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Climate Grief and Climate Optimism

“Progress is measured by the speed at which we destroy the conditions that sustain life.”
George Monbiot

“Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.”
Carl Sagan

I first learned about global warming in depth in the party room at the Round Table Pizza restaurant in the Sunset Shopping Center in May of 2004. There were about 30 of us that evening for our monthly Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG) meeting. While we munched on our hot slices of pizza, a tall, slender, dark-haired speaker, a good-looking guy in his late 30s with intense, blue eyes, kept us riveted as he unspooled reams of scientific facts that painted a particularly bleak picture for all of us, our children and future generations.

It wasn’t all new information. Most of us had been hearing about the issue since June of 1988 when Jim Hansen informed Congress “the greenhouse effect” had arrived and was here to stay. But thanks to a systematic and successful media campaign by the fossil fuel lobby to deny, distract and delay action, few of us were aware of the sobering and depressing details now flowing into our minds like a spring flood after a drenching downpour.

I was especially depressed for my daughters who were then 14 and 12 and are now 29 and 27. I felt like their future was dying before my eyes, melting like one of those Greenland glaciers, and there was nothing I could do.

The science was clear, our speaker said in a steady, serious tone. For the first time, I learned there was an organization called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), comprised of thousands of scientists who volunteer their time to study the peer-reviewed science related to what we now call the climate crisis. And once they all agree, they submit their reports to representatives from most of the nations on earth who then come to a consensus or agreement on every single paragraph, sentence and word.

The IPCC submitted reports in 1990, 1995 and 2001, and the information we received that evening was from that third report. The fourth and fifth reports would be published in 2007 and 2014, painting an ever darker picture of what is to come. The sixth report is expected in 2022.

That evening we learned that the previous decade was the warmest in the history of recorded temperature thanks to our emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. We also were informed that scientists expected the 21st century to rapidly heat up at a rate exceeding anything humans have experienced for thousands of years. Irreversible damage to ecosystems would occur, including, but not limited to, significant species extinctions. We learned that the world’s glaciers were rapidly melting, our seas were rising and that island and coastal communities would be swamped and lost in the decades to come.

And all of this was inevitable, we were told. There was still time to lessen the severity of these effects, but significant and devastating changes were already “baked in the cake.”

Like a lot of others that evening and since, I split apart. I became two people. The part I came in with remained and is with me now. That is the part that carries on as if none of this were true. We all have that part. If we are still working, we are looking forward to retirement and we imagine we know what that looks like. If we have children and grandchildren, we imagine them older, living their lives, having opportunities like we did to live their full, wonderful and amazing lives. We Americans drive our cars and fly in airplanes and ignore the fact our personal, heat-trapping carbon emissions will outlive us for centuries as each of us adds about 22 tons of CO2 emissions every year. We picture a stable planet, like a solid, permanent stage that will hold our kids and their kids and future kids forever in love, security and peace. We all pretend that is true and will be true. Many of us could not carry on without that fantasy. We need to pretend.

And then there is this other part, that some of us carry on our backs like a heavy weight, that nagging ghost or shadow that lurks in the background but is always near. The part that clears its throat and reminds us of what we try to push away. The part that wakes up from the sweet dream of delightful denial and knows the dark truth of what lies ahead for all of us. The part that understands what it means when we say, “Today is better than tomorrow.”

In her brilliant Facing Extinction essay, Catherine Ingram writes about numerous “feedback loops (that) are now on an exponential trajectory and becoming self-amplifying, potentially leading to a ‘hothouse earth’ independent of the carbon emissions that have triggered them.  Each day, the extra heat that is trapped near our planet is equivalent to four hundred thousand Hiroshima bombs. There are no known technologies that can be deployed at world scale to reverse the warming, and many climate scientists feel that the window for doing so is already closed, that we have passed the tipping point and the heat is on ‘runaway’ no matter what we do.”

Back in 2006, when I fully embraced my role as “Climate Cassandra,” as my friend Marc once called me, and I began giving PowerPoint presentations to the community, Mauro, another friend, introduced me to the idea of climate grief. He asked me if I had cried – grieved with real tears – about the future. I nodded slowly without words; acknowledging with him a shared sadness and regret for what we both knew humanity could stop but likely wouldn’t. There wasn’t much to say. We knew even then we would dedicate ourselves to this cause, possibly in vain. We didn’t have a choice. We still don’t. Love requires it, insists upon it. Denial and despair are simply not options. When the doctor tells us we or our loved one has cancer, do we give up? Don’t we want to do everything possible to beat it?

