‘Hug the monster’: Downplaying the climate threat won’t work as a survival strategy
A version of this post originally appeared on Climate Progress.
Journalist Bill Blakemore has a great piece on ABC’s website called “‘Hug the Monster’ for Realistic Hope in Global Warming (or How to Transform Your Fearful Inner Climate).”
He offers advice to journalists in covering climate change — and advice to the rest of us in a world captured by denial.
The piece helps dispel the myth that climate scientists have long been overhyping climate impacts — when everyone who actually follows climate science and talks to any significant number of climate scientists knows that the reverse is true. As Blakemore writes:
Established scientists, community and government leaders and journalists, as they describe the disruptions, suffering and destruction that manmade global warming is already producing, with far worse in the offing if humanity doesn’t somehow control it, are starting to allow themselves publicly to use terms like “calamity,” “catastrophe,” and “risk to the collective civilization.”
… A few years ago, this reporter heard a prominent climate and environment scientist speaking at a large but off-the-record conference of experts and policy makers from around the world who had gathered at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.
… He told us that he and most other climate scientists often simply didn’t want to speak openly about what they were learning about how disruptive and frightening the changes of manmade global warming were clearly going to be for “fear of paralyzing the public.”
That speaker now has an influential job in the Obama administration.
Climate scientists have been consistently downplaying and underestimating the risks for three main reasons. First, their models tended to ignore the myriad amplifying carbon cycle feedbacks that we now know are kicking in (such as the defrosting tundra).
Second, they never imagined that the nations of the world would completely ignore their warnings, that we would knowingly choose catastrophe. So until recently they hardly ever seriously considered or modeled the do-nothing scenario, which is a tripling (820 parts per million [ppm]) or quadrupling (1,100 ppm) of preindustrial levels of carbon dioxide over the next 100 years or so. In the last two or three years, however, the literature in this area has exploded, and the picture it paints is not pretty.
Third, as Blakemore (and others) have noted, the overwhelming majority of climate scientists are generally reticent and cautious in stating results — all the more so in this case, out of the mistaken fear that an accurate diagnosis would somehow make action less likely. Yes, it’d be like a doctor telling a two-pack-a-day patient with early-stage emphysema that their cough is really not that big a deal, but would they please quit smoking anyway. We live in a world, however, where anyone who tries to explain what the science suggests is likely to happen if we keep doing nothing is attacked as an alarmist by conservatives, disinformers, and their enablers in the media.
Back in 2005, the physicist Mark Bowen wrote about glaciologist Lonnie Thompson: “Scientists have an annoying habit of backing off when they’re asked to make a plain statement, and climatologists tend to be worse than most.”
The good news, if you can call it that, is that the climate situation has become so dire that even the most reticent climatologists are starting to speak more bluntly. By the end of 2010, Thompson was writing:
Climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group. We are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before Congressional committees. Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.
Blakemore points out some other climate scientists who are starting to speak out:
A few days ago in The New York Times, a thoroughgoing front page article about global warming quoted a range of scientists on the overall effect of the global upheavals that can be expected from manmade global warming. Here are three excerpts — bolded highlights mine:
- “The big damages come if the climate sensitivity to greenhouse gases turns out to be high,” said Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, a climate scientist at the University of Chicago. “Then it’s not a bullet headed at us, but a thermonuclear warhead.” (Recent scientific studies report the climate’s sensitivity to greenhouse gases is proving to be higher than expected.)
- Ultimately, as the climate continues warming and more data accumulate, it will become obvious how clouds are reacting. But that could take decades, scientists say, and if the answer turns out to be that catastrophe looms, it would most likely be too late.
- “Even if there were no political implications, it just seems deeply unprofessional and irresponsible to look at this and say, ‘We’re sure it’s not a problem,'” said Kerry A. Emanuel, another M.I.T. scientist. “It’s a special kind of risk, because it’s a risk to the collective civilization.”
