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How to cope with climate change grief


'Climate change grief' by Chris Johnson shows a small boy pointing in wonder at a smiling planet Earth, not seeing that the far side looks monstrous and decayed.At first I was afraid, I was petrified. Then I became determined to put up a fight to survive.

The truth can be terrifying, so terrifying that often we prefer avoidance or lies.

So it is with the reality of climate change. Like a diagnosis of terminal cancer, how I wish it wasn't so. If only we could go on and on, with the dream of endless abundance and growing prosperity. The problems of disease, poverty, and even war, seem dwarfed and solvable, compared to global warming.

The psyche has many defence mechanisms, to protect itself from unbearable truths. These can help us to go on against the odds. We step out the door each day, presuming we will survive to return home. We make simple plans assuming we will be around to carry them through. Every time we hit the road, we deny the dangers. We subdue our incipient fears, by telling ourselves 'It won't happen to me and mine.'

This is an effective emotional survival tactic, provided we take reasonable care, and remain vigilant. But it becomes total folly when a life-threatening danger is clearly demonstrated to follow from our actions — or failure to act — and we ignore this reality.

I am a psychologist, trained to help others with anxiety, depression, and despair, but I too wrestle with these demons. I have worried about the past and the ills that may befall my loved ones. Worries and doubts have kept me awake at night, and reduced my enjoyment of life.

I used to worry about financial ruin, an ageing body, my weight and insomnia. Yet paradoxically as I age, with little super, no retirement plan, fatter, and with still less youth and beauty, I find reality more bearable, even tranquil. I feel freer to experience a less encumbered joy.

But confronting the doom of the planet is quite another proposition.

Our relationship with fear is complex. Fear is a necessary instinct. It sets in train a reaction to imminent danger. We share our fight, flight, and freeze response with many species. It is a fantastic mind-and-body mechanism that can turn us into a champion sprinter or give us the strength to drag others to safety. In other situations we may lay low, in an induced stillness, to hide from a predator, or shelter from the terror of a fire or storm.

These mechanisms can save our lives when faced with immediate, obvious danger. We perceive a threat, our brain sends signals and the body instantly gears up.

More and more evidence emerges about the onslaught of human induced climate change. Yet like a person with emphysema, the world goes on smoking. Scientists measure the rising emissions, the melting polar ice, the rising temperatures and lost species and eco-systems. We experience droughts, floods, fires and heat waves, with increasing intensity and frequency.

I first realised how we were careening towards our doom nine years ago. I read The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery and viewed Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. I felt traumatised. Still more horrendous was the sea of denial surrounding these revelations. An academic friend from Canada laughingly declared, 'I'm not worried, we need the warmth in Canada.'

These days I feel less alienated. The sceptics are looking more and more absurd as they cling to their denial. Unfortunately, big coal remains powerful and intractable, clinging to its ill gotten fossil fuel gains.

We also have a government of climate deniers, who seem hell bent on speeding up our dying in the anthropocene. This is the period since the beginning of the industrial revolution, when our benighted species changed the world. Or rather ruined our own habitat through pitiful moral ignorance.

Doug Hendrie writes that only upon the recent birth of his son did the emotional reality sink in. He found himself seeing the future as an oncoming war and hoping, in that self-focused way that we all share, that his son won't be doing the dying. My own deep awakening coincided with the birth of my grandchildren.

I grew up in the shadow of the holocaust and have spent years in therapy coming to terms with the murder of my relatives and the destruction my parents' world. I now find myself confronting a future potential holocaust of gigantic proportions. Gore has warned us of the danger of moving from denial to despair, while omitting hopeful or determined action. Our only hope is to face the reality.

This may unleash sadness and precipitate a grieving process. Having traversed this, I have come as one does to a new place of hope, and a desire to fight for life.

Lyn Bender headshotLyn Bender is a Melbourne psychologist. Follow her on Twitter @Lynestel

Topic tags: Lyn Bender, climate change, Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, Tim Flannery, The Weather Makers



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Existing comments

Find us one IPCC warning that "believes" beyond; "could be".

mememine69 | 28 February 2014  

Thanks Lyn - I agree with you that the psyche has many defence mechanisms. Fortunately. We can plan carefully, take few risks and still life throws a curve ball from left field (sorry about cliches!) and we are faced with our utter helplessness. I do worry about what kind of earth my grandchildren will inherit. But I also believe in human capacity to overcome -to find a way. And I believe in God's love, and zealous care, for creation.

Pam | 28 February 2014  

With apologies to Gandhi: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win, then they seek grief counseling." Honestly, Lyn! Tim "even the rain that falls isn't actually going to fill our dams..." Flannery, paleontologist and professional gadfly, and Al Gore, notorious graph-fudging ex-polly? Don't the antennae tweak just a tiny bit?

HH | 28 February 2014  

And they call believers in Bible prophecy prophets of gloom. Get a grip ... comparing the climate change issue with the near genocide of a people group, in pursuit of a master race, is not only intellectually lazy, but a tad hysterical.

Catherine | 01 March 2014  

Environmental vandalism perpetrated by governments, around the world, is a far greater danger than climate change, which is a load of piffle for which there is no absolute proof.

gary oraniuk | 02 March 2014  

Try to convince me there is no climate change, no warming, no onslaught of extreme weather. I won't believe you because I experience it. Last year there was little fruit set in our garden, not cold enough. In talking to others I have discovered gardeners all up and down the east coast of Australia had the same problem. This week 250mm of rain fell on our backyard. Patterns are reversed, things upside down. The native bees are visiting the exotics and the honey bees flock to the natives. I used to make my own bread, but I don't any longer. I can't buy good enough flour. The coal mines have taken over the land where the good wheat used to grow. So, you "climate change sceptics" can parade your arguments, your statistics, your rationales, but I struggle with my lived experience. I know what I know. There are big and bad changes happening all around.

Janet | 03 March 2014  

You're thinking of 'hope' and its sources. Always on my mind, for me it involves 3 dispositions. Like for you, hoping starts with a no-holds-barred understanding, no avoidance of the plight we're in. Then there's some sense or vision of what a different future might look like - in our particular case, a just and environmentally enriched world, a sense of what deep-seated care for creation entails and without the failed morality of the 'market/economic growth forever' mantra that runs the globe. And then, the personal effort of working with others; practical down to earth action where we can sense the change we want to achieve. Thanks Lyn for asking the question, 'How to cope...' It's the discourse that has to be front and centre of our lives - just as no doubt it was for parents and g'parents in 1930's Europe. Our 'thinking' outlets have to take this task seriously, and ask themselves what does it mean for a public agenda?

Len Puglisi | 03 March 2014  

Dear Lyn, As a fellow inheritor of consequences of both the Nazi and Soviet holocausts - my family were murdered and torn apart in both - I reach out my hands in fellowship and friendly greetings. I know what it is like to live with these memories and I was touched by your account. I just wanted to say though that I see it somewhat differently - having iistened to accounts of the facts from Professor Ian Plimer and Professor Bob Carter, I have come to the conclusion that - yes, there is climate change - it has always been with us if you look at the longer sweep of the geological ages. But it is clear as daylight to me that the medieval warming period was not due to human reasons - there being no cars,factories or mining. I am all for limits to polluting activities, lives simply, leave a small carbon footprint - don't have a dishwasher or air conditioning - but I cannot agree with Al Gore's claims which lost all credibility for me when he admitted to the numerous factual errors in his much touted movie. i see the climate change hype as a new form of quasi totalitarian propaganda. Vaclav Klaus as a survivor of the Communist years said himself that the new environmental movement was a resurgence of a new form of totalitarianism in wanting centralised control of people's lives to a much greater extent than now exists. H said 'It is not about scientific ecology; it is about environmentalism, which is a new anti-individualistic, pseudo-collectivistic ideology based on putting nature and environment and their supposed protection and preservation before and above freedom.' [http://www.klaus.cz/clanky/266] Like you Lyn, I am ever alert to the new manifestations of fascism and totalitarianism around us and it causes me immense grief to see people fall for the false claims of political environmentalists who will not listen to 'the other side'. I don't write this in heat rather in sadness. I wish you very well and can empathise with much you say.

Skye | 03 March 2014  

Thank-you Lyn for your heartfelt lament informed by both modern psychology and the history of your people. Jeremiah and Isaiah spoke in God's name to people in denial in face of existential threat. Today, too, we have prophets and false prophets. It would be great if the massive problem of global warming could go away with a few dismissive words, as some respondents seem to think. However, the weight of evidence of possibly the best resourced, most detail scientific endeavour in human history says otherwise. I've been a physicist for 50 years, watching it unfold. In recent decades I have been critically following the relatively simply physics of mechanism and measurement of global warming. It is as solidly factual as any science I have seen, and our use of fossil carbon is at its core. The extra energy greenhouse gases trap is relentlessly building up, particularly in the oceans. The complexity of local climate change provides lots of ground-cover to hide in for those who can't or won't see the danger. Isaiah and Jeremiah did speak words of hope, but it was hope after a dreadful time of pending destruction and exile.

George Emeleus | 03 March 2014  

Dear Lyn Bender, If you seek credibility please do not mention Al gore in relation to climate change. An Inconvenient Truth contains much that is untrue. That you mention it in the same article as your own valid observations and evidence puts an ex politician in a category to which he has no right.

grebo | 03 March 2014  

I would have thought environmental vandalism and climate change are part of the same portfolio and mindset: issues of concern, providing salutary warnings about failure to respect creation. One hears the term 'holocaust' bandied around in many exaggerated contexts, but from one personally affected by the Holocaust, I respect its use to describe a response to an event seen as capable of changing life irreparably. (Check its literal meaning!) Eureka Street readers will be familiar with Lyn Bender's work in detention centres and with her preparedness generally to engage actively with painful and challenging issues. Whatever our considered view, we need prophets like this author - who as a psychologist would know that 'get a grip' is not constructive advice...

Julia Nutting | 03 March 2014  

Thank you Lyn for explaining to me my own feelings about why I have felt weighed down by my less and less ability to do the one exercise and leisure related activity that I have traditionally enjoyed. As a person with a disability which disallows weight bearing exercise, swimming outdoors is the one thing I have depended on to commune with nature and stay fit. For the last ten years the thought of slathering myself withself white goo to avoid being burnt to a crisp is so daunting it has prevented me from participating in this activity outdoors. The surf beckons and I waver. The waves call and I waver. Why? I have felt sad yes, angry yes, frustrated yes. I love the ocean and find myself unable to enjoy it without being baked getting to it, coated in white goo whilst in it, and baked getting back from it. I have felt mounting frustration at this fact. I have found myself glad I am not being born today. I find myself saying "well, at least I was able to enjoy the surf in the past". Now I understand. I am grieving the reality of climate waming. And that is why I am so frustrated at the leaders in this country who themsleves, safe in their air conditioned comfort in parliament house, are able to deny and not fight. Even the one leader who loves the ocean himself! Strange that.

Jennifer Herrick | 03 March 2014  

Thank you for your excellent article which reminds me to stay positive. I see, sadly, the same round of denialists writing in with comments to downplay the seriousness of the matter. I suggest they educate themselves properly and not fall into the trap of the easy and comforting lies trotted out by closed-minded individuals, greedy corporations and the politically driven.We have a moral obligation to work for a better world- reducing our consumption and our carbon footprint is a great start.

rose | 03 March 2014  

Lyn, thank you for restricting yourself to the potential and/or real psychological impacts of climate change. In this whole area of discussion and debate, it is a matter of the overwhelming evidence of science that the 'trend' is towards climate change with dramatic temperature shifts. The science is on this side. Ideology is on the other side of the discussion. I notice that almost always in discussions such as this one, Hugh Henry and his colleagues come out instantly as the denialists. And this fits a pattern, HH and the cohort follow a predictable, dictated script put out by ideologues. It is intriguing from a Catholic point of view that this script includes the standard policy of the John Birch society (that taxation by any government is theft), the denial of the inconvenient criticism of free market capitalism as enshrined in the Social Gospel as taught by the Catholic Church, an uninformed and dunderhead attitude towards Catholic education coupled with deep seated misogyny (homophobia). What this crowd are really exited about are: the DLP, AD 2000, the Latin Mass sub culture, moralising sermons from the elaborately lacy draped clergy persons and home schooling.

David Timbs | 03 March 2014  

Thanks, Skye, for your comments, which I know represent quite widely held views. Ian Plimer and Bob Carter are popular and widely read. However, there is a vast scientific and interpretive literature which it is not hard to access. The hard yards of reading widely puts their views in perspective. Like any scientific effort, they have put views out there, and they have been subject to detailed and critical analysis. Reading some of it will show why the mainstream of climate scientists do not accept the main thrust of their arguments. The history of past climate change is important, but it is what we can do to measure and interpret what is driving this present episode that matters now. It is different from past climate change episodes. The underlying cause is simple and quantifiable, and its effects are known from basic radiation physics that has been understood for over a century. Returning ancient carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in vast quantities is a new, and very human, phenomenon. We are living with the consequences, and it will be worse for our grandchildren. And don't take Al Gore as the last word on human induced climate change. He isn't.

George | 03 March 2014  

This wondrous created world we inhabit is governed by physics and chemistry. Physical mechanisms like the radiation of heat and chemical reactions like the control of life by DNA control everything. Our species has occupied this creation for a fraction of the duration of life forms and a miniscule moment in the physical journey of the planet. Yet we are blindly changing the very physics of the environment that spawned us and clalm that nothing is happening. The signs are all around us but because physical outcomes like cyclone Haiyan appear to be isolated and random we just wish that the overall trend of change is not actually happening. Ask the victims of events of unprecedented intensity (flood, drought, heat wave, storm) if change is going on!

Mike Foale | 03 March 2014  

Hi Skye, Perhaps you should also read the story and watch the interview of Ian Plimer here and then judge for yourself whether he can be believed: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2009/dec/16/ian-plimer-versus-george-monbiot or if you can’t accept that, then read the review of Plimer’s book by the professor of astrophysics at the University of NSW Prof. Michael Ashley, here: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/books/ian-plimer-heaven-and-earth/story-e6frg8nf-1225710387147 Also have a look at the following rebuttal of Bob Carter: http://www.skepticalscience.com/Bob_Carter_arg.htm Then you need to ask yourself: What if global warming really is a problem and we do nothing? The planet fries and we are all dead? But what if we take the prudent step to address it, assuming it is a real problem, and it turns out to be a false assumption? We improve the environment, and related industries grow to replace the high CO2 emitting industries? I know which path I want to choose.

Frank S | 03 March 2014  

The sun warms earth with energy, primarily between wavelengths of 0.1 and 4 microns. Earth dissipates energy to space, primarily between wavelengths of 4 and 40 microns. Greenhouse gases disrupt transmission of the latter, not the former. If earth dissipates more energy to space than it receives from the sun, it cools down; if earth dissipates less energy to space than it receives from the sun, it warms up. Humans have increased and are continuing to increase the atmosphere's greenhouse gas content, which is unavoidably increasingly disruptive of transmission of energy from earth to space. In other words, it is not even possible that global warming isn't occurring.

David Arthur | 04 March 2014  

Thanks Lyn. John Seed does some interesting work around despair and empowerment. He, and you, and many others who are interested in what people do and why they do it, understands the importance of people having support to face the things they don't want to face. Those who deny the evidence of climate change need more support than most. It's a tough journey to face up to it and then think about how we can take responsibility, within our means, to act in a way that prospers our deep human capacity to remain connected and concerned. Good luck all you climate change denialists!!

Jacinta Foale | 05 March 2014  

David Arthur, true, but with respect, so what? My understanding is that the warming effect of the greenhouse gas CO2 is in proportion to the logarithm of its concentration, so that increased additions of a set amount of CO2 to the atmosphere will have a progressively diminishing effect on the temperature. For instance, the first 20 ppm of CO@ causes 1.7 degrees C of warming. The next 20 ppm causes about 0.39, the next 20 about 0.2 and so on. Where we're at, around 400 ppm, it's down to a very small increase, less than about .05 degree C of warming per additional 20 ppm (and diminishing). Is that correct? If so then when you say "It's not even possible that global warming isn't occurring" if atmospheric CO2 is increasing (ie bracketing any theorised positive feedback mechanisms) it's a true statement, but given the current level of atmospheric CO2 (400 ppm), there is little cause now for alarmist cries re. CO2 emissions alone, and even less so as atm CO2 increases in future.

HH | 05 March 2014  

Facts from Plimer and Carter? really? They are mining spoke people. None of their 'views' are scientifically peer reviewed research. They are entitled to views, but their views should be seen along with Andrew Bolt and Cardinal Pell. Views, not scientific observations. Al Gore's movie and subsequent books are based on scientific research from NASA, the IPCC, UK Met Office and the Royal Academy of Science. Research which is always being improved and tightened. As real scientific research from people such as James Hansen (NASA) show, we have passed a tipping point that will lead us to 2C warming globally, and if we don't reduce emissions this decade we can expect a 3C-5C warming later this century. Every worry Lyn has here is justified. Science though can provide hope, if we are open to listening.

Damo | 07 March 2014  

When I read HH's patronising response to Lyn's words I see the problem close up. When our politics do not coincide with the vast scientific reality of climate change, we can choose to stay with our politics just because it makes us feel that we are right. Lyn, on the other hand, wants to know how to stay calm about a reality that should fill us with terror.

CLOSE READING | 08 March 2014  

Lighten up doll. It's anther statist-inspired hoax. In the 70s it was the new ice age, then we were all going to starve, then world was going to end in 2000 Y2K. Life's a giggle. Power seekers always need a crisis to justify a power grab. That's who you should be keeping an eye on.

Jack | 23 March 2014  

You know the planet hasn't warmed for 17 years, don't you? You can stop worrying now and enjoy your life. :)

nilk | 20 July 2014