Fear, Hope and the Changing Climate

Fear, Hope and the Changing Climate

I recently finished reading ‘Uninhabitable Earth‘ by David Wallace-Wells, which, despite being eye opening, gave me a full-on panic attack within the first few pages and did not get any better from there. I know things are bad. I am aware that the sea levels are rising and island nations such as Vanuatu and the Marshall Islands are disappearing. I am also aware that natural disasters, some of which were once rare phenomena, such as hurricanes, bushfires and floods, are increasing at exponential rates. However, I was not aware of just how bad things really are and how imperative it is that we start to act immediately.

With this urgency in mind I have turned my attention to the actions of world governments in containing this crisis and I have (mostly) been thoroughly disappointed. While many governments, both right and left-leaning, pay lip service to climate change, few (if any) are implementing the radical changes that are required. All predictions and warnings about the climate crisis say that we need to act NOW and currently that scenario is looking less and less likely. 

The changing climate will impact humankind in unprecendented ways. Credit: Pexels.

My fear is that the effects of climate change on the planet will be similar to that of the boiling frog metaphor (I don’t mean to upset any readers by mentioning it –trust me I love frogs– I am merely using it to demonstrate a point, as Al Gore did in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’). In the metaphor, the assumption is that if a frog is dropped into boiling water it will jump right out, but if instead the frog is dropped into tepid water and the heat is turned up slowly it will fail to recognise the gradually increasing temperature and be boiled alive. What if we humans are the same? What if we continue to normalise increasingly abnormal weather patterns because they are happening gradually and fail to act on climate change, rationalising that “it’s not REALLY that bad yet”? In his Pacific Standard article about this normalising effect Tom Jacobs concludes, “Adaptability is a big reason for our species’ success. It will be sadly ironic if it also facilitates our downfall”.

How do I deal with this? At the moment all I feel like doing is pulling the covers over my head and hoping that it all goes away. That it was all a bad dream. I feel powerless when those in power are not even willing to acknowledge the problem. I am sensing the existential fear of the seemingly unavoidable climate catastrophe that is looming over the planet. I am experiencing climate, or eco-anxiety, which is a relatively new term meaning anxiety about threats to the future of the natural environment such as climate change, ocean acidification, mass extinction of species, etc. The American Psychological Association (APA) produced a 2017 report on the subject entitled Mental Health and our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implication and Guidance. The report covers a number of topics including the impact of climate change, both current and future, on the mental health of individuals and communities and ways to address and mitigate these impacts.

Related Post: 5 Useful Tips to Cope with Climate Anxiety

Fear, Hope and the Climate
Reports of the impacts of climate change is causing eco-anxiety. Credit: Pexels.

In her book ‘Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction‘ author E. Ann Kaplan coined the term ‘pre-traumatic stress syndrome’ which has the same features as post-traumatic stress disorder, including grief, sadness, worry, disturbing intrusive thoughts, sleep troubles and nightmares, but rather than being related to an event that occurred in the past, it is anticipatory anxiety about events that may occur in the future. I resonate with this kind of trauma syndrome. I feel it when I read climate change literature and every time I turn on the news and hear another alarmist media report about weather extremes, natural disasters, mass pollution, etc. From discussions with friends, family and colleagues and from my social media feeds I know that I am not alone. 

How then do I use this fear to propel me to action, rather than becoming paralysed by my fear and wanting to bury my head in the sand? In a further article written for the Sunday New York Times, David Wallace-Wells argues that we need to feel fear and to panic about the climate crisis we are facing because it will propel us into action on a massive global stage, which is required at this stage to attempt to mitigate the most catastrophic consequences. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world requires mobilisation on a scale not seen since the second world war and, states Wallace-Wells, “that war was not waged on hope alone”.

Hope, however, is the other necessary ingredient I feel. As US Congresswoman, and sponsor of the Green New Deal, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in conversation with Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg:

“I learned that hope is not something that you have. Hope is something that you create, with your actions. Hope is something you have to manifest into the world, and once one person has hope, it can be contagious. Other people start acting in a way that has more hope.”

Credit: Pexels

So you’re probably wondering –what can I do? Psychotherapists Sarah Anne Edwards and Linda Buzzell in a chapter of the book ‘Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Minddescribe six stages of “waking up syndrome” in relation to people coming to terms with the climate crisis as a phenomenon; which is similar to the five stages of grief. The stages start initially with denial and then cycle through gradual realisation of the enormity of the crisis, comprising in despair in the fifth stage, which is characterised by hopelessness, powerlessness and guilt, or eco-anxiety. The sixth and final stage is empowerment and it is in this stage that action can begin. Edwards and Buzzell suggest starting with small individual steps which can increase a personal sense of agency, such as biking to work or writing to elected officials. This can be followed by larger steps to create a more sustainable lifestyle with other people in small communities, including simplifying one’s life and becoming active in the community.

The jury is still out on whether or not hope is more likely to inspire action on the climate crisis than fear, however, I feel we need a mix of both to be propelled into action.

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Feature image via Pexels.

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