I remember reading that climate journalists, having spent so much time reporting on the dire state of our environment and the lack of action to reduce our emissions, often have to seek counseling to deal with the despair they feel given how knowledgeable they are about the consequences.
At the time, I thought it made sense for them to be so deeply affected by their work, but I didn’t think it would be a phenomenon that would affect many beyond the most informed — climate change was undoubtedly concerning, but the idea of being so psychologically impacted that you had to seek counseling seemed… extreme.
Until I started to experience climate despair myself.
I am well-informed about climate change. I’ve read books about different aspects of the issue, consulted scientific reports and academic papers, and took university courses. I was even a member of Canada’s Green Party for a time.
Concern about climate change isn’t something I’ve come to recently, but my feelings on the issue have certainly shifted — notably so in the past year. Whereas I used to be much more optimistic about our ability to change our ways — on both individual and systemic levels — I’m now far less convinced.
Even as there’s been a resurgence in the radical left politics which I believe to be essential to tackling the climate crisis, the stories of neoliberal leaders continuing to delay climate action and a renewed far-right that couldn’t even be bothered to pretend while extreme weather events multiply have led me down the path of despair. I’m less hopeful that we can dislodge powerful capitalist forces, intertwined as they are with the fossil-fuel economy, in order to shift to renewables and transform so many of the social, environmental, and economic systems we rely on in time to avoid catastrophic changes to our climate which won’t destroy the planet, but could make significant swathes of it uninhabitable for humans.
The consequences of inaction are increasingly visible
We’re currently experiencing a global heatwave. Record temperatures have been set across North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa; more than 50 people died in Quebec; California’s fighting massive wildfires; the Arctic Circle is on fire in the Nordic countries — I could go on, but I think you get the point.
And what are we doing, as a global community, to reduce emissions and make our societies more sustainable?
People celebrated in 2015 when governments from around the world signed up to the Paris Agreement and agreed to voluntary emissions-reduction targets, claiming they would limit warming to between 1.5 to 2°C. However, we’ve already warmed the planet by about 1°C and scientists say that even if every country hits their emissions-reduction targets, we’re still on track for at least 2.7°C of warming — and that’s before the United States withdrew and other Western countries with high per-capita emissions proved unlikely to meet their targets. Canada recently nationalized an oil pipeline and reduced the effectiveness of its forthcoming carbon tax, while Australia repealed its carbon tax a few years ago and refuses to challenge its coal barons.
Meanwhile, there seem to be more frequent scientific studies warning humanity about the consequences of inaction, yet they’re largely ignored as the capitalist economy chugs along, making the rich richer while most people are barely getting by as decades of price increases have not been matched by rising wages.
The study that really caught my attention recently was more of a reminder that we can’t simply hold the planet’s temperature at a specific degree of warming. The climate is a complex system — warming will be more extreme in some areas, such as the Arctic, than others — and there are many factors that could accelerate climate change that we don’t often consider which could be triggered at certain warming thresholds. And if one is activated, others could follow, causing rapid temperature increases.
What this means is that when politicians say they’re committed to staying below 2°C of warming, they’re usually full of shit. Not only are failing to take the necessary action to reduce emissions as rapidly as needed, but they also aren’t accounting for factors beyond human control. The more warming we have, the higher the risk we could trigger a domino effect and find ourselves with planet on average 4 to 5°C above pre-industrial averages.
That brings us to my main source of despair over the past few weeks.
A 4°C-warmer world is a scary thought
I came across this map of what our world might look like if we warm the planet by 4°C — a scenario which looks increasingly plausible in the next century or so unless we radically change our ways. It’s possible I’ve seen the map before, but it really struck me this time because of the hopelessness I’d already begun to feel.
Take a look at the map for yourself. Read the descriptions. Consider how many people live in the areas in yellow, but particularly those in brown — the uninhabitable regions. By my estimation, such climatic changes could displace billions of people — an unprecendented human migration which I fear the areas in green wouldn’t react to with open arms.
Why? Just look at the Western reaction to the “crisis” of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa over the past few years, and the rise of xenophobia and far-right politics that’s accompanied it. And that was in response to about 5 to 6 million refugees making their way to Europe, and a global displaced population of around 65 million people. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a lot of people — but it’s far from the hundreds of millions or billions that could be forced from their homes in the decades to come.
What’s particularly surprising about the map is that some of the developed countries that are standing in the way of climate action — the United States, Australia, and Japan, to name a few — are due to be severely affected by changes to the climate, but this is not universal. Even though China now has the highest emissions of any country (but is still far from leading on a per-capita ranking), it continues to make significant investments in renewables and other technologies to reduce its climate footprint, in turn cutting the cost of those technologies for other countries.
However, it also shows how some developed countries — Canada and Russia, but also the Nordics — have a weaker incentive to act when looking at the climatic changes due to occur within their borders. Could the lack of action by a prime minister who promised to be a climate leader have anything to do with the benefits Canada could reap from a warmer world?
Countries don’t seem to be acting based on how climate change may affect their respective jurisdictions. Rather, the decision to act appears to be driven by far more short-term concerns, ideological positions, and which people or groups hold power — which is where my despair comes from.
True climate action requires people power
It’s become increasingly difficult for anyone to realistically argue that capitalism isn’t an impediment to climate action. Sure, in some countries action is happening where the capitalist system remains in place, but in those juridictions its worst tendencies have been reined in — as in the Nordic countries — and capitalists have compromised on some measures to ensure the pace of change remains slow so as not to endanger their profits.
However, in far more countries, particularly those where there’s a significant fossil-fuel economy, capitalism — or, more specifically, the rich people who benefit from the industries that are destroying the planet — use all their power to stand in the way of any effective shift away from fossil fuels.
Russia and the United States are clear examples of this phenomenon, but it’s also a significant factor in the lack of action being taken by seemingly more progressive countries like Canada and Australia, where carbon taxes struggle in political systems over which resource companies have enormous power.
There has undoubtedly been progress in opposing the dominant power of capitalism with the rise of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and other left-wing leaders who have helped build and been supported by popular movements which have gone on to empower socialist candidates and causes in their respective countries.
But with the increasing tide of stories about extreme weather events, it’s sometimes hard to remain hopeful that powerful capitalist interests will be dislodged in time to take the necessary action to rapidly reduce emissions and build the infrastructure to prepare for the warming we’ve already locked in. Even worse, sometimes it can seem that things might get so bad so quickly that people will run into the arms of far-right tyrants who stoke the fears of the powerless in service of the agenda of the powerful.
Does that mean I’ve given up? Of course not. It just means that some days it’s more difficult than others to believe we’re going to make it. That may sound extreme, but it’s also not an excuse to abandon the fight for a fairer, more equal, and sustainable future.
Climate despair is more widespread than people admit. It may soon require strategies to help people cope to ensure a widespread hopelessness doesn’t set in, causing people to give up and fend for themselves when climate change requires collective action on an unprecedented global scale.
All hope is not lost, though it can be tough to stay vigilant when wildfires as far north as the Arctic Circle are plastered across the news media. However, when socialists of various stripes celebrate political victories, like the recent primary wins of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other democratic socialists, the flame of hope is rekindled, even just a little.
And when it comes to an issue like climate change, every bit of hope counts.