‘A risk to the collective (global) civilization’
Global warming’s “risk to the collective civilization” (meaning global civilization) has been continually spoken of in secret or unofficial or private conversations among engaged climate scientists and government and policy leaders around the world.
Such terms — catastrophe, threat to civilization itself — have been commonplace in carefully worded private discussions among peer-reviewed experts that this reporter and other journalists have often experienced and sometimes engaged in.
I heard that from many, many climate scientists in private as far back as 2005 and 2006, which is why I titled my book Hell and High Water. Other journalists heard the same, which is why, for instance, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote at the time:
It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.
So what does Blakemore mean by “Hug the Monster,” by his “Metaphor to Change Fear Into Action and Extinguish the Panic and Despair so Deadly in a Great Crisis”? He explains:
“Hug the monster” is a metaphor taught by U.S. Air Force trainers to those headed into harm’s way.
The monster is your fear in a sudden crisis — as when you find yourself trapped in a downed plane or a burning house.
If you freeze or panic — if you go into merely reactive “brainlock” — you’re lost.
But if your mind has been prepared in advance to recognize the psychological grip of fear, focus on it, and then transform its intense energy into action — sometimes even by changing it into anger — and by also engaging the thinking part of your brain to work the problem, your chances of survival go way up.
Around the world, a growing number of people are showing signs of hugging the monster of what the world’s experts have plainly shown to be a great crisis facing us all …
Sooner or later, everyone who learns about the rapid advance of manmade global warming must deal with the question of fear.
What to do about this fear?
Blakemore quotes from “Hug the Monster: How Fear Can Save Your Life,” the title of a chapter in The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life, a book written by ABC’s Ben Sherwood before he became president of ABC News:
Nowhere in the book does Sherwood mention climate change, but here’s a passage from the end of that chapter that struck this reporter for its relevance to the increasingly public questions about how our global civilization will deal with the advance of global warming:
Fear as a Security System — When Properly Used (Air Force Mantra)
“Without a doubt, fear is the most ancient, efficient, and effective security system in the world. Over many thousands of years, our magnificently wired brains have sensed, reacted, and then acted upon every imaginable threat. Practically speaking, when you manage fear, your chances improve in almost every situation. But if your alarms go haywire, your odds plummet.”
“For survival then, here’s the bottom line. If you’re scared out of your mind, try to remember this Air Force mantra: Hug the monster. Wrap your arms around fear, wrestle it under control, and turn it into a driving force in your plan of attack. ‘Survival is not about bravery and heroics,’ award-winning journalist Laurence Gonzales writes in his superb book Deep Survival. ‘Survivors aren’t fearless. They use fear: They turn it into anger and focus.’ The good news is that you can learn to subdue the monster and extinguish some of the clanging bells. The more you practice, the easier it becomes. Indeed, with enough hugs, you can even tame the beast and turn him into your best friend and most dependable ally.”
And here is Blakemore’s advice for journalists covering this most important of stories:
As a growing number of professional journalists around the world are finding, the story of manmade global warming (and the other evil twin of excess carbon emissions, the rapid acidification of the oceans) is unprecedented in its scale, almost “too big to cover,” and frightening.
But there are now signs that, little by little, voices and personalities are beginning to emerge around the world who are starting to hug this monster, manage the fear, and turning the emotions it causes into action.
For us journalists, the core responsibilities of our profession include knowing how to report unpleasant but important facts — and to do so in ways that nonetheless engage groups small and large, even in a sense “entertain” them, as in entertaining the mind, and to try to win their tacit appreciation for doing so.
Obviously, when the news is horrendous, such as, say, a looming world war or the rapid climb in global temperature and ocean acidification, our job includes the very essence of what it means to hug the monster.
But as this reporter and a growing number of others now working the story can report, once we do so, manmade global warming transforms into “a great story” (in our profession’s term of art) — and even one in which it is possible to glimpse a number of reasons for “realistic hope.”
To be continued …
I look forward to Blakemore’s further writing on climate change, a subject that — considering its likely impact on humanity — has been woefully neglected by most of his fellow journalists.