the consensus is that we can become "cognitively impaired" when the brain's limbic system becomes activated, resulting in reduced capacity to have functions for strategy, foresight, collaboration and tolerance.

"That goes out the window when your limbic system is activated, which arguably articles like this are going to do," she said. "The best way to deal with that reality is to address how we can soothe and disarm our defenses."

'We Need to Also Be Engaged in Collective Political Action and Solutions'

That's certainly not going to be an easy feat. But there are plenty of initiatives out there that are embracing a bit more nuance.

Lertzman points to Project Drawdown—an attempt to compile the 100 top solutions to climate change—as a powerful initiative, although she suggests "even that is missing the emotional taking stock of where we are." Cohen shouted out the work of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.

But central to progressing beyond the gridlock of current climate discourse is likely via bringing it closer to the local level, where people feel they can actually influence things.

CBC's new podcast 2050: Degrees of Change is a good example of this. While it paints a dramatic picture of life in BC under climate change, it also uses a scenario under which the world has drastically decreased greenhouse gas emissions.

"We wanted listeners to end off realizing this is a middle of the road scenario and things could be worse and they could be better depending on what we choose to do now," Johanna Wagstaffe, podcast host and CBC senior meteorologist, told DeSmog Canada.

Norgaard said engaging with issues on a local level can give people a leverage point into even greater engagement.

"We really need to on the one hand be aware that it's something we need to respond to as a collective," she said. "Riding your bike is great, but we need to also be engaged in collective political action and solutions. That's part of what helps people to do something proactive that's real."

Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.

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Kevin Vallely

'Rowing the Northwest Passage' Chronicles An Expedition Through the Changing North

By Kevin Vallely

In 2013 four adventurers set out on an 80-day rowboat mission through the Arctic's rapidly melting Northwest Passage. Their journey brought them face to face with the changing seas in a world of climate change. In this excerpt from adventurer Kevin Vallely's new book about the expedition, Rowing the Northwest Passage (Greystone Books), we also see how climate change has affected some of the people the team met along their journey:

An elderly woman walks toward us from the road. Tuktoyaktuk, in the Northwest Territories, is a sizable town by Arctic standards, with a full-time population of 954, but it's small enough that the bulk of the town likely knows we're here. The woman is smiling when she reaches us.

"I saw you coming in," she says. "Where you guys come from?" "We're from Vancouver," I say, my mouth still half full of food. "We started our trip in Inuvik nine days ago." Her name is Eileen Jacobsen and she's an Elder in town. She and her husband, Billy, run a sightseeing business. "You should come up to the house in the morning and have some coffee," she tells us.

Our night's sleep in the Arctic Joule is fitful; our overindulgence runs through all of us like a thunderstorm. By seven in the morning, even with both hatches open, lighting a match in the cabin would blow us out like dirt from that Siberian crater. The roar of the Jetboil pulls me out. Frank's already up, down jacket on, preparing coffee. "You like a cup?"

It's still too early to drop by Eileen Jacobsen's house, so we walk into town on the dusty main road, our ears assaulted by a cacophony of barking dogs. Dirt is the surface of choice for roads and runways in Arctic communities, as any inflexible surface like concrete would be shredded by the annual freeze–thaw cycle. Most of the town runs the length of a thin finger of land, with the ocean on one side and a protected bay on the other. About halfway down the peninsula, a cluster of wooden crosses rests in a high grass clearing, facing west. We heard about this graveyard in Inuvik. Because of melting permafrost and wave action, it's eroding into the sea, and community members have lined the shore with large rocks to forestall its demise. This entire peninsula will face this threat in the coming years. There's not much land here to hold back a hungry ocean.

We notice an elderly man in a blue winter jacket staring at us a short distance away. He's sitting outside a small wooden house and smiles as we approach. "You guys must be the rowers," he says. "Too windy to be out rowing." His jacket hood is pulled tight over his ball cap and he dons a pair of wraparound shades with yellow lenses that would better suit a racing cyclist than a village Elder. His name is Fred Wolki, and he's lived in Tuk for the last fifty years. "I grew up on my father's boat until they sent me to school in 1944, then I came here."

His father, Jim Wolki, is a well-known fox trapper who transported his pelts from Banks Island to Herschel Island aboard his ship the North Star of Herschel Island. Interestingly, we had the Arctic Joule moored right beside the North Star at the Vancouver Maritime Museum before we left. Built in San Francisco in 1935, the North Star plied the waters of the Beaufort Sea for over thirty years, her presence in Arctic waters playing an important role in bolstering Canadian Arctic sovereignty through the Cold War.

"We're curious if things have changed much here since you were a boy," Frank says.

