One of the things which really spooked me this past week was reading Bill McKibben’s article in The Crucial Years “Maybe we should have called this planet ‘Ocean’. McKibben reports that scientists are shocked by the terrifying fact that temperatures in the oceans, which cover 70 percent of the planet’s surface, rose significantly since mid-March. In North America, for example, waters off the east coast were up to 13.8C higher than the average temperatures between 1981-2011.
McKibben reports on a recent study headed by Katrina von Schuckmann which noted “over the past 15 years, the Earth has accumulated almost as much heat as it did in the previous 45 years,” and that 89 percent of that heat has ended up in the seas. What makes this even more horrific, he says, is that the warming El Nino cycle is almost upon us. What this could mean is unpredictably disastrous.
Some things we can say with near certainty: the World Meteorological Organization predicted today that there was a 98 percent chance that sometime during this El Nino run the world will set a new annual temperature record. (I’ve been guessing 2024, but the odds that 2023 might break the alltime record set in 2016 are rising by the day and are currenty about one in four). There’s a very good chance, in fact, that at least for a year we will go past the 1.5 Celsius level that Paris set as the mark we should move heaven and earth to avoid. We haven’t moved heaven and earth—we budged Joe Manchin very slightly, though he’s now pushing back—and so we didn’t avoid it. Now what?
Now we have to organize as never before. This havoc, whatever form it takes, will produce pressure on our political and economic systems to do something. The oil industry will be trying to make sure that pressure is converted into yet more public dollars for carbon capture so they can go on burning coal and gas (check out this excellent summary of this particular scam from Food and Water Watch, and this NPR report on what happens when carbon pipelines rupture and suck out all the air).
So how do we handle the terror of global warming? In a recent World Economic Forum article Struggling with climate anxiety? they outline ten things you can do to cope with fear in the global climate emergency.
First and foremost, they suggest, taking action and talking about it.
“The best cure … for climate anxiety is action, because as soon as you start to act, bit by bit, the crisis starts to feel less like an apocalypse and more like something we can still solve.
“I’m still scared every day, but every day I choose to act – and that is the only thing I’ve found that helps.”
Phoebe L. Hanson, British climate activist
“Talk about it. The #1 emotional experience I have had reported through my years of climate work is alienation. The feeling that ‘no one understands’ how bad it is. [emphasis mine]
“Talking to friends and family, talking to climate activists, talking to a therapist … it’s all good. You might be surprised how receptive people are, and that they have been struggling with similar things.”
Margaret Klein Salamon, psychologist and founder of Climate Awakening
I really resonated with Salamon’s statement “The feeling that no one understands how bad it is.” In discussions about the state of the world with friends and family, I only mention climate change as an aside. I didn’t, for example, share my horror over McKibben’s article because where do you go then? How do you discuss how fucked we really are with your daughter, who still has plans of buying a small place in Mexico even when I tell her it will be too hot to live there in a few years? That’s about as far as I can go with her. How do I tell a friend who is thinking of moving to Portugal because of the political situation here in America that Portugal is one of the last places one would want to move? Again, because of the heat?
In a 2019 article Facing the Climate Emergency: Grieving The Future You Thought You Had, Salamon writes about how people are continuing to plan for a future that is not threatened by climate change, even though they are aware of the gravity of the times. Upon finally accepting the truth about the future, Salamon says we need to allow ourselves time to grieve the loss of our future while we also grieve that which has already been lost — people, species, a sense of normalcy, and safety.
When I forced myself to learn about the climate crisis, when I fully grasped its reality, and when I started the process of grieving what was already lost, I also realized that my lovely life was… not going to really work. Maybe I could still pull off living my perfect life — at least for a decade or so — but it would happen while tens of millions of refugees streamed out of regions made unlivable by heat, drought, or flood, and while state after state failed and threatened the collapse of humanity and the natural world.
Ultimately, I had to acknowledge that the future I was planning on was ruined. I was never going to lead a happy and satisfying life while watching the world burn, no matter how much self-care I practiced. I already felt that I was simply too interconnected with the planet for that. I had to say goodbye to the future I had planned on, and, in many ways, I had to say goodbye to the person who had made those plans, and so I had to grieve those losses, too.
My grief enabled me to remember my connection to all life, and helped me let go of the illusion of my separate self. If the forests die, I die. If the oceans die, I die. I am entirely dependent on the natural world for my life and safety. The natural world will only survive if humanity has a collective awakening and commences emergency mobilization. I realized, as Dr. King Jr. wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”I realized that I was only truly going to be able to thrive on a healthy planet where humanity realizes that we must take seriously our responsibility to protect and nurture the natural world and each other. Understanding this meant I had to shed my former self and go far beyond my goals for personal happiness and success, and reorient them around helping to create the collective awakening that we need.
It is only by accepting the reality of where we are and going through the grieving process that we are able to emerge as a different self, as a person equipped to step up and take on the challenges required individually and collectively to try to create a future, which though drastically altered, is improved through our efforts. That gives us a fighting chance.