On a hot day in September, the first session of Mark Alan Hughes’ course, “Introduction to Energy Policy,” met at the University of Pennsylvania. The students sat in a carefully arranged circle of tables and chairs. Everyone was masked, including Hughes, whose silver glasses fogged when the doors to the climate-controlled, fourth-floor classroom were pushed open. Air conditioners hummed in the background, and tall, curved windows revealed the pale blue sky above. Water bottles and laptops were set down next to thin black microphones placed at intervals around the room.
After introducing themselves, the students turned to the topics of climate change, communication, and the challenge of squaring knowledge of the long- and short-term effects of the climate crisis with the quotidian demands of daily life. The students came from across the country and the world, and from a variety of academic disciplines, from law and mathematics to marketing and chemistry. “How do we deliver bad news to people who haven’t processed it yet?” Hughes asked, gesturing with his hands as he spoke.
Hughes, who is the director of Penn’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and studies urban sustainability, has a genial, encouraging presence, summarizing his students’ ideas back to them and sharing his own feelings about the questions he posed to the group. Students spoke about their research, about taking small actions, about feeling helpless, about rationalization as a coping strategy. They talked about privilege and survival and the young people who are shut out of conversations like this one, leaning forward on their elbows as they became more engaged in the discussion.
In preparation for the first day of class, Hughes’ syllabus offered two readings, one of which was a paper by the British academic Jem Bendell called “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy.” Although no one brought up Bendell’s work by name, his paper’s thesis—that we must accept that societal collapse on a global scale is now inevitable thanks to climate change and years of failed efforts to address its root causes—hovered over the conversation, and you could hear echoes of Bendell’s conclusions in the worries of students who wondered if it was already too late to avert the worst consequences of global warming.
Hughes is a signatory of the Scholars Warning Initiative letter, an outgrowth of the Deep Adaptation movement that sprang from Bendell’s 2018 paper. The 2020 letter was signed by hundreds of academics and scientists and called for frank discussion of the “risk of disruption and even collapse of societies” as a result of climate change. “I think you can’t mobilize around these issues without also entertaining the question of how bad it can get,” Hughes says.
Although there is still resistance to Bendell’s ideas in academia (notably, from the climatologist Michael Mann, who has called the original paper “a perfect storm of misguidedness and wrongheadedness”), confronting what climate change means for our social, economic, and political structures has taken on an increased and shared urgency. Recent studies have shown that a growing number of people view our climate-addled future as so dire that it is a factor in their decision not to have children. They worry about the effects of climate change on their mental and physical health. They believe that climate change will “harm” them personally in their lifetimes and, simultaneously, they have little confidence that diplomatic efforts to reduce warming will succeed.
At the end of October, world leaders met at G20 in Italy to discuss the pandemic, access to vaccines and climate change. But what emerged as the defining moment of the summit wasn’t a diplomatic victory or a long-awaited resolution to take action. Instead, a brightly-lit photograph of attendees lined up in front of Rome’s Trevi fountain, grinning as they tossed commemorative coins over their shoulders and into the aquamarine water behind them went viral, along with a darkly funny caption: “World leaders tossing a coin for good luck fighting the climate crisis.” “That’s how much effort they are putting into it,” a Reddit user remarked in response.
The G20 picture harkened back to another viral image, from 2014, that captures something of the prevailing pessimism about the climate. You may have seen it: The focal point is a sculpture of a huddled group of balding men in suits and ties, their shoulders hunched and turned inward, deep in discussion. They are submerged in water, some up to their elbows, some past their necks, some with only the hairless crowns of their heads visible above the surface.
The piece, by the artist Isaac Cordal, is part of a series called “Follow the Leaders,” but in the tweet that propelled it to virality, it was renamed “Politicians discussing global warming.” If you look closely at the water, you can see the reflections of city buildings and the rough outlines of cobblestones, which gives a hint of the sculpture’s size, only a few inches tall; the photograph is an extreme close-up. The water the men are drowning in—though they do not appear to be struggling against their fate—is a shallow puddle.
