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.”

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Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash