Don’t Not Panic – mixed messaging is detrimental to climate change action

If you try to keep up with the latest in climate change news, you might feel a bit like I do right now: a deer in headlights.

Earlier this week, David Wallace-Wells published an opinion piece about climate change in the New York Times titled ‘Time to Panic’. He argues that based on current scientific understanding and predictions, it is completely appropriate—and even imperative—for society to be in freak-out mode over climate change. This, in turn, should motivate us toward desperate action.

Soon after, Eric Holthaus wrote a short response article in Grist titled ‘Why you shouldn’t panic’. His main argument is, “if you’re trying to motivate people, scaring the shit out of them is a really bad strategy.”

So, what to do when confronted with scenarios of extreme storms, loss of entire coastlines, and millions of climate refugees? Panic? Or stay calm and collected?

To panic or not to panic—that is the question

Mixed messaging has plagued the climate change movement for decades. Although the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change has steadily strengthened and future predictions all point to escalating negative impacts, how to communicate this to the public has remained a source of contention.

Messaging has wavered between extreme doom-and-gloom, à la Wallace-Wells’ nightmarish “post warming world”, and the more optimistic “but there’s still hope!” approach that many scientists and conservationists support.

Wallace-Wells’ reasoning for pressing the panic button is pretty simple: “What creates more sense of urgency than fear?” he argues.

There’s research to back this up. A study that looked at the connection between emotion and behavior change found that fear and guilt were stronger motivational factors than hope.

“Making people feel good is less important than making people feel accountable when it comes to making wise decisions about self-protection,” explain the study’s authors.

Fear is a biological response to perceived threat. When we feel threatened, our body releases hormones that sharpen functions that should help us survive (eyesight), while shutting down ‘inessential’ functions (digestion). This survival mechanism can indeed provide us almost super-human (albeit momentary) powers to overcome imminent dangers—like pulling people out of burning buildings or lifting yourself up over a cliff edge.

But living with constant fear can have serious health consequences, ranging from anxiety and depression to heart disease. When you’re faced with fear on a daily basis, your body can lose its ability to process emotions and make clear decisions.

As Holthaus says, “your brain literally can’t perceive reality accurately in that state of heightened anxiety. Just ask anyone who has ever had a panic attack. It isn’t fun. Fear shouldn’t be what we strive for.”

I’ve had several panic attacks throughout my life, and I agree; they aren’t fun. Your heart races, your chest tightens, you gulp for breaths, and your mind dabbles with the worst thoughts. You definitely aren’t at your most rational during a panic attack. But what these panic attacks did do was make me realize the very real connection between my mental and physiological health. And they made me act to prevent having more panic attacks in the future.

Taking medication, developing a practice of meditation and yoga, and setting realistic goals all helped me reduce my panic attacks. This doesn’t mean I’ll never have a panic attack again, but it helps me take control of the situation and regulate my behavioral response, rather than feeling paralyzed.

In the same way, I can see how using our fear of climate change impacts to motivate action could help us reduce our climate anxiety and regain a sense of ‘control’ over our collective future. It may not prevent all the impacts of climate change, but it could help us cope and adapt. And when it comes down to it, I think Wallace-Wells and Holthaus actually agree on this—if they could just get beyond their need to differentiate themselves and make people choose sides based on semantics.

Wallace-Wells says, “By defining the boundaries of conceivability more accurately, catastrophic thinking makes it easier to see the threat of climate change clearly.” A clearly defined threat incites action—when humans are confronted with catastrophe, whether earthquakes or war, we time and again work together to rebuild communities and societies.

Holthaus says, meanwhile, “It’s courage, not fear, that will bring about the long overdue world we all need.” This is not counter to Wallace-Wells’ argument. It’s just the necessary response. When faced with life-threatening fear, we must conjure courage in order to act and overcome the threat. After all—without fear, where does courage come from?

Conquering Fear

But how we manifest that courage matters, too. For Wallace-Wells, our focus on consumer culture and individual actions—like buying an electric car or forgoing air travel—is a cop-out, a distraction from the much more necessary collective actions and policies that must be coordinated across regions, states, and nations.

“That is the purpose of politics: that we can be and do better together than we might manage as individuals.”

