Reflections on climate pessimism

24th November 2022

Web p8 Tom Pashby CREDIT Paddy Mills

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Tom Pashby

Tom Pashby reflects on the feelings of pessimism experienced by many within the climate movement

COP27 shouldn’t have existed. Climate scientists were raising the alarm on the climate emergency, then called global warming or climate change, back in the 1970s and 1980s. The climate and wider environmental summits of the 1990s and 2000s should have been enough to put the world on track to sustainability.

Humanity is way off course from a sustainable future. The reactions to this lie along a scale from optimism to pessimism. That tension between hope and doom is present in the overarching narrative of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations, which are underway in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt as I write this column.

UNFCCC talks are incremental by design, built on fundamental principles of co-operation and consensus building. If there is not overall global consensus, progress is difficult or impossible. That incrementalism stands in contrast to the urgency of action on the climate emergency, which UN secretary general António Guterres regularly highlights, calling it a “code red” for humanity.

This urgency has been obvious within the climate movement for decades, and it is a normal human response to treat iy with optimism or pessimism. Many I speak to in the climate movement are publicly neutral or optimistic, but privately devastated. That personal devastation is sometimes made public in the form of direct action such as the protests we have seen recently from groups such as Just Stop Oil, Green New Deal Rising and Greenpeace.

Some people are so upset by the situation that, despite being activists or otherwise involved in the climate movement, they disengage from the news. The saying “no news is good news” rings true for many.

Greta Thunberg, the now 19-year-old climate activist who started the Fridays for Future and school strikes movement, recently spoke in London at a literary event. When asked about hope and gloom, she said “despair is a privilege”. She was referring to the fact that many environmentalists, despite feeling the distress associated with awareness of the climate emergency, aren’t themselves experiencing the physical impact of the climate emergency, such as floods, drought and other forms of extreme weather that can destroy people’s homes and livelihoods. The people experiencing the impacts of the climate emergency, mainly in the Global South and living in absolute poverty, have to stay engaged with it because it’s their reality and a matter of survival.

However, while what Thunberg said about despair and privilege is true, this doesn’t make despair, eco-anxiety or eco-grief any less legitimate or valid. I live with depression and anxiety, and the climate and ecological crises definitely makes my mental health worse. When I read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on 1.5°C of global warming in 2018, I felt massive anxiety and grief – grief at a lost future for all of us.

I would guess that anyone reading this who has been involved with the climate movement for more than a few months feels similarly, or at least recognises a lot of these feelings, either in themselves or among friends or colleagues. I have a permanent case of pessimism, but that doesn’t mean I think we should give up.

“I think people who are pessimistic are worried about being honest about it, in case it turns potential converts away”

I think people who are pessimistic are worried about being honest about it, in case it turns potential climate movement converts away. That is a risk, but I think it’s worth us having this conversation with ourselves – especially so we can all come to terms with the impact that this work has on our mental health.

COP27 plays a critical role in focusing media and political attention on the climate emergency. COPs are not a suitable arena for action on an emergency, which is what the climate crisis is, but I believe it is better that they take place than not at all, given that they can act as springboards for action outside of the negotiations – from the grassroots, through the corporations, and to unilateral and multilateral government actions.

Tom Pashby: IEMA digital journalist

Image credit | Paddy-Mills | Getty

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