"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

Henry D. Thoreau



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How I’m Dealing with My Fear

by Wade Wiebe

Mr. Hoesung Lee, Chairman of the IPCC (cropped)I’ve been having a difficult time coping with the information in the latest IPCC report released two weeks ago. In it, we learn that we must reduce our emissions by 50% within 12 years to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 1.5C. If we achieve that reduction, we’ll get a chance at the next deadline in 2050, when it must be brought to zero. If we fail, we won’t be able to stop the catastrophe at all. At 2.0C, 25% of all species will be extinct. At 3.0C, New York City will be submerged. It gets worse after that.

While the facts are difficult to process, most of my frustration comes from my perception that few people seem to be aware of the scope of the problem. The scale and certainty of this threat are greater than all of humanity’s fears combined. How is it possible not to talk about it?

Dr. Emily Green was probably experiencing something similar when she wrote “The Existential Dread of Climate Change” for Psychology Today in October 2017. After slowly learning more about the reality of climate change, she found herself in a state of despair and heightened anxiety. Looking closely at her own reaction, she probed further. She writes that thinking and learning about these harsh realities activates what’s called our “ultimate concerns”, including finitude, responsibility, suffering, meaninglessness and death. And while her intense emotional reaction is reasonable given the circumstances, Dr. Green asked herself this question: “What happened after the podcast, or radio, or television was turned off? Did the information push her towards something useful or productive?” “Unfortunately” she says, “as I reflected I realized that my horror at the state of things, rather than spur in myself action towards helping the cause, had bred minimal lifestyle changes…” Why was that? Green writes that several common reasons for inaction in response to awareness may be at play in all of us. Denial and repression, numbness and apathy, perceived risk of change and perceived ineffectiveness of change were known to be common reactions to knowledge about climate change. But the literature on the subject also provided some good news. While inaction was a common response, other individuals respond positively through collective engagement, activism, a sense of empowerment and personal responsibility, and a desire to influence others to act similarly. According to Green, there is evidence that being an active participant increases a sense of self-efficacy, social competence and a range of other positive emotions. She points out that “…while the existential dread of the potential destruction of our planet and species may seem like a burden too great to bear; like any other anxiety, it is one best approached rather than avoided.”

As we begin to appreciate seriousness of our situation, fear and despair will undoubtedly become more commonplace. The role for those of us who have begun to process the facts in earnest will be as a source of rationality and direction for others. And the only way we can offer that strength is to face up to it and find it ourselves.

Dr. Green’s article closes with a tip sheet from the Australian Psychological Society. “Although environmental threats are real and can be frightening, remaining in a state of heightened distress is not helpful for ourselves nor for others. We generally cope better, and are more effective at making changes, when we are calm and rational.”

Here are their tips on making changes in the face of climate-change distress:

  • Be optimistic about the future

  • Remind yourself that there is a lot you can personally do

  • Change your own behaviour

  • Become informed about problems and solutions

  • Do things in easy stages

  • Identify things that might get in the way of doing things differently

  • Look after yourself!

  • Invite others to change

  • Talk with others about environmental problems

  • Present clear but not overwhelming information, and offer solutions

  • Talk about changes that you are making in your own life

  • Share your difficulties and rewards

  • Be assertive, not aggressive

  • Congratulate people for being environmentally concerned

  • Model the behaviour that you want others to do

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