As climate change becomes more real, we must find ways to live with the fear it brings.
A few weeks ago I was speaking at a high level event in Brussels on climate change. The room was full of representatives from the EU, finance, civil society and church representatives. I had been asked by the organisers to explain how faith organisations can take the lead tackling climate change. I gave my talk as I always do: I try to stick to the facts, basing them on the latest scientific predictions and on financial analysis from leading thinkers. I also try to bring in some personal stories – testimonies from people in different countries directly affected by changing weather patterns and other current impacts of a changing climate. I try to connect with the audience and engage them as much as possible.
As I spoke that day, I could sense the discomfort in the room. It felt almost like a physical push back. I speak quite directly – I don’t mince my words. I don’t think there is any need now to beat about the bush when it comes to climate change. The predictions are pretty dire, the current impacts, such as those in Antarctica, are self-evident. The lack of connection with our current policies, politics and individual behaviours speaks for itself. I realised, however, that perhaps the audience in front of me was a bit unaccustomed to such straight talking. It seemed to come as quite a shock. When I finished speaking there was time for questions and answers. The questions quickly moved, as is predictable in such meetings, into the fine details of targets, policies – technical details which matter little in the absence of a bigger discussion.
At one point an older gentleman spoke up: “Dr Gold, I just wanted to give you some advice. It might be better if you keep emotion out of it and don’t use the fear factor in your presentation. It is quite a turn off.” (not his exact words, but that was the sense of it). I had been very publicly and quite unashamedly mansplained. I thanked him for his advice and said I’d bear that in mind. As a woman, it seemed I was getting all emotional about it – and this emotion wasn’t helpful to him or probably many other men in the audience. It left me feeling a little perplexed. Later I asked some colleagues about this over a beer. Had I been too emotional? Had I struck the wrong tone? ‘Absolutely not’, they assured me. I had spoken the plain truth, and that unfortunately can provoke fear.
Then I thought about it. How we deal with the reality of the fear of climate change really matters. As someone who has worked on this for many years, I am scared. I fear the melting ice, rising seas, more hurricanes, droughts, diseases. As a mother of two young boys who will live through the dire predictions – unless nothing short of a miracle happens – I have a right to be scared. In the face of climate change, fear seems like the most natural reaction. If my tone in speaking that day somehow betrayed a glimpse of that deep fear, then so be it. Moreover, that fear, unfortunately is not something the peoples already living out their climate nightmares in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean paradises can ignore. It is a fear that comes from being completely out of control. Could it be that our reluctance to face our fear over climate change is holding us back from taking the steps we need? We seem to go to great lengths to avoid facing our fear. We seem to believe that if we (meaning those of us who understand a little of what is happening) spread fear we will ‘turn people off’. Fear, we are told, is demotivating. Yet the result is that we live in a lie. We perpetuate a lie. A lie that what is now unequivocal is not actually happening, that we can ignore it.
Fear is a double edged sword. Manufactured fear can drive propaganda, mis-information and manipulation of the masses. It can lead to diminished freedoms and ‘emergency measures’. Dialling up the fear is currently drives many political regimes, leading to what Naomi Klein has called the ‘shock doctrine’ politics. Disaster capitalism thrives on fear. Collective fear can spill over readily to mass panic. Fear very often spills over into blame, anger and even conflict. It is the most potent of human emotions, being a powerful flip side of love. For deep fear is intimately connected to losing what we cherish most.
Yet pretending there is no fear and denying it the space it needs, burying it deep down, is the worst of all possible worlds. As Franklin D Roosevelt said at his inauguration in 1932, in the bleak days of the Great Depression, observing the complete lack of vision and hope- “the only thing to fear is fear itself.” As the awakening to climate change takes hold in earnest, we are going to be coming face to face with so much potential loss. In tackling climate change we have no choice but to name the fear. Those who talk about climate change don’t create it – it arises from simply understanding the facts. So don’t shoot the messenger. Connecting heads and hearts, reason and emotion is essential if the kind of urgent response we now need – the miracle – is to happen. There is a creativity that emerges from the darkness of fear, if met with love.
We urgently need to find spaces where people can come to that place of understanding and acknowledge their fear together. These need to be places of healing, compassion and sharing. They are places where we can start the long and painful journey of re-imagining what it means to be human today, in the humble recognition that we need healing. They are places where we can embrace and cry if needed, but leave with a burning mission to live lightly and to protect our planet for the sake of all. Many such places are emerging around the world. Some are in churches and other places of worship. Many are emerging in homes, farms, forests and cafes. They offer creative spaces to move from fear into hope, and start the journey of coming to terms with what is happening to our world and to our children.