How to deal with despair over climate change

Ice in west Antarctica meets the ocean. The continent’s ice is melting at an accelerating rate.

Feeling helpless over climate change? Here’s how advocates like me deal with it every day.

This week, the revered Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a damning report   — more like a prognosis  —  on our impending climate crisis.

It’s bleak, y’all. The planet has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius. We’d actually passed that threshold right around the time of the Paris climate agreement in 2015. The Paris agreement was meant to keep us from surpassing 2 degrees, and to make best efforts to keep it below 1.5 degrees. Between every single fraction of a degree lies untold levels of death and disease and generalized destruction.

Things are already bad. They are already getting worse. This report reveals  —  and, for many of us, confirms  —  that we’re not doing nearly enough to stop things from getting damn apocalyptic.

Many people who don’t think about climate change on a daily basis, or who thought it lived on some distant horizon they would never have to face, are now coming to terms with its terrifying reality. I get it. I’ve worked in the environmental field as a policy editor for nearly five years now.

People like me, and others in “the climate-verse” —  activists on the ground, experts in the field, professionals at big greens —  have all had that moment when we had to face the reality of climate change. For most of us, that moment hurt. I know it did for me.

I started working in the climate change advocacy world somewhat by accident when I got a job editing a policy for an environmental advocacy organization. I cared about the earth, of course, but I wasn’t a hardcore environmentalist.

I spent my first year deeply immersed in detailed reports on climate policy. No detail was spared. Day in and day out, I read about the reckless course we were on and all the foolish ways we were digging our hole even deeper. It was terrifying.

I had known climate change was real. I had an inkling that it was not far away. But I didn’t know just how bad it was. I didn’t know how many innocent  people were already suffering hideously. Pick a natural disaster — wildfire, hurricane, mudslide, or heat wave, many of which research shows have already been exacerbated by climate change — it’s always the people with the least to lose who get hurt the most. I didn’t know how many people had been marked as allowable casualties because they were born in the wrong places under the wrong circumstances. Right at that very moment.

I knew I would see bad things accelerate in my lifetime, but I didn’t know it was going to happen before I turned 50. Nor did I realize how many of them I’d actually already seen. After all, I was with my mother in Mississippi during Hurricane Katrina and here in New York during Sandy. And if you’re thinking that climate change and hurricanes aren’t related, they’re not exactly divorced either.

My stages of grief

I didn’t know it then, but that first year I spent reading policy papers, I went into mourning. I skipped denial and went right to shock. I floated around on a dark, dark cloud. I frequently and randomly burst into tears, and I’d refuse to admit to myself that I knew exactly why I was crying.

When I was around bustling crowds of people, I saw death and destruction. When I walked on dry land, I saw floods. I imagined wild animals, especially snakes, getting out of the zoos in the aftermath of natural disasters. I worried about how we would treat each other in the face of such calamity. I doubted it would be kind. (I still doubt that, actually.)

I kept editing, but I tried to dissociate, pretending that none of it was real, as ridiculous as it sounds. That didn’t work either. The craft of editing demands empathy. You have to be present.

Then I went into depression. My social life turned into fits and spurts of intense engagement followed by equally intense withdrawal. I was deeply afraid of telling even the people closest to me what I knew and why I was so scared. I couldn’t sleep. The crying fits continued. They didn’t become more predictable.

I’d silently been asking myself: What am I fighting for? What am I trying for? Why am I paying my student loans? Hell, why am I saving for retirement? I was heading into a desperate space.

What are we fighting for?

One day at work, I came across the book that saved me: What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other, a book by environmental journalist Wen Stephenson that chronicles his transformation from reporter to climate activist. The prose was beautiful, and each page oozed with compassion without layering the issue with coats of sugar. It looked climate change squarely in the face.

One of the many, many things that book taught me was that I was not crazy. That my broken heart was normal. I was not the only one feeling it, and the best thing I could do was get out and talk to people who had already stood in front of this same emotional abyss and found the nerve to carry forward.

Then I moved from depression to anger. And I’m still in anger because, in this context, acceptance is bullshit.

We’re all in mourning

Whether we admit it or not, we’re all in the middle of one big, giant mourning process. We’re mourning our futures. We’re mourning the children we’re afraid to have. Our bucket lists. Our travel plans. Some of us are mourning homes already lost to fires or flood, or savings accounts wiped out helping relatives recover from hurricanes. Some of us are mourning our todays, even our yesterdays.

Denial is part of the traditional mourning process, but we have collectively spent way too long there. It’s time to snap out of it.

Given the sheer enormity of climate change, it’s okay to be depressed, to grieve. But please, don’t stay there too long. Join me in pure, unadulterated, righteous anger.

The dominant narrative around climate change tells us that it’s our fault. We left the lights on too long, didn’t close the refrigerator door, and didn’t recycle our paper. I’m here to tell you that is bullshit. If the light switch was connected to clean energy, who the hell cares if you left it on? The problem is not consumption — it’s the supply. And your scrap paper did not hasten the end of the world.

Don’t give in to that shame. It’s not yours. The oil and gas industry is gaslighting you.

That same IPCC report revealed that a mere 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global climate emissions. These people are locking you and everything you love into a tomb. You have every right to be pissed all the way off. And we have to make them hear about it.

It’s time to grow up

I grew a lot during that first year. And that’s why I say this with no intention of condescension: In order to face climate change, to truly look it in the eye, we have to grow up.

We can’t pretend this isn’t happening anymore. Especially for us Americans, our general privilege and relative comfort compared to so many in the world can make it easy to turn a blind eye. But we can’t pretend that some unnamed cavalry is coming to save us. We are the adults in this room. We have to save ourselves.

It’s not our fault, but it is very much our problem. It’s dire, but we have to dig in our heels and fight — for each other.

Mary Annaise Heglar is the senior policy publications editor at a prominent environmental advocacy organization. She is based in New York City. Find her on Twitter @MaryHeglar.

First Person is Vox’s home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

source: vox

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