Addressing existential dread: How do we deal with the latest climate news?
OPINION: The breakfast TV host was almost speechless; a rare enough occurrence in itself.
He had met the scientist before, in an interview two years prior, but that encounter hadn’t prepared him for what was about to unfold.
“Last time I spoke to you, in 2014, you snatched any hope of a future from me and my family; it was doom and gloom,” the host began. “Has anything changed?”
“Oh yes, the situation is far worse than it was then,” the scientist said calmly. “My perspective is that there's nothing to be done in terms of preserving the human species more than a few more years. It's locked in; we're in the midst of the sixth mass extinction.”
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A wide shot of the studio showed the sports host checking his iPad (no judgement, it's what you do when you're prepping for an upcoming segment on live TV) but the newsreader gazed at the scientist with a look of polite horror.
The host pressed the scientist for a firm number. “How much time do we have?”
“I can't imagine there'll be a human on the planet within 10 years.”
“Sorry. Did you say 10 years?”
The sports host abandoned his reading and gazed at the scientist with keen interest. The newsreader's expression changed to astonishment.
Asked how he would prevent a global feeling of utter hopelessness, the scientist described hope as a “horrible” idea and quoted Nietzsche for garnish; suggesting we should all just take our best shot at love and endeavour and wait for the end.
This was 2016; the host was Paul Henry and the scientist, Guy McPherson (now-ex) emeritus professor of evolutionary biology at Arizona University. It was one of the most extraordinary pieces of television I've ever seen. But as I sat watching in my pyjamas at home, it also gave me a pervasive feeling of doom (and yes, hopelessness) that followed me for weeks afterwards.
Much like this week's report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Before we get into any detail of that, it's important to note that as a “climate extremist”, McPherson's estimates of climate doom have been thoroughly debunked. Close examinations of his theories have poked big holes in most of them; crucially, “McPherson is especially fast and loose with time frames” according to science journalist Scott Johnson.
I think we can safely say human habitation of Earth is unlikely to end half a decade from now. Whether we have enough time (and enough political will) to stave it off altogether is another matter.
Stuff Climate Change Editor Eloise Gibson says the latest IPCC report looks into those “tipping points” but put no time frames on them.
“They've said it may happen at some point. They can't rule out super-high emissions or some kind of runaway emissions – but it's unlikely.”
She's also not wild about extremist views like McPherson's.
“It's so unhelpful because it destroys people's trust in solid, peer-reviewed research. If you're looking to discredit climate science, that gives you a hook.”
When the IPCC report dropped this week after an eight-year wait, it showed incontrovertible evidence that some effects of warming are now baked in and can't be stopped. There was a lot more in there of course, and I went straight to Gibson and Olivia Wannan's terrific reporting (helpful for climate dummies like me) to get my head around it.
It did help. But it didn't completely tamp down my pit-of-stomach sensation of dread.
I work hard to make a difference in the lives of people who have experienced trauma. Many, many other New Zealanders bust a gut daily to make a difference for their fellow Kiwis. But what use is any of this, if we are moving quickly towards an uninhabitable earth?
The mental health effects of climate change, including existential climate dread, have been around for a while. Most reports focus on those directly affected by natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Others have studied the likely consequences of the compartmental effects of climate change, like more drought (stress for farmers) and increasing average temperatures (higher rates of aggression and violence).
Still, there's increasing awareness that rates of anxiety connected with the more generalised effects of climate change are rising.
It's even felt by the experts. One Kiwi researcher, who has young children, reacted to the IPCC report by admitting he was fascinated as a scientist and “terrified” as a father.
I asked Gibson, whose working life is spent analysing and reporting this stuff, how she coped. Turns out she was also rather rocked by Monday's report.
“I had become accustomed to that low-level feeling of anxiety, but when I saw that report I thought, [mild expletive].”
“The nerdy part of my brain can forget about the emotional side of it most of the time. I'm hopeful about humanity and our capacity to change – and there is more political consensus [for change] by the year.”
Obviously you can't examine these feelings without also examining your own contribution.
I've driven a hybrid for the past 10 years, I've cut back on meat, I've just moved to a rural area and therefore will no longer be using Auckland's precious town water or contributing to its wastewater. I'll be composting and growing fruit and vegetables.
I'm not perfect – I forget my keep cup often, and I'm going to need a more powerful car to tow a horse float shortly. That's a choice I'll have to weigh; is it acceptable to increase my own emissions slightly, to pursue the things that make me the happiest?
My efforts are also pretty poor when you set them against my children’s generation. My daughter is much, much better at it. Have you tried buying all your clothing second-hand (including shoes but excluding socks and underwear) for a season? My daughter has done this for the past four years. She also buys only what she needs, and operates a very strict “one in one out” policy which feeds her well-cared-for, pre-loved clothing back into the recycle-chain.
She is a vegetarian, and will not buy anything with wasteful packaging. (She and her friends are also far less sexist, racist, classist, and more accepting of differences in others than previous generations. Young people really are the future.)
This makes it very difficult to talk to her about climate change, although we do regularly. These conversations are marked by a feeling of loss of hope on her side, and increasing guilt on my side. Her grandparents' generation and the one before that began the rot, but it is her parents' generation that has largely ignored the impending peril.
We chatted about all this on FaceTime this week, and eventually the conversation segued to the horror show that was Hurricanes shareholder Troy Bowker's race-based dig at Sir Ian Taylor.
As you may already know, Bowker doubled down, telling one critic on social media: “I'm rich as f…. and I don't care what the left-wing losers think.”
My daughter has long been of the opinion that “rich as f…” people like Bowker, and the economic systems that put them there, are the real problem.
In her words: “Every time I hear the word ‘capitalism’, I want to cry."