There’s a distinct nausea which is becoming a more frequent occurrence when I see a headline on climate change. I now actively decline reading anything overly familiar to avoid how numb it will make me feel.
This didn’t use to happen. I enjoyed the tussle of reckoning with a new facet of climate change. Climate change is so pervasive, all-encompassing, complex and abstract, that I was endlessly fascinated with navigating the emergent landscape it was unfolding in real-time.
But now I have climate vertigo. The endless gymnastics, negotiation and re-orientation of attempting to stand still has chewed me up and spat me out. I’m tired and exhausted; in love with this world while mourning it.
Upon chants of ‘Keep 1.5 alive’ I silently scream – Do you have any idea what that involves? We need to halve global emissions in 9 years, reliably decrease emissions in the range of 7-15% year-on-year, get every country in the world to increase the ambition of their climate commitments by FIVE and we are nowhere near on track- only I’m not brave enough to articulate the scream because I know it will make people flinch.
Of course – it’s not really about 1.5 degrees or any one identifiable threshold. There’s no binary of too late (even though sometimes a non-negotiable deadline feels like it might be preferable versus the gradual foreclosing of alternatives). It’s just I wish I wasn’t a living witness to death unfolding at planetary scale, of loss which is not only continuing, but accelerating. It makes me feel like a living embodiment of the starfish parable, only, unlike the boy in the parable, I don’t know if I have done anything to save even a single starfish, I’m a lot less gracious, my arm aches, and the sheer senselessness of the situation is driving me insane.
In Aeschylus’s tragedy Agamemnon, Cassandra, the princess of Troy, is blessed with seeing the future, but her gift is accompanied by a counterbalancing curse: no one believes her prophecies. The environmentalist Alan AtKisson connects the myth to climate action: the more a person knows about environmental destruction, the more they will try to warn others, and the more others will, in fear and defensiveness, resist them. AtKisson calls the predicament Cassandra’s Dilemma.
I have found my climate grief to be like Cassandra’s prophecies: othering. My strength of feeling exists outside of our tacit premise of safety. It makes me a harbinger of death. Honesty about climate grief incites either admiration or condemnation, and both feel alienating.
And so it is that I find myself bargaining with climate grief. Some days I disbelieve my climate grief, dismiss it as self-indulgent and overdramatic, or choose a willed-unknowing in an attempt at respite. I am aided by the fact that I can’t sustain an intensity of anger or grief for long: the object of my anger is too disperse; the subject of my grief too large.
Other days, or the very same, there is no escapism available. I am acutely aware that the very fabric of life is being thinned to breaking point while I busy myself accruing the necessary number of National Insurance contributions. We are in the midst of a slow catastrophe and our response is catastrophically slow, my own included.
This would be a farce if it wasn’t so tragic.
All this is to say, that despite being upsettingly conscientious, of a largely sunny disposition and steady on my feet (and therefore all too ready to compromise and moderate anything too offensive and unpalatable away), I am in fact grieving.
I guess I just need you to know that there was a time when the campaigning was to limit the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to 350ppm and we are now at 419ppm, and it makes campaigning for a limit of 1.5 degrees feel like a charade. I guess I just need you to know that integrating our collective hemorrhaging of the future into normal daily existence is a difficult circle to square. I guess I just need you to know that becoming a purist or a martyr, taking on as much sorrow and suffering as you can, feels cogent when attempting to reconcile your starfish-throwing with a seashore of dying starfish.
Finally, I want to respond to any Christians tempted to talk about ‘prophetic young people taking climate action’. Make no mistake. I’m not young and prophetic. I’m 24 and heartbroken.