No, this title is not about people suffering from the winter blues, but from something said to be really serious — the failure of the rest of the world to do the right thing and move towards a truly green planet. I learned about this new illness from an article in the Sydney Morning Herald. It seems that a Dr Nicole Thornton, having diagnosed the disease in herself, is setting up an online support network for others suffering from the illness, which apparently has other names, like ‘doomer depression’ and ‘ecoanxiety’.

Apparently she had been happily working in the field of environmental politics (the article says ‘green awareness and eco-tourism’) when something happened. Thornton had always been easily upset by apathy towards, and denial of, environmental issues. But now she began to notice an oddly powerful personal reaction to “the small stuff” – like people littering, or neighbours chopping down an old tree…

She found herself suddenly and strongly enveloped by unfamiliar feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, anger and anxiety. “It’s strange. Sometimes you just don’t feel you’re making headway in the time you’ve got, before it’s too late for the planet,” Thornton says. “All these little things weigh you down, and then the big stuff breaks you…”

The United Nations was about to hold its 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen, and Thornton felt she had a personal investment in it. She, like many thousands of activists and scientists and green campaigners, had high hopes that a new and robust version of the Kyoto agreement would be created in Denmark.

“But the reality was a massive, epic failure of political will. It broke me,” she says. “The trigger point was actually watching grown men cry. They were senior diplomats from small islands, begging larger countries to take action so that their nations would not drown with the rising seas.”

Thornton pauses, takes a breath. “It still gets me, five years later. That’s when I lost hope that we were able to save ourselves from self-destruction. That’s when I lost hope that we would survive as a species. It made me more susceptible to what I call ‘climate depression’…”

“Every time I talked about environmental issues, I would start crying, which I think is a really unusual response,” she says. “I’m a scientist, so I like to break things down – to drivers and causes – but I was confused. I had never heard of anyone who had something like this. I tried talking to some of my colleagues and friends, and I felt like an idiot. I felt quite stupid talking about it. It was a lonely and steep, frustrating learning curve.”

I’ve quoted this story at some length, because it is quite fascinating. Why, you ask, is Dr Thornton so fixated on doom? There is no point, I imagine, in suggesting to her that she take a long hard look at the evidence, relax, and find something else to do with her life. She is a believer. She has ‘lost hope’ that humanity will survive as a species, we are involved in ‘self-destruction’, because we have too little time ‘before it’s too late for the planet’ — and the rest of us are not doing what she wants us to do. Yes, I am not surprised that she is clinically depressed, because this is the language of depression.

People have killed  themselves because of the fear of global warming. We can’t ask them what exactly they were fearful of. But in Dr Thornton’s case we could ask her when she first became sure that the planet had only a little time left. All the evidence is that it seems to be chugging on pretty happily, and Matt Ridley has another enjoyable piece about why we should all take some comfort in the present state of things, even in the world of the natural environment. Perhaps a friend might suggest that she read it.

But part of me is just exasperated with the self-importance of the story. How many thousands are there are there who are suffering from ‘climate depression’, ‘doomer dismay’ and all the rest of these alternatives. Doesn’t she, and those who said similar things in this newspaper story, realise that there has been a substantial shift in the climate debate since 2009 and the Copenhagen fiasco.

That was nearly five years ago, and it is as though she has shut her eyes and ears to the realisation, that the warming that was going to go through the roof has not done so, that much more is known about climate, that the science is not at all settled, and that governments are backing away from the notion that the most important issue facing humanity is the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

But it seems that no one around her is prepared to tell her a few simple truths. Indeed, one of those in the story sympathises with her. ‘Think of the overwhelming evidence they have’, she writes, and of the despair she feels when a government waters a bill down, and fails to take the right actions.

With friends like that, Dr Thornton is not likely to be on the mend for quite a while.

[And, coincidentally, Anthony Watts has published a set of letters from Australian climate scientists some of which express similar emotions. Is it just that Nature is not playing ball with the models?]