A year after my wife’s breast cancer diagnosis in August of 2007 and long after the surgeries, the chemo that almost killed her and the months of radiation, Nancy, indefatigable as ever, asked her oncologist if she could get her implantable port removed. This was a tube with a rubber disc at the end that was inserted into her vein to simplify the chemo administration process. Her doctor looked at her for a moment in silence before she admitted she had never thought about it because she assumed she would not survive and there would be no need to remove it. And we held the opposite view. In the midst of worry and grief, something rises up to refuse defeat. This is our best self.

Climate grief and climate optimism are not in opposition. When we grieve, we face the truth, however terrible. We look it in the eye and refuse to look away. The only way out of such pain is to move into it. And believe we will come out the other side, stronger and more resilient. We won’t solve the climate crisis by denying it or giving up in despair.

According to the Climate Reality Project, Climate Optimism starts where Climate Grief ends, with Acceptance. “There is great power in acknowledging and talking about the feelings we have about the climate crisis. And of course, accepting our own feelings is important if we’re to turn acceptance into powerful action.”

From a place of acceptance, we can move toward Community. We join together. “The best antidote to feelings of despair is community – the friends, family, coworkers, and more you can talk with, learn from, and work alongside to make a difference.”

Dr. Simon Donner

I met Dr. Simon Donner, an energetic, upbeat and optimistic climate scientist, at a five-day Chapman Conference sponsored by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in June of 2013 at Snow Mountain Ranch in Granby, Colorado. The title of the conference was Communicating Climate Science: A Historic Look to the Future.

The goal of the conference was “to bring together scholars, social scientists, and journalists to discuss both the history and recent advances in the understanding of climate science and how to communicate that science to policymakers, the media, and society.”

If you check out this YouTube summary of the event, you will see me, looking a little awestruck, sitting among my heroes. Dr. Donner was one of the conference speakers, along with other revered climate scientists like Michael Mann, Gavin Schmidt, Richard Alley, John Cook, Spencer Weart and Natalia Andronova.

Dr. Donner is an Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow, a Google Science Communication Fellow and a Professor of Climatology in the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia where he studies “why the climate matters to society as well as to ecosystems like coral reefs.”

His “group’s work provides insight into the causes and effects of climate change, public attitudes, policy options at home and abroad, and what can be done to adapt.” Dr. Donner is also an associate in UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues, The Biodiversity Research Centre, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES), the Atmospheric Sciences Program, and the Director of UBC’s Ocean Leaders program.

Before joining the faculty at UBC, Dr. Donner spent a few years in the Science, Technology and Environment Program in the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He obtained a master’s degree in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University and a PhD in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment.

Donner writes, “Climate change is about legacy. The decisions we make today will help determine the future for people and for the planet. My core objective, as a scientist and a citizen, is to translate scientific information and present different perspectives in order to help society make those decisions.

“I bridge the gap between academia and real-world by regularly participating in community events, popular writing and blogging, providing policy briefings, responding to media questions on air and in print, and providing behind-the-scenes support to reporters and documentary filmmakers. Often, I learn more from the experience than the journalist or the audience.”

Since 2005, Donner has been traveling to and studying a string of islands in the central Pacific Ocean called The Republic of Kiribati, (pronounced ‘Kiribas’) that is existentially threatened by climate change. Since 2005, he has been “working with Kiribati colleagues to understand the effects of climate change and to build local research and adaptive capacity.”

He writes, “In addition to assisting Kiribati in its own struggle against climate change, our interdisciplinary work aims to learn lessons from the experience of its people and its environment that can be applied in other developing nations. Due to Kiribati’s unique climate and history, the country is an ideal natural laboratory both for evaluating how coral reefs will respond to rising ocean temperatures and how developing nations will manage the difficult process of adapting to climate change.”

You can listen to my interview with Dr. Donner on Tuesday, August 20 at 4:00 pm on my Wake-Up Call show on KKRN, 88.5 FM. If you miss the radio broadcast, you can find the show in the archives at kkrn.org.