Holthaus’s article focuses on grassroots movements rather than government policies, and he references a recent essay by Mary Annaïse Heglar to drive home the lessons we can learn from the civil rights movement and the existential threat African Americans have felt for centuries. But even the quote he chooses to display from this essay belies the connection between fear, courage, and action.

“Nothing scares me more than climate change,” Heglar writes, “but I made up my mind to face it head-on—because of my debt to future generations and to previous generations.”

This sentiment echoes the tone taken by Greta Thurnberg, the 16 year old Swedish student who’s made waves by chiding world leaders’ inaction on climate change and has led a global student strike to unite the voices of her generation:

‘Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.

I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.’

To me, this is the biggest challenge we must address to act on climate change. We must perceive the threat as an emergency, one we don’t have the luxury to ignore. Not an emergency that we can’t do anything about—because we can. Once a house is on fire we can still put it out, keep it from damaging the entire property, and spreading to other properties. We can save the people and animals in that house. We can choose to re-build or not, and use different materials and develop strategies to reduce the risk of fire.

We can and should do this more comprehensively, at all scales, for climate change impacts.

In the end, I think David Wallace-Wells and Eric Holthaus are actually on the same team, with the same message—if they could only recognize it. We must turn our fear into action rather than paralysis, and demand the same of our leaders and governments.

As Mark Twain once said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”

miguel-bruna-503098-unsplash
Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

Yes, scientists discovered a huge colony of penguins off Antarctica, and no, it doesn’t mean climate change is a hoax.

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”

-Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)

mapandpenguins1-e1520978720413.png

In March, researchers announced the discovery of a ‘super colony’ of Adélie penguins hidden amongst the remote Danger Islands off the northernmost tip of Antarctica. The colony’s existence was confirmed using satellite imagery, and scientists estimated its size using the latest drone technology and neural network software.

Finding roughly 1.5 million penguins thriving in this region—especially since their kin in the western Antarctic Peninsula are suffering population declines—should be a good news story, right?

The discovery certainly received a great deal of media coverage. The news that Adélie penguins as a species are in better shape than researchers previously thought should give us renewed hope and inspire greater support for two planned marine protected areas in the Danger Islands, which would help safeguard this newly found penguin colony from human encroachment.

Yet, although this discovery has raised morale for many wildlife biologists and environmental conservationists, it has also sparked vitriol from science scoffers and professional trolls.

Science Misunderstood

A scroll through the comments section in The Independent’s coverage of the story shows just how wide the gap is between what scientists do, and what people think scientists do. Many of the comments revolved around scientists being incompetent and stubborn, such as this one:

Picture1

The comment highlights one of the most common ways people misinterpret science. The commenter seems to imply that science is a farce because scientists thought they knew how many penguins existed. This new discovery shows that they did not. Therefore, science cannot be trusted. The thing that haters don’t seem to understand is that science is built on a foundation of continually evolving ideas based on introduction of new evidence. Science is not static, it seeks to hone theories and improve our understanding incrementally as we gather more and more information to support or refute ideas.

Science is not a religion that scientists proselytize (at least, not for most of us); it is a framework for continually improving our understanding of the world. Scientists had a prior estimate of penguins based on evidence at the time. That estimate has now been updated based on the introduction of new evidence. That’s exactly how science is supposed to work. Discovering that the Adélie penguin population is larger than previously thought in no way negates the thousands of lines of evidence documenting climate change impacts. Neither does it imply that Adélie populations elsewhere aren’t suffering declines. It simply increases our baseline knowledge and allows for more accurate population modeling.

Misplaced Mistrust

Another comment illustrates another common misplaced complaint about science—that because scientists didn’t know about this penguin colony, they obviously don’t know what they are talking about with anything else, including climate change; their research can’t be trusted:

Picture2

First of all, I don’t think the commenter understands just how remote and rugged the Danger Islands are, located in a turbulent, difficult to reach part of the Southern Ocean. They aren’t called Danger Islands for nothing. Even if researchers had been able to locate the colony via satellite imagery long before now, they would have struggled to estimate the population size without the drone and software technologies that have only recently become widely available (and affordable).

