Tuesday 29 December 2020

Facts on Deep Adaptation in response to a New York Times style article

The Deep Adaptation Occasional Paper released in July 2018 has been downloaded over a million times and inspired a range of reactions, from full time climate activism to criticism of its analysis and influence. A recent article in the New York Times style section made some claims about the Deep Adaptation paper and movement which Professor Jem Bendell responds to below.


From Professor Jem Bendell:

A recent article in the New York Times reports claims about a reduction of climate activism that results from an anticipation of collapse. That is not backed up by reports in the media over the last 2 years about the influence of the Deep Adaptation paper on the new wave of radical climate activism. For instance in YouGov and the Financial Times. In addition, it is not backed up by Cumbria University's initial research on the new kinds of action being taken by participants in the Deep Adaptation Forum. As a lifelong environmental activist, who wants fair and bold action on carbon cuts and drawdown, if there is substantial new evidence that an anticipation of collapse is undermining climate activism, then that is a concern and I would like to see it, and discuss its implications. For instance, rather than condemning anticipation of collapse, we could help each other explore the implications so more of us can arrive at pro-social responses. 

Some people may be ignoring evidence of how an anticipation of collapse has inspired climate activism and are instead projecting onto people how they might feel and act if they anticipated collapse themselves. That is not to deny that the psychological implications of anticipating collapse are huge and incredibly important for all of us who wish to slow climate change and prepare for further disruptions in the future. I will therefore continue working with psychologists to invite informed and open discussion of the implications and what we can all do to help, and intend to share more on that in the coming weeks. The seriousness with which the DA Forum takes these matters is illustrated by their safety and wellbeing policy, support for grief tending, and advice on seeking professional help when in distress. It is also why its approach to facilitating gatherings involves space for emotional expression and processing. That is contrary to some of the suggestions in the NYT article. 


That article may suggest to some readers that I have a disdain for expertise on climate change. The opposite is the case. I tell anyone who asks, if they want to cross-check my claims on specific issues, to contact a number of scientists who specialise in those issues. Therefore, to discuss what I write about the Arctic, contact experts on the Arctic. To discuss what I write about tipping points, contact the published experts on tipping points. I reference them all in my writing, to make it easy to check with various experts. I also always warn against regarding famous scientific commentators as the one voice from climatology. To do that would be unscientific, as it would not recognise the varieties of views within the various subfields of climate science. It was in concluding that explanation to the NYT journalist that I said he should not rely on a couple of famous climatologists to prove a debunking of the science in the DA paper, and instead go find out for himself from those who work in the specific subfields. Unfortunately the quote used in the article left out that context, in a way that implies disrespect for well known climatologists.

I also always explain that the risks of societal collapse cannot be fully understood from within climate science, as societies are complex social systems, and we need insight from the huge field of scholarship now dubbed ‘collapsology’. I always note that the main weakness of my DA paper is that it did not explore and summarise that field, and that I am still learning from that field and invite climatologists to do the same. 

The DA paper discussed the implications of Arctic ice loss and tipping points by citing a range of experts on that. I do not reach a conclusion that methane hydrates on the Arctic ocean floor are definitely being released at significant scale, but conclude that there should not be confidence there will not be a mass release of methane from that source in the near future. Therefore, I have continued to call for constant monitoring of the situation, and taking current scientist measurements of methane very seriously. One can not overstate how worrying this issue is, even when being criticised for being alarmist or doomist for expressing concern and questioning the confidence of people who dismiss the possibility.

The NYT article includes a comment from Dr Kate Marvel that is presented as a criticism of the science in the DA paper and yet does not relate to what is in my paper. I paste in a relevant section of the paper and the article below. I do not confuse albedo effect and tipping points. I cite experts on the albedo effect and a study on how much radiative forcing arises from ice loss. This criticism is used in the NYT article as the basis for implying that the field of collapse anticipation is based on faulty science. One could argue against the scientific basis for collapse anticipation in more informed and nuanced ways that might aid our understanding of our situation. However, the way the article treats the topic reflects an approach that over 500 scientists and scholars have recently criticised as unhelpful suppression of the discussion of collapse risk and readiness. It also suggests a conflict between scholars which might not actually exist, and simply be misunderstandings of what one or the other has written or said. It is unfortunate that people reading the NYT might think I dismiss Dr Marvel or any climatologist, when the quoted sentence was within my explanation about the importance of seeking granular expertise on specific matters. Therefore, in clarifying this, I would like to confirm that I do not disrespect or disregard the work of Dr Marvel, or any other climatologist, but still encourage journalists to look further than the most famous names in the broad field of climatology when engaging in contentious aspects of climate change. For instance, it is quite easy to contact the scientists I referenced in the paper on albedo and the Arctic.

