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The Problem With Climate Catastrophising

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Oren Cass, Foreign Affairs

The case for keeping calm.

Climate change may or may not bear responsibility for the flood on last night’s news, but without question it has created a flood of despair. Climate researchers and activists, according to a 2015 Esquire feature, “When the End of Human Civilization is Your Day Job,” suffer from depression and PTSD-like symptoms. In a poll on his Twitter feed, meteorologist and writer Eric Holthaus found that nearly half of 416 respondents felt “emotionally overwhelmed, at least occasionally, because of news about climate change.”

For just such feelings, a Salt Lake City support group provides “a safe space for confronting” what it calls “climate grief.”

Panicked thoughts often turn to the next generation. “Does Climate Change Make It Immoral to Have Kids?” pondered columnist Dave Bry in The Guardian in 2016. “[I] think about my son,” he wrote, “growing up in a gray, dying world—walking towards Kansas on potholed highways.” Over the summer, National Public Radio tackled the same topic in “Should We Be Having Kids In The Age Of Climate Change?” an interview with Travis Rieder, a philosopher at Johns Hopkins University, who offers “a provocative thought: Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them.” And Holthaus himself once responded to a worrying scientific report by announcing that he would never fly again and might also get a vasectomy.

Such attitudes have not evolved in isolation. They are the most intense manifestations of the same mindset that produces regular headlines about “saving the planet” and a level of obsession with reducing carbon footprints that is otherwise reserved for reducing waistlines. Former U.S. President Barack Obama finds climate change “terrifying” and considers it “a potential existential threat.” He declared in his 2015 State of the Union address that “no challenge—no challenge—poses a greater threat to future generations.” In another speech offering “a glimpse of our children’s fate,” he described “Submerged countries. Abandoned cities. Fields that no longer grow. Political disruptions that trigger new conflict, and even more floods of desperate peoples.” Meanwhile, during a presidential debate among the Democratic candidates, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders warned that “the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable.” At the Vatican in 2015, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio shared his belief that current policy will “hasten the destruction of the earth.”

And yet, such catastrophizing is not justified by the science or economics of climate change. The well-established scientific consensus that human activity is causing the climate to change does not extend to judgments about severity. The most comprehensive and often-cited efforts to synthesize the disparate range of projections—for instance, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Obama administration’s estimate of the “Social Cost of Carbon”—consistently project real but manageable costs over the century to come. To be sure, more speculative worst-case scenarios abound. But humanity has no shortage of worst cases about which people succeed in remaining far calmer: from a global pandemic to financial collapse to any number of military crises.

What, then, explains the prevalence of climate catastrophism?

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