What causes climate despair?

Of those surveyed, 3/8 believed they would be displaced by climate change.

Climate despair is real and complex. On Earth Day in 2022, Boulder activist Wynn Bruce set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court. “Burnout is at an all-time high,” says Climate Mobilization. Climate scientist Michael Mann decries “doomism,” while admitting that he himself falls into it at times.

Climate change is a depressing topic to begin with. If you are better informed, you also realize how bad it really is. The result can be climate despair, along with its siblings and cousins that go by many names such as eco-anxiety, climate change helplessness, and doomism. The internet is now full of helpful suggestions as to how to treat these problems. We do want people to look at reality, but we also want them to take meaningful action.

For me, what’s causing the despair isn’t simply the reality of climate change itself, but our reaction to climate change. The American political system is paralyzed in making a meaningful response. We’ve known for at least 35 years that climate change is a major problem—I’m dating this from James Hansen’s testimony to Congress in June 1988, when he urged that we needed “to stop waffling so much.” In 1988, we even knew both the likely result of inaction, as well as the best approaches to the problem: a “sharp reduction in the burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels,” “an end to the current rapid clearing of forests,” and “a vigorous program of reforestation.”

Well? Do we see a sharp reduction in the burning of coal, oil, and other fossil fuels? Do we see an end to the rapid clearing of forests? Do we see a vigorous program of reforestation? No. Instead, we see the “waffling” that Hansen warned against.


Corporate control of the media, public apathy, and weak-kneed politicians all play their part. But the underlying reason that America has done nothing for 35 years is that doing something that was actually effective—like fossil fuel reduction and reforestation—would hurt the economy. And anything that would “hurt the economy” is just not politically possible.

The industrial economy runs on fossil fuels; and the agricultural economy (read “livestock agriculture”) relies on deforestation and not reforesting existing agricultural lands. To really have an honest conversation about climate change action, we need a different understanding: dealing effectively with climate change will require sacrifices from the American people.

Some proponents of the “Green New Deal” would not agree on this point. They’d say that we can stop emitting greenhouse gases and have a conventionally prosperous economy. Let’s not, for the moment, get sidetracked into technical questions about whether this is actually true. I want to understand the emotions of those who are processing eco-grief in any of its forms.

What people want to see is political movement—proposals and then action on those proposals. Oddly, people do see the action component. Climate protests, such as those organized by Third Act or Just Stop Oil, are an excellent thing. But what do they advocate that we should do? Where are the proposals for something like a “Green New Deal” in Congress?

The objective of both the Democratic and Republican parties seems to be to avoid meaningful discussion of the topic. In 2009, a climate change proposal was introduced to a Congress controlled by Democrats. Some environmentalists protested that this was an obviously ineffective plan (they were probably right). It was passed in the House but foundered in the Senate.

Then, in 2019, a non-binding “Green New Deal” proposal was introduced into Congress with similar results. Since being specific didn’t work in 2009, they tried going in the other direction. The text is extraordinarily vague: there are only the vaguest hints as to how any meaningful changed could be accomplished. Once again, the bill went nowhere. The Republicans introduced a resolution identical to it, evidently to force Democrats to vote on it and take a stand. It was voted down 57-0 in the Senate, with many Democrats voting “present” to protest the fact that no hearings were held.

The Democrats don’t want to talk about it. Too few voters actually care about climate. If you get into specifics, you simply present the opposition with some easy targets. Alternatively, you could deliberately keep things vague and blame the Republicans, which seems to be the strategy right now. The Republicans don’t want to talk about it either. They don’t want to draw attention to climate change in the first place. We have political paralysis that no one really wants to talk about. Even environmental organizations don’t want to wade into this. Climate vagueness is the order of the day. The difficulty is obvious.

In the coming months and years, the environmental situation will continue to deteriorate. We will need increasingly drastic measures to combat climate change, which will make them more politically difficult, which will delay action further, in a downward spiral of political paralysis. Climate despair, or eco-grief, or “doomism,” or whatever you want to call it, will accelerate. The people for whom “eco-grief” is a lived reality should be the moral core of our movement. They are the ones who do not just understand the problem at an intellectual level, but at an emotional level.

Unless there is a factual recognition of the utter seriousness of the situation and a response proportional to the problem, we haven’t really addressed either the environmental crisis itself or the problem of environmental despair.

3 Replies to “What causes climate despair?”

  1. Amen brother Keith! Stephanie Ruhl and others are on progressive (supposedly so) MSNBC bragging about the historic level of oil drilling under President Biden. This same network criticized the Trump administration for not decreasing drilling and other foolishness in their environmental and energy policies. Each news network has cultivated an ideological/political audience. But we know nothing of how these people really think – it is about as scripted as WWE wrestling. We are headed into dark places where most modern industrial societies have never been: having to worry where to get clean water, food and other resources; ie, the struggle to stay alive! Meanwhile, the very wealthy are on tv (all these news people live in huge mansions btw) reading their scripts as if there is no chance a sort of apocalypse is coming.

  2. Optimism wins causes: “We shall overcome.”
    Doom & gloom causes people to give up & quit.
    And a challenge, no matter how big, is never to be confused with the apocalypse.

    1. Exactly.

      But there must be (1) a factual recognition of the utter seriousness of the situation, as well as (2) a response proportional to the problem. In the absence of the first, optimism feels like you’re blowing them off or telling them that it’s all in their heads.

      I welcome dialogue with people who don’t agree on the seriousness of the problem, but that’s not my audience here. I’m talking to the people who already get that part.

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