n August 22 philosopher Oliver Thorn (PhilosophyTube) released a YouTube video titled “Climate Grief”, which explored the way we conceive of and deal with climate change. The video, as the name of the channel suggests, starts from a philosophical basis, but, as Thorn soon observes, the issues of climate change are so enmeshed with problems like immigrant labor, indigenous rights, global wealth inequality, etc. that it’s nearly impossible to talk about one without pulling in the others. This problem of scope was explored in depth in Timothy Morton’s “Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World”, which Thorn cites, proposing that climate change—and the environment more generally—forms a kind of massive “hyperobject” that we find ourselves interacting with but, like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, have great difficulty conceptualizing completely. And unlike the parable of the blind men and the elephant, we must live inside the environmental hyperobject, for better or, as it increasingly appears, for worse.
When it comes to specific climate policies, this can cause a sort of unintentional narrowing of vision, so that issues like the carbon cap, are only dealt with as a climate-economy issue, or, in the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), as a climate-indigenous rights issue, when in fact both have implications for a vast complex of problems that are inseparable. In the United States, as the climate debate on the Democratic stage suggests, as well as the rhetoric from the Trump White House, the inertia of our current economic system acts as a filter that limits our ability to deal directly with the massive impacts climate change will have in the long run, as our economic concerns tend to have a relatively short horizon.
In many developing countries, by contrast, there is a feeling that a double standard is being applied in climate agreements. While by no means universal, this sentiment emerges from the fact that while, according to a report from the Journal of Urban Health, developing countries will suffer most from the effects of climate change and contribute the least to accelerating it, they are being expected to forego methods of industrial development that nations like the United States have happily exploited.
On an individual level, a common response has been increased anxiety and depression, especially, but not exclusively, among those who study climate science, and among young people. Greta Thunberg, who recently spoke to the United Nations in the midst of massive climate strikes, has shared her experience of despair after learning of climate change at a young age, which led her to stop eating and lose interest in life for a time. The issue, as Thunberg’s speech highlighted, is that the costs of inaction are almost entirely externalized and time-delayed—that is, they will not be borne by those emitting greenhouse gases now, but by future generations around the world.
Greta Thunberg, who recently spoke to the United Nations in the midst of massive climate strikes, has shared her experience of despair after learning of climate change at a young age, which led her to stop eating and lose interest in life for a time.
There are those, like Thorn, who have begun to call for radical action to ameliorate climate change, often pointing to indigenous leadership on these issues. Nick Estes, in his book “Our History is the Future”, points out that indigenous peoples have already undergone their own apocalypse, as colonialism wiped out entire civilizations and forced the remaining peoples to adapt to extremely difficult conditions. Estes argues that it’s no accident indigenous people have taken a leading role in resistance to environmental destruction like the burning of the Amazon and the construction of DAPL—they not only have the most to lose from environmental degradation, but also have a tradition of organized resistance to problems of the same unimaginable scope.
Not all responses to climate catastrophe have followed this way of thinking. In August, following a mass shooting in El Paso, a manifesto was discovered online that was authored by the shooter. In it, the shooter embraces an ideology known as “eco-fascism”, which points to over-population as the primary driver of climate change (in reality, the majority of greenhouse emissions are created by a minority in developed nations) and calls for a shutdown of immigration and purge of immigrant populations as a solution. This dangerous ideology reveals the flip-side of Climate Grief—while it can inspire some to seek positive change, it can lead others to embrace dangerous ideologies rooted in fear.
On an institutional level, climate inaction appears nothing short of suicidal, but inertia is a powerful force. In a paper titled Report on Effects of a Changing Climate to the Department of Defense, the Pentagon acknowledged that climate change was accelerating, and would have enormous effects on every aspect of their operation. The report goes on to detail ways in which it will seek to preserve the integrity of military operations by adapting current methods of operation. Notably missing from the report is any acknowledgement that, as GQ Magazine reported shortly afterward, the Pentagon is the largest single institutional consumer of fossil fuels in the world. This illuminates a central contributor to the despair associated with Climate Grief—that the institutions most responsible for climate change are not only aware that it will be catastrophic but are unwilling to confront their own role in causing it.
Bridging the gap between individual confrontations with the scope of climate change and the institutions that must be changed to prevent it was, in many ways, the purpose of the climate strikes. They sought to build an outlet for Climate Grief that, unlike despair, could provide a chance at real change. Though Greta Thunberg’s speech and the worldwide demonstrations captured the attention of world leaders and global media, only time will tell if necessary action is forthcoming. And if it is not, a question will be posed to all of those demonstrators and protestors who have, in ways big and small, confronted the enormity of this catastrophe: What Next?