MapandPenguins
Left: Map of Antarctica indicating location of Danger Islands in yellow box. Right: Close-up of the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and Danger Islands. Images modified from Borowicz et al 2018.

Second, the commenter falls into the all too common trap of false equivalence: slick scientists tell us climate change causes ice to melt, but this penguin colony is surrounded by ice. Therefore, climate change must not be happening, so Ha! This argument fails to acknowledge the many known intricacies of global climate change, including the fact that while some areas of the planet are steadily warming (and ice is melting at worrisome rates), other areas are still fairly stable or even experiencing more extreme cold weather patterns. The point that seems to get buried beneath layers of ideology is that climate change is creating a more volatile climate system across the planet, and this is well documented.

The equipment to measure greenhouse gas quantities and origins has existed for decades, and climate models are becoming more and more accurate every year. We know, for example, that the Arctic sea ice minimum, which occurs around September each year, is declining at a rate of about 13% per decade. Arctic winters are also warming steadily at an alarming rate—just last month researchers documented an unprecedented heat wave in the region. As this heat invades the Arctic (due to rising ocean temperatures and sea rise), cool air is pushed south causing extreme cold-snaps in northern temperate latitudes.

And it’s not just the Arctic. A NASA study using innovative data analysis techniques to interpret satellite data has provided the clearest picture yet of changes in Antarctic ice flow. The study found that ice loss is accelerating on the West Antarctic ice sheet, while remaining steady in the east. This evidence actually helps explain why ice-dependent Adélie penguins seem to be doing so much better in the Danger Islands than their Western Peninsula counterparts.

andrew-shiva-cc-by-sa-4-0.png
The four species of penguin that live on or near the Antarctic continent. Before the recent discovery of a previously undocumented Adelie colony in the Danger Islands, the Adelie population was estimated at roughly 3 -4 million.

Where all the rich climate scientists at?

Of course, one could argue that all of these thousands of climate scientists (who are a completely different group of people than the marine biologists that discovered the penguin colony, by the way) are just in cahoots to keep the grant money flowing in and their pockets overflowing. Except that they aren’t. But the argument keeps getting made, often with the implication that academic researchers are all part of one big conspiracy to ruin the world for everyone else:

Picture3

I hate to break it to you, but neither I nor any of the scientists I know sought an academic research career because of the promise of dollar signs or job security (less than one third of faculty at public universities are tenured, e.g.). Most climate scientists work at academic institutions, government agencies, or NGOs and earn less (sometimes a lot less) than $100,000 per year. Even U.S. college professors only earn on average $75,000 per year. Sure, that’s nothing to scoff at. But it’s hardly even worth comparing to the millions of dollars these folks would be pocketing each year if they had opted to work for, say, a multinational oil company instead of a government agency or university.

Besides, when you add in the average combined undergraduate and graduate student loan debt of around $70,000, and the six to ten years of courses and research it takes to earn a PhD, it becomes harder and harder to argue that climate scientists are in it for the money. And it doesn’t get much better once you graduate—nearly half of U.S. PhD recipients don’t have a job lined up at graduation. Those that do often accept post-doc positions that pay an average annual salary of $40,000. The number of tenure-track positions is shrinking every year, and competition is painstakingly stiff for those that remain (one of my good friends recently applied for an academic position and learned that nearly ONE THOUSAND other similarly qualified people also applied).

What’s more, U.S. grant money for climate change research has remained relatively flat for the last twenty years, hovering around a total of about $2 billion coming from 13 different agencies and spread out among thousands of individual research grants. Compare that to the annual budget of the NIH at more than $30 billion, or the yearly profit of Exxon at $16 billion. Research science is not a career you choose to be rich and famous. It’s a career you choose because you are innately curious or passionate about solving problems (or maybe you have a masochistic bent). For more on what really happens to grant money awarded to climate scientists, check out this video by climate scientist and Evangelical Christian Kathryn Hayhoe.

Climate scientists may have deep pockets, but they’re filled with crumbled sticky notes and candy wrappers, not hundred-dollar bills.

How do we build a bridge between science and society?

