Climate change is a big deal. I try my best: recycling, avoiding single-use plastic, not eating meat. Such small changes help to clear the conscience but don’t infringe on my day to day life. But, if you asked me to stop flying, to never drive a car, or to consider not having children on the basis of population control, I’d be less willing to budge. I was discussing with a friend recently how hard we find it to truly panic about the changing climate and how guilty this makes us feel. Although we know it’s happening, the sense of urgency just isn’t there.
I wrote this article before COVID-19 was forcing Europeans to drastically alter their daily lives. But I did write it when Wuhan was in lockdown. The current health crisis draws into focus this article’s investigation into why it’s so easy to read a devastating headline and then continue our day, until it is happening to us. When the virus had only just stepped out of China, I wasn’t scared. Even when the number of cases in Amsterdam began to rise, I still wasn’t scared. But, when universities, cafes, and clubs shut, my life halted and suddenly I was paying attention. This doesn’t really make sense. I knew the virus was dangerous and contagious and that, if it got bad, it would be impossible to continue our lives as normal. But it never threw me into a panic until I could see the impact in person.
This is what’s so worrying about climate change. It’s a slow process in which the effects creep up in different places at different times. When we finally see it destroy our immediate surroundings, it will be too late. Before the coronavirus, I regarded my environment and lifestyle as permanent features of my life. It was impossible to fathom that the virus could alter them so drastically. The pandemic has demonstrated just how fragile our routines are and how easily they can unravel.
Two years ago, the UN announced that we have twelve years to avoid a climate catastrophe. The clock is ticking, and climate change is becoming increasingly tangible each time a natural disaster hits the headlines. In 2019, the world saw mammoth fires in Australia, Typhoon Hagibis in Japan, floods around the world, and Cyclone Idai in southern Africa. Although it’s impossible to assert that these disasters occurred solely due to global warming, human activity exacerbated their effects and made them more likely to occur. This report lists the worst natural disasters of 2019 and their connection to climate change. It is definitely worth a read to get to grips with the very real and very urgent implications of our changing climate.
So, I know I care about the planet and the impact climate change has on the most vulnerable, but why am I not behaving as such? I decided to research why it is so difficult to act as if the world might end.
Just like any animal, humanity’s primary concerns are food, shelter, and finding a suitable mate. For most of our species’ existence, our time had to be spent focusing on the present and ensuring that these needs were met. Today, instant gratification, rather than future consequences, still influences our decision-making and it’s easy to see why. I have lived in areas of relatively stable and safe climates my whole life and when I look around, everything looks okay. Robert Gifford, an environmental psychologist at the University of Victoria conducted experiments that reveal the existence of a mental barrier to climate change action and/or panic. He believes that people underestimate the impact of climate change because it does not feel immediate or nearby. His lab surveyed 3,200 people from 18 different nations and found that a majority assumed (incorrectly) that climate change wasn’t a local problem.
For those of us privileged enough not to be amongst the first victims of climate change, it is difficult to grasp that our immediate surroundings, which look stable, are under threat. In macro terms, things remain largely the same throughout our lives and that makes it almost impossible to understand that our reality is not ubiquitous or everlasting. This applies to politics and economics in addition to nature, say the concepts of democracy or capitalism; although we can criticise these, it is nevertheless a challenge to truly visualise life in alternative systems. It requires a reconstruction of our reality to imagine a world without money, nations, or borders.
Focusing on the near-future also serves as a self-preservation technique. It is not healthy to live in perpetual fear of our growing environmental problems. For most of us, there is a limit to the difference we can make, and this powerlessness inevitably makes it hard to enjoy life in the present. It is impossible to grieve every time we see something tragic on the news. If every death saddened us like the death of a close friend, and if every natural disaster distressed us like it was happening right outside our door, we would go insane.
Of course, not everyone feels impassive when reading headlines about natural disasters. Climate grief is a psychological condition that occurs as a result of environmental degradation. This response to the endless newsreels seems both inevitable and wholly justified. A report from Melbourne warns that, if emissions remain unchecked, there is a “likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end by 2050”. It claims that with just a 2°C climate temperature increase, over one billion people will be forced to relocate due to rising sea levels. If large corporations fail to make systematic changes to the ways they produce and distribute goods, climate change will be irreversible. When hearing dystopian predictions about our future, it is natural to feel helpless and angry, which can lead to depression or grief at the loss of life as we know it. A journalist with climate grief describes her experience as “trying to warn everyone of a massive government conspiracy to kill us all, except that it’s in the news; that everyone already knows about, and no one really minds”. She adds: “I’m angry with [my friends] when they have children, and they don’t then immediately devote themselves to averting what is coming. I’m angry with them when they go on about Brexit, as though it matters compared to this”.
But it’s hard to respond to each natural disaster with adequate grief, action, or contemplation. Disaster fatigue is linked to both apathetic responses to climate change and climate grief. Patrica Smith, the founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project says that “the onslaught of bad news has a cumulative effect. When you place the needs of others before your own and feel obliged to rescue them, continually doing so can exhaust, deflate, and depress you”. More than ever, we see, hear, and discuss tragedies from around the world. We receive round-the-clock news updates through notifications on our phones and have greater access to personal stories of heartache and desperation thanks to global online communication.
Moreover, as each disaster is quickly followed by another, we barely have time to appreciate the reconstruction of local areas. Disasters make great headlines and we are swamped with images of broken communities and damaged homes. The rebuilding process can be sluggish and fractured, so it can’t be sensationalised in the media. As a consequence, those outside of the crisis learn very little about the reconstruction of communities. By this point, the world has already moved on to the next tragedy. This leaves those on the outside feeling powerless and nihilistic, which squashes our motivation to take action, help, and campaign.
As a younger generation grows up with acute knowledge of climate change from a young age, it’s important to approach the topic correctly. Both climate grief and climate apathy can stem from overexposure to disaster. And both can be equally debilitating. The problem seems insurmountable, so what’s the point in even trying? Moreover, as long as the problem seems far away and our lives tick on as normal, it remains difficult to kick ourselves into gear and do our best to protect the environment.
Whether you feel apathetic or panicked by climate change (or somewhere in the middle), it’s important to come to terms with the way you react to disasters and approach it in a way that best suits you. Individual responsibility for climate change only goes so far. There are changes we all can make, but structural overhauls of industry, business, and government are the only thing that can reverse the effects of global warming.