On the Understatement of Existential Climate Risk: Part I – The Magical Thinking of Policymakers

The following quotations are from one of the most important recent reports on climate change: “What Lies Beneath: The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk”, by David Spratt and Ian Dunlop. Due to the importance of this document, I will be posting brief quotations from it over the next few weeks.

This report is important, not because it presents new and compelling research, new facts and figures, but because it provides a new perspective on the existential risks associated with anthropogenic global warming. Among other things, it examines the reasons why scientific research and climate change reporting has become so reticent and conservative. It also discusses political understatement and the myopic perspective of policymakers. The quotes I selected for this post, speak to the ‘magical thinking’ of policymakers.


A fast, emergency-style transition to a post-fossil fuel world is absolutely necessary to address climate change. But this is excluded from consideration by policymakers because it is considered to be too disruptive. The orthodoxy is that there is time for an orderly economic transition within the current short-termist political paradigm. Discussion of what would be safe — less warming than we presently experience — is non-existent. And so we have a policy failure of epic proportions.


Policymakers, in their magical thinking, imagine a mitigation path of gradual change to be constructed over many decades in a growing, prosperous world. The world not imagined is the one that now exists: of looming financial instability; of a global crisis of political legitimacy and “fake news”; of a sustainability crisis that extends far beyond climate change to include the fundamentals of human existence and most significant planetary boundaries (soils, potable water, oceans, the atmosphere, biodiversity, and so on); and of severe global energy-sector dislocation.

Is fear the only thing that will save us?

In his important new article (New York Times, Feb. 16, 2019) proclaiming the virtues of alarmism and catastrophic thinking, David Wallace-Wells asks: “What creates more sense of urgency than fear?” But I think there is something more fundamental than fear, and that is pain. Only pain will be enough to create a sense of urgency — immediate and deeply felt personal pain, or immediate pain experienced by one’s own family. I do not believe fear or the pain of others will be enough.

He goes on to say that “panic might seem counterproductive, but we’re at a point where alarmism and catastrophic thinking are valuable.” For him (and for me), complacency is a huge political and personal problem. He notes that in a recent survey “A majority of Americans were unwilling to spend even $10 a month to address global warming. Most drew the line at $1 a month. . . “


“While concern about climate change is growing — fortunately — complacency remains a much bigger political problem than fatalism. In December, a national survey tracking Americans’ attitudes toward climate change found that 73 percent said global warming was happening, the highest percentage since the question began being asked in 2008. But a majority of Americans were unwilling to spend even $10 a month to address global warming; most drew the line at $1 a month, according to a poll conducted the previous month.”

All of us will need to challenge ourselves to move out of our comfort zones and take action, real action . . . now. As Albert Camus said, “We need to speak out clearly and pay up personally.” And if we are not willing to pay up personally, the game is over.


“Conscious consumption is a cop-out, a neoliberal diversion from collective action, which is what is necessary. People should try to live by their own values, about climate as with everything else, but the effects of individual lifestyle choices are ultimately trivial compared with what politics can achieve.”

Read more . . .

The 10 Working Principles of Extinction Rebellion

Dr. Roger Hallam – Commentary on the 10 Principles of Extinction Rebellion

1. WE HAVE A SHARED VISION OF CHANGE: Creating a world that is fit for the next 7 generations to live in.

2. WE SET OUR MISSION ON WHAT IS NECESSARY: Mobilising 3.5% of the population to achieve system change – such as “Momentum-driven organising” to achieve this.

3. WE NEED A REGENERATIVE CULTURE: Creating a culture which is healthy, resilient and adaptable.

4. WE OPENLY CHALLENGE OURSELVES AND THIS TOXIC SYSTEM: Leaving our comfort zones to take action for change.

5. WE VALUE REFLECTING AND LEARNING: Following a cycle of action, reflection, learning, and planning for more action. Learn from other movements/contexts as well as our own.

6. WE WELCOME EVERYONE AND EVERY PART OF EVERYONE: Working actively to create safer and more accessible spaces.

7. WE ACTIVELY MITIGATE FOR POWER: Breaking down hierarchies of power for more equitable participation

8. WE AVOID BLAMING AND SHAMING: We live in a toxic system, but no one individual is to blame.

9. WE ARE A NON-VIOLENT NETWORK: Using nonviolent strategy and tactics as the most effective way to bring about change.

10. WE ARE BASED ON AUTONOMY AND DECENTRALISATION: We collectively create the structures we need to challenge power. Anyone who follows these core principles and values can take action in the name of Extinction Rebellion US!

And what About the Animals?

On Wednesday evening, I attended a salon in which we discussed climate change and the current ecological crisis. During the Q&A, J_____ burst out with great concern for the animals: “What about the animals? What is happening to them? Where will they go? How can we help them?” Clearly in great distress, she piled question upon question. So great was her concern that, at one point, she could barely speak.

So tonight I offer this meditation, this prayer for all the animals, great and small, ranging over the whole earth and in every inch of soil, those living with us today and those yet to be born.

The music is by J.S. Bach, and is considered by some to be the high point of western European music. It transcends all petty religious divisions, perhaps all divisions, for it speaks not just to the religious heart, but to the very heart of what it means to be human. Even a staunch atheist could not but join in this universal cry.

“Music opens a path into the realm of silence.” – Josef Pieper

One YouTube listener made this comment: Her voice projects the result of deep contemplation with a strong gravity of intense, deep anguish that signifies not only the mortality of the individual but our mortality and inevitable downfall due to our unavoidable ignorance.

So this is for J____ and for the all the animals. As you listen, mediate on the beauty and suffering of animals. Contemplate their fate, for we are one with them.

Text/Translation:

German: Erbarme dich, mein Gott, um meiner Zähren willen! Schaue hier, Herz und Auge weint vor dir bitterlich. Erbarme dich, mein Gott.

English: Have mercy, my God, for the sake of my tears! See here, before you heart and eyes weep bitterly. Have mercy, my God.

From J.S. Bach, St. Matthew’s Passion, “Erbarme dich.” Sung by Julia Hamari. The violin part is one of the most moving violin parts in all of music.

Climate change and humanitarian crises

According to an analysis of more than a million online news stories, climate change was responsible for the majority of under-reported humanitarian disasters last year.

According to The Guardian, “whole populations were affected by food crises in countries ravaged by by drought and hurricanes such as Ethiopia and Haiti, yet neither crisis generated more than 1,000 global news stories each.”

Read The Guardian article HERE.