Russian trolls and paid nay-sayers aside, scientists obviously have some work to do to more clearly communicate how they do science, what processes they use, and why their work is relevant to society. The field of science communication is rapidly growing and maturing to help on this front, but we still have a long way to go. It’s not just about doing away with jargon and simplifying complex concepts. It’s about connecting with people who have different values and worldviews. As Lisa Saffran writes in Scientific American:

“No matter how clear the findings and how scientifically literate the audience, if the information poses a threat to one’s identity then the scientist might as well be speaking, well, Greek.”

Saffron is referring to the way our social identities influence our perceptions and attitudes about environmental issues. Whether we admit it or not, our political, religious, and cultural allegiances strongly impact the way we respond, whether positive or negative, to information about things like climate change.

Scientists and science communicators must therefore hone their ability not only to translate scientific language, but also to listen to others and hear their concerns, and to engage them in discussions about what matters to all of us—such as the health of our families and communities.

As tKatharine Hayhoe puts it, “We live in a situation now where the fear of solutions is greater than the fear of impacts.” People are driven by fear, particularly the fear of losing their freedom of choice, and respond negatively to issues that might best be addressed at large government scales.

Fortunately, science storytelling is becoming recognized as an important way for scientists to connect with non-scientists and lay bare their own fears, hopes, and motivations. Dozens of training workshops, such as Story Collider, help train scientists to tell stories about their work that are accessible and interesting to public audiences.

Science education also needs to become a greater priority in schools and universities, with a particular focus on engaging students from diverse backgrounds and reducing barriers to obtaining a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education. As important will be teaching students to ‘think’ scientifically—i.e., to train people to “be their own science referees—that is, to understand how science works, and to identify baloney when it’s slung at them,” as Mike Klymkowskly writes in a blog about science education.

Klymkowskly argues that a lot of the public misunderstanding around science comes down to the way that science is taught and popularized. Teachers, books, shows, and movies about science tend to de-emphasize the process and instead focus on schnazzy facts and outcomes. I don’t think programs like Nova or Planet Earth are doing a disservice to science just because they focus on ‘wow’ factors, as Klymkowskly seems to imply. But I do think we have a responsibility to de-mystify scientific processes (because there are many), teach the history of science, and emphasize the importance of critical thinking in all fields of learning.

The Moral of the Science Story

What can we take away from all this? One, there are way more penguins in Antarctica than we previously thought (yay!). Two, climate change is still happening (Boo!). Three, scientists need to do a better job of communicating to non-scientists not only about scientific research, but about how the scientific process itself works.

We are all born curious, with a desire to understand the world around us and find our place in it. Most of us are also driven by an innate desire to make the world (or at least our immediate surroundings) a positive, safe space for ourselves and loved ones. Science is one framework through which we can gather evidence and refine ideas to do both of these things, but it must be made more accessible to diverse groups. We as scientists (and communicators) must work to depoliticize and clarify issues like climate change so that we can work with society to find common solutions, as well as common ground.

***

Read the Nature paper: Multi-modal survey of Adélie penguin mega-colonies reveals the Danger Islands as a seabird hotspot

Psyched out—the mental barriers that prevent us from solving global problems

Despite the many challenges we already face due to climate change and other environmental issues, as a society we struggle to face these problems head on and take action.
Despite the many challenges we already face due to climate change and other environmental issues, as a society we struggle to face these problems head on and take action.

In 1969, Psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a book outlining five key steps in the grieving process. Decades later, these five steps have entrenched themselves almost ubiquitously into western society’s understanding of grief, with references to them occurring in everything from academic research to pop culture.

Flash-forward to 2015—another psychologist, Per Espen Stoknes, has published his own book that similarly proposes a five-step psychological process. But this one isn’t about grieving. In fact, it’s about not grieving—not grieving for the planet, that is. In his book, Stoknes describes five psychological barriers that prevent people from being concerned about, or taking action on, climate change.

The five barriers (distance from the problem, defeatism, internal dissonance, denial, and sense of identity) do indeed help explain why people in developed countries are largely ignoring not just climate change, but many other large-scale, high-risk challenges facing society and the environment. While each of these mental barriers relates to one another, I am particularly interested in the last—i.e., how our construct of personal identity (a.k.a. Ego) affects our perception of the world, and how that perception frames our values, connections, and resulting actions (or inaction, as the case may be).