In this climate, the views of the proponents of Deep Adaptation and its offshoots no longer seem as extreme as they once did. The signatories of the Scholars Warning letter subscribe to a spectrum of beliefs about societal collapse, from cautious hope that we might still alter our trajectory toward ecological disaster to what the eco-theologian Michael Dowd calls “Post-Doom,” a state of being characterized by acceptance of “the inevitable.”
One of the scholars in the Post-Doom camp is Krista Hiser, a professor of writing at Kapiʻolani Community College and the Sustainability Curriculum Coordinator for the University of Hawaii system. Hiser describes her reckoning with climate change “like being in an elevator that’s breaking.” In a blog post in 2020, she explained how it felt to move toward “radical acceptance” as she learned more about the climate crisis, expanding on the elevator metaphor. “It feels like a very long elevator shaft in a very tall building, and the cable is about to snap,” she writes. As the elevator plummets into a dark abyss, the passengers’ sense of the closeness of a climate-triggered breakdown of society shifts from perceiving catastrophe on a distant horizon to “my lifetime” and then to “right now.”
Hiser believes that people who have experienced trauma are more likely to be able to face the truth about what is happening to the climate and what it means for our daily lives. “There is a parallel,” she says, between grappling with the stages of personal grief and with the stages of climate grief. In both, “there really is a space past” those initial feelings of denial, depression, and anger. Although Hiser still struggles sometimes with absorbing further bad news about the future, particularly when she thinks about the world that her students and her children have inherited, she has found solace in the Post-Doom philosophy, which encourages “living meaningfully, compassionately, and courageously, no matter what” and in concentrating on the positive and bright spots in her life and her work as a teacher.
“The anxiety comes from not talking about it,” Hiser says, which is why she incorporates discussions and writing about climate change into her undergraduate courses.
Like Hiser, Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA and another supporter of the Scholars Warning Initiative, focuses on his work as a way to help cope with negative feelings about the climate and the future. Kalmus sees his career shift from astrophysics to climate science as a kind of survival mechanism. “It just got too intense thinking about climate all the time,” he says. “I couldn’t focus on astrophysics anymore.”
In addition to his research and activism, Kalmus turns to exercise, music, and meditation. He says he is motivated by a “deep love for this planet” and a “deep responsibility” to future generations. Despite the “suffering and hurting” of living things right now, “it’s still such an incredibly beautiful planet, and there’s still an incredible amount left to save. And that’s going to be true for a long time even if things get worse and worse.”
As I interviewed signatories of the Scholars Warning letter, I noticed that several of them were reading the same book, a science fiction novel called The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, published in 2020. Robinson’s book takes place in the near-future, amid the turmoil, violence, and chaos that results from a rapidly warming climate: millions dead, displaced or traumatized; boiling heat waves, biblical flooding, prolonged drought; protests and terrorism and fatal political gridlock. Much of the story is about the ways that people react foolishly to—and are unable to process—the environmental apocalypse unfolding around them.
“People had a very hard time imagining that catastrophe could happen to them, until it did,” Robinson writes, in one section examining the cognitive pitfalls that await human beings trying to confront the end of the world. “So until the climate was actually killing them, people had a tendency to deny it could happen. To others, yes; to them, no.”
This attitude is marked, in the book just as in our world, by bias, and a litany of caveats fabricated by the survivors: “It was the South where it had happened. It was mostly poor people, in particular poor people of color. It couldn’t happen in the North. It couldn’t happen to prosperous white people.” It is questionable whether it is possible, in 2021, to be in denial about the urgency required to adequately address climate change unless you are insulated from its current effects by wealth, privilege, and power, an insulation that continues to hinder rich, Western countries’ commitment to cutting carbon emissions. The Maldives’ environment minister Shauna Aminath was one critic of the agreement reached at COP26 this fall, saying that the deal “will be too late for the Maldives.”
