Its been a swirling exhausting week in the lead up to the COP26 Conference in Glasgow. A continued shambolic public policy space and more dire predictions that we won’t keep warming to 1.5C dominates the news. It is dispiriting. I had a number of conversations with people this week, mainly younger people, who are despairing among the constant negative news. Climate change is an existential threat, and for many, amid the constant cycle of negative news, this leads to a loss of hope, and increasing despair. My friend and colleague, Shona Whitton and I were talking about how the coverage we are seeing is very similar to the coverage we might see in traumatic events and major disasters. Wall to wall, negatively framed media articles. This media storm creates the sense of being overwhelmed.
This is not unusual to have these responses, and we are increasingly seeing the description of a phenomenon either known as eco grief as climate anxiety. In addition, a condition known as pre traumatic stress syndrome, described for the military is increasingly being applied to climate change.
Climate anxiety is a sense of dread. Melanie Powell from the Red Cross Red Crescent Psychosocial Reference Centre describes it ongoing or chronic fear of environment doom. It can apply to past present or future events”. Roop Singh, from our Climate Centre, talks about it as type of darkness, as a scientist who is working in climate change. I have also sat with meteorologists and climatologists also describe this sense of stress and dread, and the frustration that they can see what is happening, but their fears not taken seriously enough.
As with any stressful situation, people display a range of emotions from denial, avoidance, stress reactions, a deep sense of grief, through to engagement and activism. This is important to recognise as there is no one size fits all approach.
So, in the face of what seems to be a seemingly intractable problem, what can we do? The Australian Psychology Society has a range of advice that helps people think, take action, and cope.
Firstly recognising that it is causing stress and anxiety is important. This helps normalise the feelings. It is a normal reaction to an uncertain situation.
Limit exposure to climate related content. Get what you need to know from the news, then take a break. Rest your brain, so it is ready for you need it. We can become cognitively overloaded, and this is no use to us.
Practise self care; you know the drum, healthy eating, exercise, positive connections, pleasure activities
Get into nature. Being in the environment is restorative. Get your fill of green (park/forest) or blue (sea/sky). Even in the cities we can do this, use parks or backyards, lie down and look at the sky, and the wonder of the shapes of clouds.
Get involved. Take action. This helps with overcoming the sense of its too big, and I can’t do anything about it. People who took part in a climate change adaptation program we ran in Adelaide reported that by joining the group and taking adaptation action helped them feel in control and taking action. Joining groups helps set collective actions, helps you talk about what is going on, and is generally a good thing to do for your wellbeing, anyway. Reduce your environmental footprint, from heating to eating to transport, there are many adjustments you can make. Change the way you work. They can be small steps, as Lao Tzu said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. We put solar panels on our roof 12 years ago, and at the time this sort of action was derided as virtue signalling. Now rooftop solar is a major disruptor in the energy system, and accelerating the transition to clean renewable sources. Get involved in the political processes. Talk to local members so that when party apparatchiks and spin doctors ask what’s going on in backbench land, climate is the thing they talk about. Change comes at the ballot boxes
Cultivate active hope. Melanie Powell describes this as having a twofold benefit. By taking action, you not only reduce your anxieties, but you also are making a positive contribution to the fixing the problem. Jeff Goodell’s fabulous Rolling Stone piece outlines what we have already achieved, which is a lot (still more hard yards in front of us, though) . Shona and I have written about hope previously, being part of one of the pillars of psychosocial support. As humans we are used to adversity, we change and adapt. We are also resourceful and problem solvers. Yes, we are now at the business end of the season, but urgency also helps focus us. While the IPCC’s latest report was grim, they also said we are still in the control room, as long as we take urgent and deep action. This is what gives me a glimmer of hope. And what we are seeing with, despite inaction from many governments, is kids, people, businesses, local and state/regional governments taking leadership and action, and perhaps starting to shift the dial in the control room. I am mindful I am at a different stage of life than my kids, and many of my colleagues who will reap what my generation and others have sown, but this does give me hope.
And, just when you need them most, Midnight Oil are back.