“Each of us has a sense of self that is based in certain values — a professional self, a political self, a national identity. We just naturally look for information that confirms our existing values and notions, and filter away whatever challenges them,” Stoknes explains. “Psychologists know that if you criticize people to try to make them change, it may only reinforce their resistance.”

Personal identity, just like religion, has evolved to serve an important purpose in human society. It helps us cultivate a moral compass and allows us to interpret and filter the constant external information our minds are internalizing. However, as with religion, our sense of self can become a source of harm when it interferes with our ability to commiserate and connect with people or ideas different from our ‘own’. The ego grows by defining boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’, and by ignoring or outright denying any information that does not align with its self-cultivated identity.

We only have to look at neo-Nazi groups or extreme religious cults to see where the creation and defense of self-identity can go terribly, violently wrong. At the other extreme, philosophies such as yoga as well as many eastern religions emphasize the release from self-identity as the highest goal—i.e., moving beyond the ego to a place of enlightenment, or higher consciousness. For those of us in between those extremes, our sense of self is unavoidable, and crucial at least to some extent in our interactions with the day-to-day world. The goal then is how to maintain an identity without feeling threatened by other ways of seeing or explaining the world; an identity that is porous like sand on a beach, allowing ideas and knowledge to flow through it freely.

I believe that regardless of religious, philosophical, or cultural ties, our responsibility (and ideally, our ambition) as humans is to cultivate a sense of self that is pliable instead of rigid, that expands and evolves to accept new ideas and facts as they are made aware to us. Nothing on the planet, indeed in the universe, is unchanging, and neither is our Self, no matter how much we try to cling to whatever identity we’ve constructed over the years.

I Imagine, therefore I Am

One thing that we all are capable of to varying degrees is imagining. Imagining future scenarios, imagining alternative lives, or even imagining people or creatures that don’t ‘exist’ in our world. Whereas science-minded folks often exhibit high amounts of curiosity and openness to new ideas, its often religious people whose minds are more open to imagination.

As Stanford Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann explains in a TEDx talk, evangelical conceptions of God often involve people talking directly to God, hearing his voice direct them, or even seeing him. Her research has found that some people have an inherently vivid imagination, and these individuals are more likely to have these personal one-on-one interactions with God. Using brain scans, scientists can see that the same parts of the brain are active when someone is having a Godly experience as when they are asked to imagine various scenes.

Visions of God or other religious beings have been recorded for centuries--new research shows that a strong imagination correlates with a higher likelihood of having these kinds of religious visions.
Visions of God or other religious beings have been recorded for centuries–new research shows that a strong imagination correlates with a higher likelihood of having these kinds of religious visions.

Luhrmanns’ and others’ research also shows that we train our minds to be more imaginative—or more in tune with God, depending on how you interpret the results. The longer a person has been praying in the evangelical style, the more likely they are to experience God’s voice or image in their everyday routines.

These internal imaginative experiences highlight how adaptive and flexible our minds are. We can literally re-wire our brains by consciously changing and practicing new thought patterns. People are trained to do this to treat depression and anxiety, and we can even reduce chances of developing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s by keeping our minds healthy and active.

Perhaps if we were to teach similar techniques on a wider level, our society would be better prepared for change, and more willing to make positive lifestyle choices to protect our health, environment, and wellbeing. Just as people are starting to advocate re-introducing children to gardening and real food at school, and some corporations are adopting socially and environmentally conscious guidelines that go beyond their financial bottom line, we do have it in us to expand our view about what values are important to cultivate.

It’s never easy to modify your identity or accept large-scale change, but we’ve done it as a species countless times before. Our identities will always be partially shaped by where we live, how we were raised, and to what cultures we were exposed. However, as a highly adaptive species, I have hope that we (at least some of us!) can yet evolve toward a higher collective consciousness in which differences are both respected and recognized as superficial compared to the larger sameness that we all share.

While younger generations face more dire problems than those of the past, many millenials appear to be up to the challenge, spreading a message of acceptance and action.
While younger generations face more dire problems than those of the past, many millenials appear to be up to the challenge, spreading a message of acceptance and action.