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23 October 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:19pm

Climate of despair: How the state of our environment is affecting my mental health

I cover climate change. It’s basically my job. And lately  I’ve had trouble sleeping.

By Joe Sandler Clarke

It’s bad, isn’t it? That’s a good place to start. Acceptance. We’ve skipped right to the fifth stage of grief with that, so we’re doing well. It’s still bad though, all the same.

Just a few days ago, the IPCC report on climate change dropped into our lives like a frozen poo bomb flushed from a passing passenger jet. It was a clear guide to what we need to do to keep global warming to within safe levels and a clear statement of what will happen if we don’t. 

It explains that a rise of 2 degrees of global temperatures above pre-industrial levels would leave more than 400 million exposed to extreme heatwaves. It would destroy nearly all of the world’s coral reefs and lead to around 8 per cent of the world’s population facing water shortages.

If we manage to keep global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, those numbers become less dramatic, but we’re likely to pass that threshold really soon anyway. At some point between 2030 and 2052, in fact. Meanwhile, according to the International Energy Agency, global carbon emissions rose to record levels in 2018, after a period when emissions seemed to be plateauing.

In the short term, the IPCC report was a firm assertion that everything that seems to be going wrong, is going wrong.

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Global temperatures are currently 1 degree above the time we started pumping huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere nearly 200 hundred years ago and all those emissions are having a noticeable impact.

As I write this, it’s 26 degrees in Paris. It’s October.

There were fires in the Arctic circle, this summer. As well as in California and across southern Europe. There were even fires Saddleworth. Where Brassed Off was filmed.

The climate scientist Michael Mann told me a few months ago: “I think people are now getting this at a gut level, as the tragedy of extreme weather events play out in real time on their television screens.”

We could solve all this, if we took urgent action. But the public seem intent on electing people who absolutely will not do that.

Take Jair Bolsonaro, the likely next president of Brazil, who has campaigned for the job by loudly and proudly declaring, at every opportunity: “I am an arsehole”

In doing so he’s following the path to victory set out by Donald Trump. Maybe that’s what Steve Bannon has been telling Bolsonaro’s children. “Just act like a twat,” he whispers, svengali-like, to the poundshop-Nazis he spends so much time meeting. That’s the Bannon magic.

At home in the UK, any political energy to address the impending climate chaos has been drained by Brexit.

Are we drunk? Is that it? Is all of humanity drunk?

We seem to be. We’re acting like we’ve just been dumped by our long-term partner, swaying in a bar we wouldn’t normally go to, encouraging colleagues we don’t like to have one more flaming sambuca shot.

“Oh, it’s not that late,” we all splutter, our drinks held aloft, before slipping on a bit of sick and setting our shirts on fire.

That’s where we are. Covered in sick. Too drunk to address the fact that we’re on fire. Where do we go from here?

I cover climate change. It’s basically my job. And lately I’ve had trouble sleeping.

From Twitter, it seems that I’m not alone. The rather brilliant activist Leo Murray responded to the IPCC report by tweeting: “As someone who has been a climate change activist, campaigner and sometime social entrepreneur for nearly 15 years now, at times like this I feel a crushing weight of personal failure at how little I have achieved, and dread at the horrors ahead. I’m sorry. I’m trying.”

It’s hard when current events match the turmoil in our internal worlds.

Everyday we’re wading through our own anxieties. Our work, our friends, our families, our relationships. On bad days these worries can overwhelm. The feeling that all the things we care about might spectacularly blow apart and leave us scrambling through the wreckage can be too much to bear. That’s pretty much adulthood.

It’s relatively easy, most of the time, to get out of this mindset. You can exercise, see a friend, go for a walk, get lost in some task. But how do you ease the worry that comes with impending ecological catastrophe?

Well there are reasons to be optimistic.

From rejecting jobs in the fossil fuels sector, to winning legal cases calling for companies and states to be held to account for failing to address global warming; the next generation seems imbued with a desire to do something to address the climate crisis.

There’s also the very real chance that the current political malaise won’t last forever. That the rise of autocratic and climate-denying regimes will be prevented and something different and progressive will come in their place.

The challenge of our changing climate can be met by a new politics that can greatly improve people’s lives.

Just as the challenge of fascism was met in the United States by the formation of the welfare state and the transformation of the role of government in the economy and in furthering justice and civil rights.

It’s not too late. We have a small window of opportunity. That’s something to focus on when we feel hopeless.

Out there in the world, there are millions of people who think like you. Millions who are angry about the state of the world and hungry for something new. Something that goes far beyond what is offered by the likes of Trump and Bolsonaro.

In the meantime, do what you would do when you feel worried about anything else. See a friend, hang out with the people you love. See something beautiful in the natural world. It will make you all the more determined to protect it.

It’s incumbent on all of us to sober up, put our shirt out, wipe the sick off our trousers and leave the bar. There’s work to do.  

Joe Sandler Clarke is a journalist at Unearthed.

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