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White Noise and Climate Anxiety
Experts’ addiction to inaccurate visions of climate catastrophe are creating major climate anxiety. Can we overcome this noise?
By Alex Trembath
“We’re suffering from brain fade. We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information.”
“White Noise” by Don DeLillo
Even experts on the subject could be forgiven for holding the mistaken view that natural disasters have gotten significantly more frequent, intense and deadly as a result of climate change. “Weather-Related Disasters Skyrocketed Fivefold Over Past 50 Years,” reads a canonical climate headline from this past year. “Deadly Indian heatwave made 30 times more likely by climate crisis,” reads another. “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator,” said United Nations Secretary General Antonio Gutteres at November’s annual international climate negotiations.
But these claims are more like Chicken Little-ism than truth: In reality, the frequency of natural disasters has not increased globally. According to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), the “fivefold” increase cited in the headline above is mostly a statistical artifact of improved reporting of natural disasters over recent decades. CRED maintains the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT) tracking disasters, which actually shows a decline in the frequency of extreme weather and climate events over the last 20 years, a robust trend that its authors have had trouble communicating to the public.
“Even today we have people quoting us saying that the EM-DAT database shows that disasters are increasing in an alarming way. It’s not increasing in an alarming way,” said CRED researcher Debarati Guha-Sapir. “We’ve said at our press conferences that there’s not been an increase … nobody wants good news.”
Meanwhile, the intensity of some weather and climate extremes has increased, but attribution studies and science communicators use metrics deliberately designed to exaggerate the effect. As climate scientist Patrick Brown, my colleague at The Breakthrough Institute, wrote in August, “The same analysis that yielded the ‘30 times more likely’ result for the India/Pakistan heatwave also concluded that climate change made the heatwave 1°C hotter than it would have been in a preindustrial climate.”
And the disasters that do occur kill many fewer people than they used to, thanks to the protection provided by modern wealth and infrastructure. Annual deaths attributed to natural disasters have fallen by over 90% in the last century, even as the world’s population has increased from under 2 billion to now over 8 billion people. In recent decades, as the reality of global climate change has become more obvious, vulnerability has continued to decline. Recent research suggests that global average morality from climate-related hazards declined by a factor of 5 between the 1980s and the present, even as carbon emissions nearly doubled globally.
If there’s one question I get more than any other, it’s “Are we doomed?” And when I rattle off a version of the above observations—that climate risk is real but not existential, that some weather and climate extremes are getting worse but not beyond our ability to become more resilient, that the people asking me that question are members of the global 1% and therefore some of the least at-risk people in human history—I’m not always sure I’ve convinced or comforted them. And it’s not just non-experts. People who study climate change for a living seem similarly addicted to maximalist, and inaccurate, visions of climate catastrophe.
Nobody wants good news.
“How serious can it be if it happens all the time? Isn’t the definition of a serious event based on the fact that it’s not an everyday occurrence?”
So asks the protagonist’s teenage son Heinrich in Don DeLillo’s acclaimed 1985 novel “White Noise.” Reading that line last summer in anticipation of Noah Baumbach’s new Netflix adaptation, I couldn’t help but think of the disconnect between our climate reality and our climate anxiety.
In the book, professor Jack Gladney and his local community are exposed to an airborne toxic event, a chemical spill of something called the “Nyodene Derivative,” which causes a variety of mysterious symptoms, including the possibility of early death. Jack and his family’s efforts to determine their level of exposure and its likely effects exacerbate their pre-existing fear of mortality and anxieties over living in the modern technological era.
Long considered “unfilmable” due to DeLillo’s indelible use of prose, the book became an instant capsule of the Information Age. Almost four decades later, it remains a surprisingly timeless meditation on what happens when we are inundated with indecipherable signal and noise from our relationship to novel technologies and our physical surroundings, and from the constant stream of information translated via media, family, friends and foes.
DeLillo claimed the ever-present televised chemical spill as his inspiration. His was the time, after all, of chemical leaching in the Love Canal neighborhood near Niagara Falls and the infamous Santa Barbara oil blowout. “I lived abroad for three years,” DeLillo told a reporter after his book was published, “and when I came back to this country in 1982, I began to notice something on television which I hadn't noticed before. This was the daily toxic spill.”
Perhaps because their frequency has declined since his writing, today spills have been replaced by the daily televised extreme weather event. Like the scientific and technological anomalies in “White Noise,” climate change manifests most charismatically in something that “happens all the time”—the weather. How serious can it be?
This is the challenge for science communicators, one they have manipulated to great effect. Ask any climate activist. Bring up the subject of climate change at a cocktail party. Look at the headlines in the opening section of this essay. Turn on the news and you will hear that the frequency and intensity of natural disasters have skyrocketed, that humanity is on the precipice of climate cataclysm. The floods in Pakistan. The hurricanes in the American south. Wildfires so destructive they turn the sky bright orange.