Join the discussion 19 Comments

  • John Morland says:

    Thanks Don, and again so well written. I read the same article too (in the CT). After reading it, I felt sad for those climate depressants. It was similar to someone whom you hear who has been conned in a scam but cannot come to terms with it, hoping that it was not really a scam, only it appears that way, and it will all work out in the end. I genuinely felt a saddeness welling inside me.

    It is also so difficult when they are denying it, to gently convince them the reality and help them deal with it.

    I have felt a very mild climate depression, in a different way. When it dawned on me (bit by bit) that the whole CAGW scare was a con and a scam, and I was conned into the scam. I “believed” the “scientists” we only had a few years grace before catastrophy would hit. As we now know, the planet did not need to be “saved” after all – in fact it is a very resiliant life bearing planet (thank goodness).

    The “spark” that started my rejection of CAGW was when some of these “scientists” were not climatologists after all and were buying up coastal properties. This prompted me to recall my high school and university physics, gather my astronomical knowledge, do further reading and discuss with other people. Very quickly I experienced the religious fervour in form of belittlement, condemnation, dismissal, rudeness from those who still “believed”.

    • dlb says:

      John, the true believers are expressing their deep disappointment at what is unfolding. The more sensitive types such as Dr Thornton are taking it out on themselves while you have just witnessed how the the more aggressive types react.

      • Peter Kemmis says:

        I suspect the ‘true believers’ are in for a very hard landing psychologically. It will be a slow landing, and I think there will be many who go to their graves still convinced that humankind will not have long to live. Depression is not to be sneezed at,as we know. So while the ‘true believers’ can be irritating, I think I’m sadly recognising their plight. But there’s no point my getting depressed about it.

        The parallel with religious belief that Peter W has noted above, is so true. If you’ve believed all your life in a god of some kind, to step away from that is to step into what can seem like a dreadful void, but in fact it’s the very truth that sets you free (I think that’s wiith apologies to St Paul). And undepressed.

        • Peter WARWICK says:

          Peter,

          The cult syndrome is a very good example of quasi religious belief. Young (and old) people are convinced that some very odd belief is true and are exhorted to carry it out, with devastating results. But the real problem occurs when the de-programming starts. It may take years for them to exorcise the demons in which they believed.

          A soft version is the “guaranteed 125% return on your investment in 3 months”. And then the government has to expend thousands of dollars investigating the fraud.

          Belief is a funny thing – while I cannot give anyone a 100% guarantee that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning, I do believe it will simply because it has done so for millions of years and it is a very reasonable belief that it will rise one more day.

          And it is this belief that drives my belief in climate change – its been occurring sine time began. It certainly is something we need to be concerned about, but I have good faith in humans that we will grapple with it.

          But the doomsdayers are well off the mark, and deluded.

          Did anyone see the national electricity consumption figures. Quite a decline.
          See https://www.aer.gov.au/node/9765

          What does this mean for all of us ?

  • dlb says:

    That SMH article and the letters over at WUWT are telling as it is often said we are ruled by our heart rather than our head and here is confirmation. It would appear these scientists of all people are being driven by their emotions rather than curiosity or data. AGW and environmentalism has hit their subconscious, you could show them all the logic in the world but they will still insist the world is doomed and we need to do more to avert a crisis.

    According to the article Thornton has set up a retreat so she and like minded academics / activists can recharge themselves. This may make then feel better in the short term but all they are doing is putting off the emotional storm that will ensue when reality finally catches up with them.

    The article also mentioned the depression experienced by the cadaver dogs at the twin towers site in the New York. My guess is the dogs may have been depressed but not by the amount of death but by being over worked, in their world work is a game up to a certain point. I am still shaking my head at this article, perhaps we have a new culture war not the greens against industry but the idealists and dreamers versus the pragmatists?

    • Peter Kemmis says:

      Hi dlb

      I passed that set of letters to my wife to read, and on doing so she made an interesting comment. “Those feelings of despair you could have been feeling – no-one listening, the arguments against CAGW seeming so clearcut, etc – but you didn’t despair. Why not?”

