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Facing Climate Change: An Integrated Path to the Future Hardcover – March 1, 2016
The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
A fresh perspective on the climate crisis.... Kiehl finds a successful balance between brevity and substance
The book's personable style and interdisciplinary appraoch will interest readers with focuses ranging from psychology and spirituality to climate change. (Choice)
Highly accessible.... A gift to the reader. (PsycCritiques)
About the Author
Jeffrey T. Kiehl is a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and a fellow of the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society. He is a recipient of the AGU Climate Communication Prize. He is also a senior Jungian analyst with the C. G. Jung Institute of Colorado, the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts, and the International Association for Analytical Psychology.
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In Facing Climate Change— Jeffrey Kiehl points out that we deploy identical defense mechanisms in response to threats ranging from the deeply personal to the global. Our doctor tells us, for instance, that smoking, drinking and obesity are going to catch up with us, eventually. Our accountant warns that our savings aren’t going to sustain us very far into retirement. Our scientists testify that our habits of consumption are launching us on a trajectory with cataclysmic environmental consequences. The fact is that we are not very good at facing difficult news and hard choices. Nobody really wants to hear that the bill for ignoring or minimizing risks inherent in our choices of lifestyle is payable on demand, now, and for generations following.
Facing Climate Change offers a perspective from which we can organize our responses toward the complex environmental issues. Kiehl's answer to Gordon Lightfoot’s plaintive question is this: It is not “too late for trying.”. For decades, concerned scientists have sounded alarms on life and death issues, such as nuclear proliferation, biological epidemiology, environmental depredations. “Trying” begins with opening dialogues across boundaries of personal and cultural comfort and assumptions.
Facing Climate Change details ways to talk to each other, to translate the Babel of what Richard Rorty calls our “contingent vocabularies” into a mutually intelligible language which expresses our perceptions, anxieties and ideas to meet challenges. Jeffrey Kiehl is conversant in the vocabularies of science, Jungian psychology and Buddhist philosophy, and demonstrates how these lenses can bring a sharper focus upon climate change. Readers with different “lenses” can still appreciate the skill with which Kiehl integrates his experience into a cohesive argument. In particular, he evokes the resonance of Buddhist practice with themes of responses to change, transpersonal identification, and the practice of universal compassion, but whether our shared plight is described through Jungian archetypes or the dharma or via science-driven climate models, it is in our best interests to come together to act to deflect the arc of oncoming suffering.
We must be confident that our communities are not so encysted in ideology and tradition that we cannot form coalitions of insight and action, and that we can integrate the methods of scientific dialectic into rational, humanistic expressions and practices aimed at meeting collective challenges. Kiehl emphasizes that the precursor of collective action is personal/transpersonal connection between humans and the world we inhabit.
Jeffrey Kiehl impresses me as an individual and as an author with an admirable admixture of intelligence,sensitivity and humor—qualities that embody our best hopes for dialogue and action. How do we think about about inevitabilities—mortality being the prime example—for which our preparations will very likely be insufficient, as opposed to eventualities—including wars, epidemics and,here, climate change—which we can anticipate and ameliorate if we address them with reason and courage?
As a child, the author was consumed by helpless fear about nuclear war, racism, the Vietnam War and other problems. Tellingly, he frames these all as gigantic, faraway issues. Racism (this is the 50s and 60s) takes place in some regions of the US, it has nothing to do with him or anyone he knows. He does not resolve to treat everyone with respect regardless of background, nor to speak out against discrimination and prejudice he observes, he simply feels powerless because he cannot personally end racism. He does not seek out others to join in a fight against social problems. He seems to have missed the second half of, "think globally, act locally."
As an adult, the problem worsens. He recounts moving passages including, "I walk out of my house and discover that I don't have my keys. . .A sense of disease settles over me. I feel panic rising within. . .Soon, I am in full blown panic, and I lose it," and "I begin to worry about my financial situation. . .What began as a simple passing thought rapidly grows into a rampant worry." The key anxiety attack causes him to miss an important meeting. It's hard to resist a pop psychology diagnosis that he suffers from some kind of generalized anxiety disorder, and he fixates on specific sources of worry at random, whether they are as small as losing his keys or as large as global thermonuclear war. The ones he can do something about, like buy a Key Finder, he doesn't; and he seems to favor framing problems at a scale where he can't do much about them anyway.
