Catastrophic Denial: Ignoring Climate Change

Tuesday, October 9, 2018
Pasadena, California


Catastrophic Denial: Ignoring Climate Change

Yesterday, the United Nations released a report proclaiming the need for urgent international action to prevent catastrophic changes in the world’s climate. The scientific experts writing the report—members of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN-IPCC)—warned that failure to reduce CO2 and other pollutant emissions in the next 12 years will cause cataclysmic global warming.

The Paris Climate Accord, from which Trump withdrew from last year, would address their concerns—but only if it achieves its most ambitious goals. Those emission controls could keep global temperature increases to within 1.5 and 2 degrees Centigrade (C).

For any of you climate change doubters, please note that the UN-IPCC scientists reviewed some 6000 peer-reviewed, scholarly articles before reaching their conclusions. They cited already-occurring and numerous changes to animals, plants, insects, weather patterns. Alarmingly, they upgraded their previous risk warnings, emphasizing how every fraction of additional warming will cause more irreversible damage.

What will happen if the nations around the world fail to reduce their emissions?

The drought, floods, extreme heat, and resultant poverty (due to loss of crops) already affecting hundreds of millions of people will increase. Even a half-degree increase will advance melting in the Arctic, dangerously lifting ocean levels. The inevitable flooding will wipe several island countries entirely off the map; it will cause major coastal areas to become uninhabitable.

How does this relate to psychoanalysis?

Among its most prominent discoveries, psychoanalysis identified psychological defense mechanisms which protect us from becoming emotionally overwhelmed. They act, much like the body’s immune system, to protect our minds.

Many of these defensive mechanisms help us.

Some of them hurt us.

The most common ones, like suppression (deliberately pushing painful feelings out of consciousness), humor (joking to distract from pain), acting-out (converting painful emotion into action), or anticipation (preparing for a stressful event by thinking it through in advance), facilitate adaptation.

The capacity to move dark emotions to the side, joke about them, convert them into action, or prepare for stress in advance prevents break downs, increases coping capacity, and helps us function in difficult times.

Sometimes, however, the less-desirable defense mechanisms, like denial, work against us. Years ago, I supervised an intern conduct a brief therapy with a patient who literally drank three bottles of wine each night after work. He had been referred by an internist who became alarmed by the patient’s dangerous liver enzyme elevations.

The patient told his therapist he did not have a drinking problem. Why? Because, he said, he only drank one glass at a time! Unable to face his obvious alcohol dependency, he quit psychotherapy after three sessions. He died six months later. This true story vividly exemplifies how denial can ready psychotic-like levels.

This specific defense mechanism, denial, now threatens the survival of our species and, ultimately, all living things.  

Much like the now-deceased alcoholic, we humans live in denial of the coming climate catastrophe. We mostly focus on our day-to-day lives, or watch ridiculous news programs morphed into talking-head-gossip, like the alcoholic looking at his one wine glass. We avoid, disavow, ignore the long-term effects of our global behavior.

Two micro-examples of denial occur as I write this posting: The major newspapers, television newscasters, and internet media outlets barely mentioned the UN-IPCC’s terrifying report, and; hurricane Michael approaches the Florida panhandle.

But, wait, it gets even worse:

According to New York magazine, the Trump administration released its own climate report a month ago which, shockingly, contains predictions more dire than the UN-IPCC report. It predicts global temperatures will rise by four degrees by the end of this century. According to the Trump report, much of Manhattan and Miami will sink into the sea, the world’s coral reefs will be irreversibly destroyed by acidifying oceans, vast regions of the Earth will lose their primary sources of water, and extreme weather events will dramatically increase in frequency—unless we take radical action to reduce carbon emissions in the next 80 years.

Sounds intriguing, right? Perhaps even hopeful to think of the Trump administration considering such frightening statistics.

But get this:

That report had nothing to do with efforts to re-enter the Paris Climate Accord or to take steps to drastically reduce emissions.

On the contrary, the report served to justify Trump’s, and the EPA’s, decision to repeal previously scheduled federal fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles built after 2020.

Unbelievably, and according to last Friday’s Washington Post, the Trump administration plans to use its four-degree estimate estimate to argue FOR relaxing these standards which will add 8 billion additional tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by the end of this century.

In other words, why bother to eliminate 8 billion tons worth of emissions, not to mention stopping coal mining or increasing above-ground energy sources (wind or solar), because they won’t make enough difference.

The federal government shouldn’t bother.

The example of the now-deceased, three-bottle-per-day wine drinker—my longstanding example of the power of denial—is completely overshadowed by the absurdity of such reasoning.

Why bother?


Are we Americans ok with Manhattan and Miami sinking, millions of species of animals and plants going extinct, hundreds of millions of people starving to death, and the world’s coral reefs disappearing forever?

Of course not.

I lack the space or the expertise to prescribe how the global warming should be best addressed. The Paris Climate Accord, and the UN-IPCC report provide detailed recommendations.

But I do have expertise in denial.

Much like how psychoanalytic psychotherapists confront denial in their patients on a daily basis, international leaders, and the scientists advising them, must break through, and then dissolve, the denial of climate change.

It’s bad enough to hear of denial leading to the death of one, sad alcoholic.

It’s terrifically frightening, literally tragic, and beyond genocidal to witness denial of definitively worsening global warming—particularly when 12 years still remains to slow it or stop it.


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