Managing climate panic after the IPCC Report

It’s even more definitive now, so the world has to pay attention.

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SOURCEYES! Magazine
Image Credit: Sarah Lazarovic/YES! Magazine

ast weekend I girded. I encircled myself with mental armor in preparation for the latest IPCC report, over which climate Twitter was already angsting. I told myself I would just read the top lines, and leave it to colleagues to go deep on the policy. I told myself I wouldn’t dwell. There was nothing new except further conclusivity and a tighter window. If the window was a finicky sliding glass door before, it’s more of a porthole now. But we knew we were portholing anyway. And as the glassishalffullers would say, it’s even more definitive now, so the world has to pay attention.

Maybe. 

Try as I might to get past the planet’s inability to wrap its energies around the mother of all collective action problems, I never can. I know, intellectually, why humanity is not acting (entrenched power, present bias, pluralistic ignorance), but I’m gobsmacked every time by the world’s ability to distract itself while the wax on our fate is sealed. Well-meaning, smart citizens still don’t understand the existential gravity of the problem, what we are careening towards. It’s why the IPCC report didn’t wash away all news of the dumb happenings of daily life. If a Code Red falls in the forest…

People say that climate is not a knowledge problem, but really, it is. Two recent moments come to mind: A friend who works at a hospital relayed that her colleagues had no knowledge of eco-anxiety. I was blindsided. Every time I crack open my climate bubble, I find there’s another one, like I’m in a matryoshka doll and not a delicate Christmas ornament. I thought, having seen numerous articles about the impending onslaught of eco-anxiety sufferers, people at the higher levels of hospital management would, at the very least, be aware of what is coming their way, thousands of broken minds feeling the grief that comes with climate awakening. Not so much.

Another moment occurred when I mentioned COP among some very smart friends and a very smart husband. Blank stares. (Gets out tiny chainsaw, breaks next layer of matryoshka). The COP, on which the world is pinning huge hopes for climate commitments, isn’t on most of humanity’s radar. (COP is the annual Conference of the Parties, where global leaders work to bring down emissions, and where the Kyoto protocol, and our current Paris agreement were birthed. We need to go significantly beyond our Paris commitments to have a meaningful shot at staving off the worst of climate catastrophe at COP 26 in Glasgow this fall). I called it the Olympics for saving the planet. Not sure that landed.

At the most foundational levels, people still just don’t know. I’d assumed climate education in Canadian schools was up to snuff these days, but the wonderful professors Kim Nicholas and Seth Wynes report that the really IMPORTANT STUFF IS STILL NOT BEING TAUGHT.  (aaaah. deep breath. aaaaahhhhh.)

Another example with Kim Nicholas again: We worked on a video together this week. In service of the Talk Climate to Me project I’m working on (join us!), the hilarious and insightful comedian Aliya Kanani posed questions to Kim. After Aliya mentioned forgetting her water bottle, Kim informed Aliya about the importance of focusing on high-carbon personal actions. “Did you know that one flight is the equivalent of drinking a plastic water bottle every day for 27 years, or about 10,000 bottles?” I could see the absolute shock wash over Aliya’s face (and if you take our course, you will too!). 

All of this is to say, while some people may have a sense of what’s coming down the pike, most don’t. Most people are busy working, taking care of their families, struggling, being willfully or accidentally underinformed by their leaders, and just trying to live, which is ENOUGH. So as I work to fight the fear and anxiety and stress of this snowballing fireball, I tell myself, THIS IS THE WORK. 

THE WORK is what keeps you from falling into despair, or turning into a mush of a person who stares numbly at TikTok dance videos all day. THE WORK is what keeps you from madness, gloom, apocalyptic thought grooves that play on repeat (mine: food security and climate migration, breathable air for my children. Why isn’t the media covering this? Why are people traveling unnecessarily? Whatever happened to Ed Begley Jr.?)

This is merely my spin on the ever-growing collective wisdom around climate anxiety: allow yourself to feel the feels, and then do the work. Action is the antidote to despair. You are alive at just the right moment to change everything. These are my (borrowed) mantras. I hope you find yours.

But how do I do the work?

The excellent Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson has a really helpful Venn that lets everyone figure out the answer for themselves. It’s a great place to start. This explainer explains it really well—go figure.

Sure, but this chart is just too much right now!

In that case, the doing is as simple as talking (which is sometimes not simple at all). Talking aloud or on social media does SO MANY THINGS: it upends pluralistic ignorance, shifts social norms, shares helpful and enlightening information, and leads people to actions of all kinds. So my answer, when confronted with the question of what to do is that simple four-letter word, TALK. Share things that aerate climate. This Death Metal Vegan Baron who rewilded his estate definitely got my friends talking on Facebook.

There have been so many great pieces this week on how to turn despair into action. I personally love this one (thanks Mio!) called “I Tackled My Climate Anxiety by Becoming a Parks Department Super Steward One weed at a time.” 

This week:

How are you doing? Let me know.

Last week:

Pep on the line. Thank you, Barbara, for this beautiful submission. I loved drawing it. Barbara writes: Here’s something that unfailingly brings me delight and reduces my energy consumption, too:

Other stuff:

A great thread on media coverage the day after the IPCC report. Putting a global existential crisis above the fold doesn’t mean you can’t also write about Messi. We’ll need Messi all the more. But first, climate!

Once you understand the terrible cost of doing nothing, climate action is a bargain. I say this every 12 minutes, but this article says it more smarterly.

Bringing down methane emissions could buy us time! Great news for people (OK, me) who wake up in the middle of the night thinking about methane leaks.

We’re not powerless, even if it feels that way. Such a good Vox piece on combating climate despair. Spot on in every way. This bit resonated: It’s also OK to feel the awfulness of the world. After all, climate change for many Americans today means risk to themselves or their loved ones, or destruction of their homes or places they’ve come to love. And part of acknowledging climate anxiety and grief, for people not yet personally affected by disasters, can be asking yourself, “If I am hurting so much, what is happening to people who are less privileged?”

Here are this piece’s perfect recommendations distilled to a quick graphic:

As always, thanks to wonderful YES! Magazine for supporting my work. So many brilliant stories are published there daily, but check out this overview of the upcoming issue on Enough! What is enough?

Thanks so much for reading. If you like this newsletter, please feel free to subscribe, and share it.

Hope you are save happy and healthy. Have a lovely weekend,
Sarah

P.S. This is my newsletter for the week of August 13, 2021, published in partnership with YES! Media. You can sign up to get Minimum Viable Planet newsletter emailed directly to you at https://mvp.substack.com/.

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