“What looks balanced and pragmatic to other parties will not help the Maldives adapt in time,” she said. In October, Aminath told the Associated Press that, “The difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees, for us, really is a death sentence.” This disparity is what most worries Hughes about the future. “The rich and powerful will save themselves,” he says, but once that happens, will efforts to mitigate the damage and suffering elsewhere stop?
Many of the central characters in The Ministry for the Future are diplomats, scientists, and international officials who are not blind to what is happening but are instead “doing the best they could with what they had,” by which Robinson mainly means technology, policy, and legislation. “Were they fools to have tried so hard for words, in a world careening toward catastrophe? Were they fools to keep on trying?” Robinson asks. “Words are gossamer in a world of granite.”
And yet, The Ministry for the Future, which opens with a shocking, dystopian scene of a heat wave strong enough to kill millions across rural India in a single day, ends on a note of hope, and posits that humanity is capable of saving itself from destruction. In Robinson’s plot, people and their governments struggle to come together, but eventually they do, and the result is restored ecosystems, sustainable agriculture, controlled carbon emissions, and a new, more equal, just, and livable planet.
The people I interviewed for this story have signed a public letter that asks readers to seriously contemplate the end of the world as we know it, but they aren’t uniformly or totally pessimistic, or incapable of mining any hint of a silver lining from our present circumstances. Nor do any of them believe that a clear-eyed vision of the future means that giving into despair, apathy, and paralysis is the right way forward. “The social and cultural change that’s occurring now is unprecedented in my 15 years experience as a climate activist,” Kalmus says. “That is quite heartening.”
Although Kalmus said he feels we have “less time now” than he once did, he does not feel that we—as a species—are doomed. “I feel like we’ve made a tremendous mess of things, and it was completely unnecessary, and I’m basically livid with anger,” he says. “But there’s not even a tiny part of me that feels like giving up.” Ye Tao, another letter signatory and Faculty and Principal Investigator from the Rowland Institute at Harvard, spoke about the need to “go past fear” and to recognize that “there is only action.” Action is its own balm. “It’s a gift to be alive and participating in arguably the most important endeavor of humanity,” Tao says.
When I started writing this story, I expected to encounter resignation and gloom. I thought this was a story about how scientists and scholars have come to terms with the looming possibility of social collapse, both professionally and personally. But I realized as I was reporting it that it is really a story about how we all must come to terms with it; how many of us already are. Widespread devastation due to climate change does not seem like a far-off dystopian fantasy; the stirrings of that destruction are already at our doorsteps. We can succumb to despair, we can seek temporary refuge in denial or we can choose the path that so many of the people I interviewed for this article have chosen, to focus on the present, to find meaning in small things, to insist on a continued fight, no matter how insurmountable the odds.
The artist Isaac Cordal, who created “Follow the Leaders,” the sculpture that many saw as a symbol of hopelessness, has said that in his mind, his tiny, drowning figures “refer to this collective inertia that leads us to think that our small actions cannot change anything.” But Cordal thinks it is a mistake to sink into this inertia or to use it as an excuse. “I believe,” he said, “that every small act can contribute to a big change.”
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At the end of his class session, Hughes asked a final question. “How many feel more optimistic this year about avoiding the worst of climate change?”A few students raised their hands, tentatively. Most of the class remained still, silently watching the professor. Just a week before this meeting, the powerful remnants of hurricane Ida swept through the Philadelphia area, and outside the placid confines of Penn’s shaded campus, the city was still struggling to recover. Catastrophic flooding displaced people from their homes, closed major highways, cut off electricity and shut down water treatment plants. Ida’s devastation, which stretched from the Mississippi Delta to New York City, had capped off a summer of unprecedented weather, from heat waves in the Pacific Northwest to flash flooding in Tennessee and wildfires in California.
Despite all this, and unlike most of his students, Hughes told me later that he was more optimistic about our collective ability to take productive steps to curb the worst effects of climate change this year than he had been in the past. “Sometimes,” he said, “crises are galvanizing.”
Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist whose work has previously appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Believer, Longreads, and elsewhere. She also writes a newsletter about history and books called Looking Backward.