Scientists and science communicators have taken the weather and turned each extreme instance into evidence of the looming apocalypse. What makes this approach so powerful is that, despite the statistical slipperiness, climate change is real. Anthropogenic carbon emissions are heating the atmosphere, affecting local weather, natural disasters, sea level, agricultural productivity, ecosystems and animal life. The airborne toxic event is happening, but it occurs in the context of information overload, rapid social and technological change and scientistic propaganda.
Sorting through all of this—the UN and World Meteorological Organization climate reports, the overt and covert climate activist propaganda, the statistics translated for headlines, the outright climate denialism and the very real lived experience of those suffering through natural disasters—is the white noise in the age of climate change.
Those of us who labor in the knowledge economy often fret about a different kind of white noise, the kind of misinformation to which we consider ourselves immune—our proverbial uncles glued to Truth Social, our grandparents falling prey to Facebook scammers. But as DeLillo reminds us, even those of us who “believe in science” bathe in our own ocean of misinformation.
Jack Gladney is a professor of “Hitler Studies,” a discipline he helped found despite not speaking German, at a fictional school called College-on-the-Hill. It’s probably the most pointedly satirical feature in the story, the postmodern academic struggling from the ivory tower to swim through the flood of information he’s swept up in and to comprehend the science and technology of his era. Even before the internet fractured our media landscape and before wider recognition of “elite overproduction,” DeLillo recognized the plight of the hyper-educated consumer, “bombarded” and ultimately driven to psychosis by information.
Today, the consequences of climate psychosis (er, anxiety) are all around us. And these consequences are not limited to the soup-throwers and the traffic-blockers. Wealthy governments around the world put up their own roadblocks to energy infrastructure development in poor countries, on the grounds that economic development is not worth the climate tradeoff. While most people on Earth live on less than $10 per day, some of the wealthiest among us contemplate government programs of “degrowth” to keep material progress they enjoy out of reach from those who have not yet achieved it. Messages of climate apocalypse have been cited by the growing number of young people who express an acute sense of climate anxiety, while some couples hesitate to have children, for fear of dooming another carbon-emitting consumer to a fiery future.
None of these are scientifically required responses in a world with greater material wealth, lower vulnerability to climate risk, and more widespread democratic freedoms than at any prior point in human history. And yet these responses have become common, particularly among those at more elite levels of society.
We have to ask ourselves whether our understanding of climate change is causing our climate anxiety, or whether there is a different place we should be pointing the finger. Indeed, the most obvious culprit behind rising climate anxiety is not climate change itself, but rather the same information overload that DeLillo dramatized four decades ago. As one recent study found, climate anxiety is closely associated with “higher generalized anxiety,” and the strongest predictor of climate anxiety was “climate information seeking behaviour.”
After all, the machines of information manipulation and amplification have become measurably more intense than the weather has in recent decades. Why then would we think that climate anxiety is caused by the latter and not the former?
The Catastrophe Cascade
In “White Noise,” Jack’s wife Babette gets her hands on a black-market pharmaceutical called Dylar, which is engineered to eliminate the patient’s fear of death. It has the unfortunate side effect of making people insane. “I could not distinguish words from things,” Babette confesses after taking Dylar, “so that if someone said ‘speeding bullet,’ I would fall to the floor and take cover.”
Likewise, it has become difficult to distinguish climate metaphor from climate reality. When media figures and political leaders remind us that natural disasters are becoming radically more frequent and severe—even though the empirical trends tell a different story—it can be all too easy to cast ourselves in their apocalyptic narrative. So even for those of us who sit in the comforts of modern wealth and infrastructure, with a calming scientific summary of our relative climate safety only a few clicks away, when someone says “climate catastrophe,” we fall to the floor and take cover.
This is the uncomfortable truth, the double-edged sword wielded by scientists. Given the relatively flat trendlines in extreme weather over the decades, and the declining body counts, it is entirely thanks to scientists that we are conscious of climate risk in the first place. Without Svante Arrhenius’ discovery of the greenhouse effect in the 1890s, or atmospheric carbon measurements from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, or climate change expert James Hansen’s congressional testimony in 1988, and the amplification of these findings by science communicators and the media, our collective understanding or even awareness of climate change might be greatly reduced.
Like the connection between carcinogens and cancer, or mRNA vaccines and immune response, climate science fills in the gaps between our biological senses and our understanding of reality. Science makes something invisible into something visible, something inscrutable into something comprehensible. It can also make something banal into something terrifying, something metaphorical into something visceral.