The NYT article talks about DA implying it is too late to ‘save the world’. Neither myself or anyone I work with uses that frame or phrasing. Such a phrase reflects a set of anthropocentric patriarchal assumptions about the world and the human relationship to it. Perhaps some people assume that current industrial consumer societies constitute the only “world” worth “saving”. Following the work of Sheldon Solomon, perhaps that reaction is because these societies are the ones that have been the source of our identity, and as we become more anxious, unless we support each other's equanimity, we become more attached to our existing stories of identity, belonging and purpose. That is why it is so important to listen to the insights of indigenous scholars and people who work with them, such as Professor Vanessa Andreotti, who is on the holding group (advisory board) of the DA Forum. It may also be a reason why the DA Forum itself recently questioned the ‘save the world’ framing in their most recent review of where the Forum is now at since I left it in September. It is also why loosening our attachment to stories which affirm our separation and superiority with the rest of creation are central to the ethos of DA activities, as we explain in detail in a recent paper.   

To anticipate societal collapse because of ecological and climate change, impacting directly and indirectly on social processes, is an emotionally difficult way of experiencing life. Yet it also means people show up stripped of many of their old stories of success, status, and certainty, which allows for a more connected and generative way of being and working together. Unfortunately the very existence of this worldview will continue to alienate some people, and so I will encourage in myself and others in the DA movement our ongoing patience, discernment, forgiveness and focus. Our choice is to focus on reducing harm and promoting connection, not avoiding criticism or winning arguments. That does not mean we wait for those criticisms will stop. Rather, they are likely to grow as much as collapse anticipation grows. The silver lining is that the criticisms will bring more attention to how some people have this perspective, and then those people who are ready will be able to discover the kind, curious and creative ways people are voluntarily engaging for positive change. That faith in how many of us can be our better selves through various crises, whatever the consequences, is something that sustains me. To get a sense of the diversity of ideas about how to live positively when anticipating collapse, you could read my reflections in Open Democracy.

Section from the DA Paper on Arctic albedo

"Given a reduction in the reflection of the Sun’s rays from the surface of white ice, an ice-free Arctic is predicted to increase warming globally by a substantial degree. Writing in 2014, scientists calculated this change is already equivalent to 25% of the direct forcing of temperature increase from CO2 during the past 30 years (Pistone et al, 2014). That means we could remove a quarter of the cumulative CO2 emissions of the last three decades and it would already be outweighed by the loss of the reflective power of annual Arctic sea ice cover. One of the most eminent climate scientists in the world, Peter Wadhams, believes an ice-free Arctic will occur for a  summer in the next few years. Once that happens, the warming feedbacks make it near certain that, after some years, an entire year will be ice free in the Arctic,  which he calculated will likely increase by 50% the warming caused by the CO2 produced by human activity (Wadhams, 2016).[3] Whereas some scientists assess warming implications to be lower than that (Hudson, 2011), if correct, it would render the calculations of the IPCC redundant, along with the targets and proposals of the UNFCCC. Between 2002 and 2016, Greenland shed approximately 280 gigatons of ice per year, and the island’s lower-elevation and coastal areas experienced up to 13.1 feet (4 meters) of ice mass loss (expressed in equivalent-water-height) over a 14-year period (NASA, 2018). Along with other melting of land ice, and the thermal expansion of water, this has contributed to a global mean sea level rise of about 3.2 mm/year, representing a total increase of over 80 mm, since 1993 (JPL/PO.DAAC, 2018). The IPCC has been found to have underpredicted sea level rise, as part of its general “understatement of existential climate risk” (Spratt and Dunlop, 2018).  Recent data shows that the upward trend is non-linear (Malmquist, 2018). That means sea level is rising due to non-linear increases in the melting of land-based ice."

The New York Times article refers to this section here:

Mr. Bendell writes that the loss of the reflective power of ice in the Arctic is such that even a removal of a quarter of the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions of the last three decades would be outweighed by the damage already done. Dr. Marvel said that this represents a basic misunderstanding. Though ice melting represented a feedback loop, she said, in which an effect of the climate becoming warmer itself contributed to further warming, there was a conflation in Mr. Bendell’s thought between that feedback loop and a so-called tipping point. “It’s not an example of a tipping point,” she said. “This is something that is well understood. You make it warm. You get rid of ice. You make it cold. You get ice.”

On this section Prof Bendell notes: I did not write about tipping points in this section of the DA paper on albedo. What I write about tipping points, citing specialists on tipping points, can be read in the full paper. If Dr Marvel's critique can be clarified to me, so a change can be made in the paper, then that would be ideal. I have opened up the paper for such comment here. A difficulty is that with misinformed or confusing critiques, when I say they are misinformed or confusing, it is portrayed by some people as resisting feedback and criticism. Which is why I opened up the paper and am getting some useful clarifications and requests for clarifications.