      Maybe pragmatism? A conviction that the history of the human race has been one of eventual progress, with lots of fits and starts? Maybe by nature I’m an optimist (and i suspect in part that’s a conscious choice, but aided by my genetics)?

      Your point about a “culture war” is a very true. Often when I look at issues in the public arena, I see one side coming from the viewpoint of “this is how it ought to be”, and the other side saying “you may be partly right, but we can’t get everyone to agree, so it doesn’t work that way”. We see some of this in the left versus right paradigm. The (pure) left side is big on design, but often works from simplistic and highly selected principles (e.g. leave the coal in the ground, never mind the developing world and its access to poverty-releasing cheap energy). The right has concluded that we can’t plan and manage things well from the top down, we have to let much grow organically.

      The CAGW cause has harnessed that left view of the world,with so many of its idealists.

      • margaret says:

        … culture wars, history wars, class wars … why are they wars? No blood is shed but it’s the love of adversarial argy bargy that runs deep.
        You have a high level of self-awareness Peter, and I’d say a wife who has helped you to attain it. I’m not too sure about your penultimate sentence this time though. I’d say that the right is trying it utmost to plan and manage things from the top down – but *well* – I don’t think so.
        No reply required.

  • DaveW says:

    That set of letters is very interesting, especially the arrogance about knowing the truth that pervades them all. Most of the letters had statements like this one from Gallant: “I feel like they don’t listen anyway. After all, we’ve been shouting for years.” [Well, duh?] Lots of lousy metaphors on display too, as well as several references to the disappearance of snow and polar ice [Are these people completely oblivious to reality?], and one who is apparently in direct communication with the Earth (but apparently can’t write by hand). All-in-all, this is a rather disturbing view into the minds of the climate change priesthood.

    Not a single professor seems to have any doubts that they may be wrong or the slightest interest in introspection or self-criticism. Apparently Cassandra-like carping is all they can do. These screeds reek of religion and rant about sin and penance. Perhaps it is confirmation bias, but these letters certainly seem to support my hypothesis that CAGW is all about religion and politics and nothing about science.

    [Disclaimer: I know, or rather once knew, one of the letter writers when they were just a scientist (and I thought a good scientist) and before they decided to save the world.]

  • Peter WARWICK says:

    Don,
    this has the hallmarks of the human condition of doomsday. We are seeing (and have been seeing for a long time), the doomsdayers building underground shelters, stocking up on long life food, buying 1000s of batteries for their torches etc etc.

    I have not been counting but there are plenty of “the world will end on DD-MMM-YYYY (insert your date here).

    A basic tenent of Christian Religions is the “Second Coming”. I believed it all in my youth, but became tired of the wait. The high priests could not circle a date on any calendar. As a 10 year old, I was able to sniff out a con when I was listening to one.

    Doomsdayers occur naturally in human populations, and I am not surprised that there are some in the scientific community. Once they hard wire doomsday into their brains, it cannot be de-wired, simply because of the embarrassment of acknowledging failure.

  • margaret says:

    What a bunch of dopes those tragic people are. I don’t think they possess sufficient grey matter to be allowed out of their universities. Their ’emotions’ are expressed in hackneyed phrases that bored me witless. It’s true that we are in a climate of despair though – one commenter here despairs of my jaundiced claptrap whenever I comment.
    It seems that just as we all have to die of something, we also all have to despair about something these days – especially if you’re in the autumn season of your life.

    I despair about being coerced into a Team that I really don’t like the captain of.

    I despair that debates don’t produce a synthesis of ideas from both sides that may create solutions. And I despair that they are all about “I am right” instead of “That’s an interesting point – YOU may be right.”

    I despair that more people don’t read fiction of the calibre of Old Filth by Jane Gardam.

    • Peter Kemmis says:

      Hi Margaret

      At your instigation, I have just read a 2004 review of “Old Filfth” (The Guardian), and despair that you could be so uplifted by such prose from Jane Gardam about such a poignant story.

      My unending despair that I will never make an honest ‘climate sceptic’ of you, has been rocked by your observations about those unhappy scientists.