In a shrewd move to turn the tables on his disability, he chooses a career in climate science. He doesn't start with simple useful stuff like predicting the weather or understanding cloud formation, his first work is on nuclear winter. From the 50s to the early 80s this was a disingenuous attack on nuclear war rather than a serious field of inquiry. It never had anything to do with nuclear reactions, the theory was certain kinds of intense fires (which might be set by nuclear bombs, but were far more commonly set by other natural or human means) could drive soot and aerosols into the stratosphere, destroying the ozone layer and at least one growing season. While this is not false in principle, the crude models were doctored to produce exaggerated results, and exaggerated certainty in those results.
The leading popularizer of the field, Carl Sagan, would later admit the error, after being wildly incorrect about the effect of oil fires in Kuwait (see Science as a Contact Sport by another reformed nuclear winter researcher for the blow-by-blow version, including being castigated by Carl Sagan for wanting to publish results that questioned the hypothesis). While a few diehards still cling to revised models, the weight of climate science opinion has moved on. Despite the dishonesty on scientific grounds, however, the political effect of the work was undoubtedly positive. The threat of nuclear declined more rapidly as a result of the effect of nuclear winter claims on public opinion.
Although the author continued to publish climate science research, he shifted much of his effort into public communication (he still does not seem to believe his claims, he casually describes a lifestyle with a carbon footprint many times larger than what he wants to force everyone else in the world to accept). This also proves unsatisfying. He finds that people don't believe him, or get angry, or (as one woman puts it) space out and can't remember what he said. The people who do seem affected by his talks and speak to him afterwards are filled with helpless dread rather than energy to effect change. Putting the pop psychology hat on again, his passivity and pessimism appear to have alienated most people, but attracted some like-minded listeners.
In a surprise twist that give the book much of its original interest, the author decides to become a clinical psychologist. Of course, he doesn't choose any of the scientific approaches, but studies the mystical ravings of Carl Jung, which are impervious to empirical testing (but with the gall of a climate scientist, he claims the tenets are supported by scientific consensus of neuroscience, cognitive psychology and--to convert the claim from false to ridiculous--quantum physics). As mentioned above, he does not even stick to the intellectually dignified if nonsensical version based on ancient patterns deep in the unconscious, but invents a hip version based on contemporary pop culture (to his credit, he does not even try to explain how evolution placed Frodo and Skywalker in our neural passageways millions of years before the movies were made).
It is easy to make fun of this book. Heck, it's impossible not to make fun of this book. Even the most dour neo-Puritan climate alarmist will crack a smile or two when the author starts communing with trees and finding the meaning of life in sunsets. But this is a shallow reaction. For all its silliness, the book conveys a deep sincerity. The author really is afraid, and really does feel helpless, and a lot of other people feel the same way. The wacky pop mysticism cannot conceal emotional truth. It's true that things are very good and getting better, that we live in the safest and most comfortable and culturally rich time of human history, that the real dangers we face from change are tiny compared to the awesome opportunities of the near future. But a lot of people remain convinced of the opposite. Not only is their unhappiness a problem in itself, it opens the door for cynical politicians to stoke fears in order to gain power.
The author has a mystical faith in equilibrium. He describes a fox population growing and depleting the available mice, leading foxes to starve, and the populations getting closer to balance. While this is true, it does not result in a stable equilibrium, it keeps lurching from extreme to extreme until either one population or the other disappears or some other event changes the balance. Similarly he claims evolution should force human societies to be sustainable. This is both a misunderstanding of evolution (the correct formulation is evolution might cause unsustainable societies to die out creating room for survival of fitter societies) and clearly false historically. Subsistence groups eventually die out when they get a run of bad luck. Groups that exceed subsistence levels expand, causing instability. The most influential human societies are not the stable, sustainable ones, but the recklessly expanding ones that rise, conquer and implode. Moreover, to the extent there are natural, stable equilibriums in nature, humans are part of that nature, not some sinful external force that must be limited. To fight mysticism with mysticism, "You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here." And to give a little comfort to the afflicted, "And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should."