Responses to COP26 and the attack/flight catastrophe model

The outcome of COP26 has evoked very divergent responses from different climate scientists and activists. Climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe tweeted,

Tyler Prize winning climate scientist Michael E. Mann told Newsweek  that hecan really see a potential path forward to limiting warming to 1.5C,” although he warned that “it will require both (a) countries making good on their current pledges and (b) further ratcheting up their current commitments.”

In contrast, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change co-chair Hans-Otto Portner told Newsweek “warming will by far exceed 2 degrees Celsius. This development threatens nature, human life, livelihoods, habitats and also prosperity.” Greta Thunberg’s reaction was equally strong. She tweeted:

While Shannon Marlow du Plessis tweeted,

The divergent responses of hope, anger, and fear are reminiscent of the attack / flight catastrophe, which was proposed by Christopher Zeeman to model how anger and fear are expressed in dogs. It is when the dog experiences both anger and fear that its  response to a situation is unstable.

Zeeman described the attack/flight catastrophe as follows:

I shall begin by considering a model of aggression in the dog. Konrad Z. Lorenz has pointed out that aggressive behaviour is influenced by two conflicting drivers, rage and fear and he has proposed that in the dog these factors can be measured with some reliability. A dog’s rage is correlated with the degree to which its mouth is open or its teeth are bared; its fear is reflected by how much its ears are flattened back. By employing facial expression as an indicator of the dog’s emotional state we can attempt to learn how the dog’s behaviour varies as a function of its mood.

If only one of the conflicting emotional factors is present, the response of the dog is relatively easy to predict. If the dog is enraged but not afraid, then some aggressive action, such as attacking, can be expected. When the dog is frightened but is not provoked to anger, aggression becomes improbable and the dog will most likely flee. Prediction is also straightforward if neither stimulus is present, then the dog is likely to express some neutral kind of behaviour unrelated to aggression or submission.

What if the dog is made to feel both rage and fear simultaneously? The two controlling factors are then in direct conflict. Simple models that cannot accommodate discontinuity might predict that the two stimuli would cancel each other, leading again to neutral behaviour. That prediction merely reveals the shortcomings of such simplistic models, since in reality neutrality is in fact the least likely behaviour. When a dog is both angry and frightened, the probabilities of both extreme modes of behaviour are high; the dog may attack or flee but it will not remain indifferent.

The climate crisis is an existential threat, and COP26 clearly evoked strong emotional responses. It seems likely that incompatible emotional responses of hope, anger and fear contribute to widely divergent reactions to the outcome.


Erin Brady, “Optimistic vs. ‘No Backbone’: Scientists Split on Whether Climate Pact Will Meet Goals” Newsweek, Nov 15, 2021.

Zeeman, E. C. “Catastrophe Theory.” Scientific American 234, no. 4 (1976): 65–83.

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