All that science was bound, even engineered, to have an impact on our psyches and on our very identities. As James Vincent puts it in his recent book Beyond Measure, “If we could not measure, then we could not observe the world around us…. Measurement has not only made the world we live in, it has made us too.”
To be absolutely clear: In the view of this author, eating from the tree of wisdom was the right call. The advancement of science is worth the pitfalls. We would not be better off without Arrhenius’ discovery or without Hansen’s testimony, even if one can imagine a better world with similar climate impacts but less climate anxiety. But it’s undeniable that a cascade of social sorting effects, professional imperatives and media biases has compounded to create climate science and communications apparatuses that stoke our anxiety instead of moderating it.
The type of individual who self-selects into climate science, activism, advocacy or journalism is, almost definitionally, more concerned about climate change than the average person. Climate scholarship indexes for strong correlations between carbon emissions and real-world outcomes, since null results and non-correlations are not worth publishing. Leading researchers utilize implausible worst-case scenarios and emphasize negative impacts, often with the express intent of motivating political action. University and mainstream media outlets take even this biased science and strip out complexity and nuance for headlines and simplistic quotations. Climate activists with ideological agendas—whether a Green New Deal or a carbon tax or geoengineering or whatever—accentuate the positives of action and exaggerate the perils of inaction, the way any good organizer does. And visualizing something as gradual and complex as climate change almost necessarily demands images of hurricanes, floods and storms.
The cascade pushes all towards abstract catastrophism, division and anxiety. Resisting the push requires constant vigilance, a demanding prescription when the information ecosystem is the very climate itself.
We Are All Californians
“This is where California comes in,” remarks Jack’s colleague Alfonse in the novel. “Mudslides, brush fires, coastal erosion, earthquakes, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of lifestyle. This alone warrants their doom.”
In the age of climate change, we are all Californians.
Climate scientists and social scientists have constructed elaborate analyses connecting consumers’ “lifestyle carbon emissions” to all manner of disaster. Our carbon emissions are, obviously, responsible for the wildfires in Australia and the floods in Pakistan. But carbon emissions are also behind the Syrian Civil War and, obliquely, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which according to the narrative has more to do with our extractivist addiction to fossil fuels than with Vladimir Putin’s ideological authoritarianism. They are implicated in burglary and assault and hate speech. The sins of our carbon emissions even transcend space and time. A 2009 analysis, widely cited in activist circles, concludes that the decision to have a child “adds about 9441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average female, which is 5.7 times her lifetime emissions.” We are not just responsible for our own emissions, but the emissions of all our descendants combined, and all the hypothesized catastrophic climate impacts of those emissions.
Precisely through the symbol of natural disasters, DeLillo anticipated exactly how the climate discourse would come to channel the white noise phenomenon into an eschatological, moralistic narrative. With the constant reminder of our own carbon footprint, we feel in our hearts that we deserve whatever climate impacts we get, up to and including the end of the world.
It is maddening in its simplicity. While societies have always considered excess consumption a vice, by distilling that consumption down to the most fundamental unit of our existence—carbon—we have conceptualized both our sinfulness and our destructiveness in the most totalizing way imaginable. Unlike Nyodene D. or Dylar, the carbonic essence of our sin is not synthetic or rare; it is the definition of organic and one of the most abundant elements on Earth. It is no longer merely that the chaos of socially produced information drives us insane. It is that the physical world, and physical science, bombard us constantly with specific evidence of our overwhelming personal guilt. Our lifestyle alone warrants our doom.
Climate science communicators have offered no obvious cures for omnipresent anxiety. Instead, the predominant response has been to revel in it. “Climate anxiety is not in itself a problem,” says psychologist and climate anxiety researcher Britt Wray in an interview published in Smithsonian Magazine under the headline “Your Crushing Anxiety About the Climate Crisis Is Normal.” The first step is always to “validate” the fear. This is the only acceptable conclusion for a community that has described the problem in such consistently apocalyptic terms. After all, if our anxiety is not valid, then what does that say about the science that produced it?
It need not be this way. The media reports, the scientific papers and the activist slogans and pop therapy sessions could encapsulate climate change not as exaggerated millenarian punishment for devious behavior, but as a manageable if serious hazard created by human activity. Which of the two framings, after all, sounds more scientific to you?
As someone whose vocation is to advance decarbonization and climate adaptation, I can say for my part that embracing the more empirical understanding of climate science is energizing, even liberating. But I'll concede that inculcating this embrace elsewhere, reducing the social and professional rewards offered by catastrophism, is easier said than done. Information overload is a hazard of any large, curious, educated, technological and fractured society. And our institutions may or may not be able to evolve to produce and amplify this information in a more responsible way. In the meantime, it’s up to each of us whether we let the white noise drive us insane.