Can Scaring Force Caring?

How to balance hope and despair in the fight against climate change

A deep and divisive conversation is happening among climate change activists. It’s not a disagreement about some scientific prediction, or an argument about this or that policy.

For them, it’s a more fundamental and far more emotionally charged question: How do we deal with the terrible realities we are facing? How do we tell other people about climate change in a way that communicates the urgency of the problem, but doesn’t make people throw up their arms and give up?

It's a question about how to get people to look bravely and honestly into the face of despair, while creating enough hope to spur action.

Dougald Hine used to be a climate activist. But after years of rallies and protests, he thought the change that was happening was too small and too slow. He went from saying, we can beat climate change, to saying, it’s time we start talking honestly about what we will lose.

Hine co-authored The Dark Mountain Manifesto. In it, he tries to wrestle with the tension between the hopeful speeches activists like him were giving and the despair he actually felt. He tries to face, head on, the gap between the on-air interviews about solutions, and anxious conversations activists had at night, over drinks, away from crowds and microphones.

Climate activists were saying they felt pressure to keep their anxiety and depression to themselves. Hine wanted to create a space to talk about that burden and find a different kind of hope. In a separate essay, Hine’s co-author Paul Kingsworth wrote, “I withdraw... I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching, I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity and all of the false assumptions.”

Like a doctor treating an ailing patient, Hine believes it’s time to start being more up-front about the prognosis. To stop saying human ingenuity and technology will save someone's life, and instead help the patient face what he’s up against. To do anything less, he seems to argue, would be unethical.

Dark Mountain received backlash from others in the climate change community. After all, much of the research on climate communication says that hopeful messages are essential. Anthony Leiserowitz is the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. He thinks doomsday predictions are scientifically inaccurate and can backfire. If messages are too negative, he says, people won’t be able to absorb the information and will feel incapable of taking action.

We invited Hine and Leiserowitz to talk to each other about the emotional challenges of climate change, and useful ways of talking about those challenges.

A separately edited transcript and audio recording of their conversation on The Takeawaywith John Hockenberry are below.

John Hockenberry: How did you get to where you are at?

Dougald Hine: For me, the journey into awareness of climate change is probably pretty similar to the one that a lot of people go through. A sense of the scale of the crisis, and you begin to change your life and your activity. You switch off every light that someone's left on, you find yourself at the end of a shift in the newsroom, standing on tables to switch off all of the monitors. Then you hit another threshold, where you realize that you could do all of those things and it probably still wouldn't be enough.

But what was more troubling to me was the realization that prominent voices within the movement were standing up and giving the same speech that you'd heard them giving five years earlier. But if you caught the same person at the end of the night, they would admit that actually they were in a place of pessimism, verging on despair. So the beginning of Dark Mountain was this realization that environmentalism was in danger of becoming a church where the priests had lost their faith, but they didn't think that the congregation was ready to hear the bad news yet. So this kind of gap between the motivational speeches and the personal pessimism of a lot of the leading voices.

And Anthony, where did you start, and where did you end up?

Anthony Leiserowitz: So I started back in 1990, where I worked at the Aspen Global Change Institute, literally working with the world's leading climate scientist. And it was intense. The scientific community has been very clear about what the problem is, what the causes are, what the consequences are gonna be, for several decades.

But at the same time, it was also very clear to me that we were not responding. So I subsequently devoted my career to trying to understand this question: What is it about the way that we think, that we feel, that leads us to be able to respond to some issues, and not others? And then using all of those kinds of insights, trying to figure out how do we become much more effective at actually engaging people in a constructive way?

And how do we become more effective?

AL: I think first of all, we have to recognize, this is a systemic problem. That means there's no single silver bullet. Bill McKibben has beautifully said, there's no silver bullet, we need silver buckshot. We need action by governments, we need action by industry, we need action by citizens. All of these need to come into play because we're talking about fundamentally transitioning- and this really is at the heart of it- transitioning from a 19th Century energy system, which is still based on digging stuff up out of the ground and setting it on fire, to the 21st Century energy system, the renewable clean energy system. It’s much more efficient, all the same services that we still want and desire today and yet done so in a way that doesn't destroy the life support system on which we all depend. And there's only one way we're gonna solve it, and that's by rolling up our sleeves and get going.

Dougald, what's wrong with that approach?

DH: Well I think that the danger is we end up talking about this as a problem, which is gonna be solved with the right combination of technical policy and economic answers. And if I look back, I've seen world leaders standing up, making grand statements about the scale of the challenge that we're facing - all of my life, and meanwhile if I look at how many years has the global carbon emissions gone down? In that time? It's happened once, and that was in 2009 after the global economic crisis. So you get this gap between this kind of message of optimism and roll up our sleeves and let's do it, and a deeply ominous reality. Our whole way of living is being called into question at levels that go deeper than simply substituting solar for coal, as where the juice that's coming out of the socket.

Anthony, do you think it's appropriate to embrace what's happening and to focus on the solid track record of humans adapting?

AL: I hear what Dougald is saying and in part, he's exactly right. On the other hand I think we're seeing some pretty encouraging signs in even the past couple years. Here's the analogy: We've been driving in a car, it's late at night, it's foggy. We're coming down a mountain pass. And long ago, we already chose this path, so we can't back up, we can't turn around. The kids are in the back, they're not buckled, we're fiddling with the radio, we're probably eating something at the same time. Warning signs keep going by - basically telling us that we have windy, bumpy landslides up ahead. And right now, our foot is still on the accelerator, and not on the brake. The question is, do we begin hitting the brake and making sure that we enter that stretch of road at say 10 or 15 miles per hour, at which point, you know, we may have an accident, but we'll get through? Or do we hit that same patch of road at 80 miles in which case, it’s going to be devastating.

I think you're actually beginning to see a lot of action across the world, by companies, by countries, by citizens, to demand that scale of change. But we will hit this patch of road. There is no doubt about that.

And if it means mass starvation and flooding, that's something that artists would have to deal with, right?

DH: Sure, absolutely. I look to the future with considerable foreboding. But none of the work that Dark Mountain is doing is about trying to increase that. But in my experience of meeting people who work with climate change, including scientists and researchers and campaigners, is that there is a gap between what many of them feel they're able to say publicly about their sense of where we're at and what they will say quietly in a conversation. When there is a gap between that, that shows up. People are very good at picking up the sense that someone is not talking from what they feel to be the case. I think that's one of the places where we have got ourselves into trouble.

Heat of the Moment is a long-term project about climate change, led by WBEZ Chicago.

Explore More Stories