      And I despair that forever you will continue to seek courtesy and fair play in discussions of opposing views.

      I despair that the Wallabies may never again possess the Bledisloe Cup.

      Meanwhile, today I have a few hours up my sleeve, it’s sunny up here in Canberra, and I have several disparate books on our earlier and wayward subject of discussion. So I hie me to my work, desperately!

      • Margaret says:

        Don’t you mean despairingly Peter? *smile* – That was last night – today is today.

        • Peter Kemmis says:

          Ah yes, and I am schooled, and discombobulated.

          I was reflecting that for those academics, lack of action by the world’s politicians with a public mostly ignoring the issue, must be quite galling. Here they are, working and teaching their hearts out, and we’re tossing their efforts on the rubbish heap. It’s lke being told that your effort as a parent has been completely wasted, or your working life in whatever field you have chosen, has been a waste of time.

          I would encourage them to climate agnosticism, so that they may once again be able to go out and smell the roses, get a grip, and get a life.

          Meanwhile, I’m thinking about DonA’s notes about the toggle switch of analysis and empathy. Not sure about that – or perhaps I toggle quickly. But he’s sure right about how to lose friends and influence nobody. Which reminds me – had an interesting chat a few weeks back on a long flight with a well educated gentleman, who found it almost impossible to accept my ‘climate scepticism’, as he quite happily deferred to the opinions of ‘the experts’. Twice he asked me were I connected with the oil industry, as he couldn’t accept my opinion was unbiased.

          Finally, I had to admit to a connection with the oil industry. I buy petrol from it.

          We parted on good terms, nevertheless.

          • margaret says:

            I especially love your last sentence Peter. And your 2 penultimate sentences made me smile.

  • DonA says:

    Don,

    I am disappointed that your readers did not follow the links to get to the article on

    “Empathy represses analytic thought, and vice
    versa: Brain physiology limits simultaneous use of both networks

    Date:

    October 30, 2012

    Source:
    Case Western Reserve University

    Summary:
    When the brain’s analytic network is
    engaged, our ability to appreciate the human cost of our action is repressed,
    researchers have found. The study shows for the first time that we have a
    built-in neural constraint on our ability to be both empathetic and analytic at
    the same time.”

    I think a better understanding of this mechanism may help us all appreciate how the “Other side” think and believe.Initially I was impressed and concerned with the presentation by Al Gore and others. After some time offshore and overseas in my yacht I came again to the issue and was able to change from the Empathy mode to the Analytic mode, and became an agnostic. However I despair that those with a committed empathetic mind set will ever be able to at least look at an analytic view point. I find, to keep my friends, I do not dare to even raise the topic of CAGW.

    • margaret says:

      But surely, those with a committed analytic mind are as much to be despaired over – that their mind set will not ever be able to at least look at an empathetic view point?
      Your empathetic friends must be worth keeping … obviously – they give you something in real person terms that does not need substitution of the emotions with music and opera to make you a feeling human being.

  • margaret says:

    A photographer has taken images of some scared scientists. Bowers told The Huffington Post he hopes to convey “the humanity and
    vulnerability of the scientists” through his work. “That they are as
    individuals concerned by climate change, separate from the scientific
    realm.”

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/25/nick-bowers_n_5701202.html?utm_hp_ref=photography

  • […] Two recent papers that I have read provide an appropriate introduction to this piece. Judith Curry’s ‘Climate etc’ recently ran an essay, ‘Contradiction on emotional bias in the climate domain’, by Andy West, a British science fiction writer with an interest in ‘climate change’. It’s a good essay, and well worth one’s dipping into. West has done a lot of reading in the literature about emotional bias, and he argues that the strong push in so much AGW advocacy to worry ordinary people about the hot, dry, wet, cold future ahead of us, should we not ‘combat climate change’ through curbing greenhouse gas emissions, is now affecting climate scientists themselves. Some of them are reporting being depressed because we aren’t taking much notice of them. Some of them are Australians, too. […]

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