"Well … it's getting warmer now," Fred says, shaking his head. He gestures out to the water speaking slowly and pausing for long moments between thoughts. "Right up to the 1960s … there was old ice along the coast … The ice barely moved … It was grounded along the coastline." He looks out over the shoreline, moving his arm back and forth. "They started to fade away slowly in the 1960s … icebergs … They were huge, like big islands … They were so high, like the land at the dew Line station … over there." He points to the radar dome of the long decommissioned Distant Early Warning Line station that sits on a rise of land just east of us. "It's been twenty years since we've seen one in Tuk." There's no sentimentality or anger in Fred's voice; he's just telling us his story. "It's getting warmer now … Global warming is starting to take its toll … All the permafrost is starting to melt … Water is starting to eat away our land."

I listen to his words, amazed. There's no agenda here, no vested interest, no job creation or moneymaking—just an elderly man bearing witness to his changing world.

Excerpted from Rowing the Northwest Passage: Adventure, Fear, and Awe in a Rising Sea by Kevin Vallely, published September 2017 by Greystone Books. Condensed and reproduced with permission from the publisher.

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Hundreds Dead in Mexico After Earthquake Strikes on Anniversary of Devastating 1985 Quake

In Mexico, a massive 7.1-magnitude quake struck 100 miles southeast of Mexico City Tuesday, collapsing dozens of buildings around the capital city and trapping schoolchildren, workers and residents beneath the rubble.

At least 217 people are dead, and hundreds more are missing. Among the dead are least 21 students at a primary school in Mexico City and 15 worshipers who died during a Catholic mass when the earthquake triggered an eruption at a volcano southeast of the city.

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Fourth St. sign under water in San Francisco. Scott Schiller/Flickr

San Francisco Becomes First Major U.S. City to Sue Fossil Fuel Industry Over Costs of Climate Change

San Francisco and Oakland are suing Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell—the five biggest investor-owned fossil fuel producers in the world—over the costs of climate change.

The two Californian cities join the counties of Marin, San Mateo and San Diego and the city of Imperial Beach that have taken similar legal action in recent months, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

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Climate Alliance States Show Us What Real Leadership Looks Like

By Luis Martinez and Kit Kennedy

In a forceful show of climate leadership, Governors Andrew Cuomo (NY), Jerry Brown (CA), and Jay Inslee (WA) and former Secretary of State John Kerry came together in New York City Wednesday as part of Climate Week to celebrate the progress and growth of the U.S. Climate Alliance, the bipartisan coalition that has grown to 14 states dedicated to meeting the Paris agreement climate goal. The coalition was founded by Cuomo, Brown and Inslee after President Trump announced the U.S. intent to withdraw from Paris.

President Trump may prefer to pretend that climate change isn't real—Gov. Cuomo quipped that the Trump administration is in "the State of Denial"—but these leaders detailed the extraordinary strides they're making, in the absence of White House leadership, to slash greenhouse gas emissions and grow their economies at the same time. For New Yorkers, it's exciting to see Cuomo's leadership on clean energy and climate continue to accelerate, from setting strong renewable energy goals, to a successful push with other Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative states to further slash carbon emissions, to banning fracking.

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Hurricane Maria Devastates Puerto Rico

By Andy Rowell

As new Hurricane Maria brings devastation to Puerto Rico, the governor of the island, Ricardo Rossello, has asked Donald Trump to declare the U.S. territory a disaster zone.

He has said that Maria could be the most damaging hurricane to hit the country in more than 100 years.

With maximum recorded wind speeds of 140 mph and rainfall of up to 25 inches or even higher, Mike Brennan, a senior hurricane specialist from the U.S. National Hurricane Center has also warned locals of flash-flooding and "punishing" rainfall. He added that the storm would remain "very dangerous" for the next couple of days.

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Nicaragua to Sign Paris Agreement, Leaving Trump Alone With Syria

When President Donald Trump decided to pull out of the Paris climate agreement in June, the United States joined the only two countries of the 197 nations in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change that declined to sign the 2015 accord: Syria, which has been embroiled in a full-scale civil war for six years; and Nicaragua, as its leaders felt the pact was not strong enough to fight climate change.

But now, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said his country will sign the agreement "soon," Managua-based TV station 100% Noticias reports.

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14 States On Track to Meet Paris Targets

Fourteen states and Puerto Rico are on track to meet and potentially exceed their portion of the U.S. commitment under the Paris agreement.

The report shows that the member states of the U.S. Climate Alliance (USCA), which has grown to represent 36 percent of the U.S. population and more than $7 trillion of America's GDP, are collectively on track to reach a 24 to 29 percent reduction below 2005 emissions levels by 2025.

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Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation Awards $20M in Largest-Ever Portfolio of Environmental Grants

Environmental activist and Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio announced that his foundation has awarded $20 million to more than 100 organizations supporting environmental causes.

This is the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation's (LDF) largest-ever portfolio of environmental grants to date. The organization has now offered more than $80 million in total direct financial impact since its founding in 1998.

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