Just last week I caught up with old friends at the pub and conversation turned to our planetary future. These friends have never been climate change deniers but the bushfires have driven home the clear and present danger. One of our group is buying land in Europe and she invited us to come and live there if we ever needed to evacuate Australia.
A week before that, I was having dinner at my friend’s house. My friend’s mother, an intelligent woman in her 60s, informed us all that she had joined Extinction Rebellion and was planning to participate in events. I am not surprised she accepts the scientific view on climate change but I have known her for decades and absolutely never imagined her as a protester. As far as I’m concerned she is the perfect barometer for the national mood.
Our political leaders and mining moguls might want to talk about hazard reduction burning – as if we don’t already do that – but mainstream Aussies are not fooled.
I have been deeply worried about climate change for a long time so none of this is new to me. Yet I have a career and a family and don’t seem to be falling apart, so my friends at the pub turned to me for advice. How can we function as human beings in the face of this existential threat?
Let’s back up for a moment. Can we start by banning terminology like “apocalypse” and “doomsday”? For a start, it’s loaded with religious connotations, particularly for those evangelical Christians who believe in the ‘Rapture’ when believers will be taken up into the clouds to meet their Maker.
For everyone else, it makes us seem helpless in the face of a crisis when we still have huge problem-solving capacity if we put our minds to it. We know we need to reduce emissions and sequester some of the carbon already in the atmosphere and we know how to do it.
The Doomsday Clock is a well-meaning attempt to draw attention to serious problems but it is a publicity stunt, not an actual scientific measurement. This plays into the hands of climate deniers who think that scientists are attention-seekers and call people like me, “climate alarmists”. Even some former keepers of the clock say it should be retired.
The actual facts are scary enough. We know the world is heating and we know humans are causing it. The scientific forecasts have been quite accurate until this point – I was penning news stories 15 years ago that warned of horror bushfire seasons by 2020.
Andrew Glikson, an earth and climate scientist at the Australian National University, says the world has already heated 1 degree since 1880 but this is an underestimate because it includes the transient cooling effects of aerosols.
Based on current trends, scientists warn 3 to 3.5 degrees of heating is in store by the end of the century – an outcome that would be disastrous. Even if we pull it back to 2 degrees, it won’t be pretty.
At 2 degrees of heating, Glikson says 37 per cent of Earth’s population will be exposed to severe heatwaves at least once every five years. Risks from forest fires, extreme weather events and invasive species will be higher.
While the Morrison government has flagged a stronger emphasis on adaptation and resilience, when disasters start to cluster, it will be impossible to keep up. Natural disasters, crop failures and societal upheaval are all quite plausible.
So what do you do with this knowledge?
As it happens, the Australian Psychological Society has a wealth of resources for this new wave of eco-anxiety – how to deal with climate change distress and burnout and how to talk about the environment with children. It also points out that “avoidance, denial, unrealistic optimism and wishful thinking” are all unhelpful psychological responses to the issue. So, if any climate deniers have read this far and are tempted to write in – you doth protest too much, methinks.
My simple answer to my friends was that you have to still live your life. No one knows exactly what the future will hold and how this will play out. We are not helpless in the face of this threat and despair is a luxury we can’t afford.
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer.
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer for The Sun-Herald, focusing on social affairs.