Published 12 August 2021
A challenge in acquiring weekly knowledge of climate change has been to keep walking the scary line of learning. Week to week there is always a moment where I am filled with sadness at how I, who am so young, can feel so passionate about a situation seemingly moving backwards. What gets me the most is that the societies and the people that contribute most to climate change are the ones that will be least affected. What happened to karma? That just makes me so angry. In fact we are the ones who cause most of these issues and for them to be faced with the consequences?
I’ve been crying myself to sleep a lot lately. And crying at random times too. It’s not as though I watch a video about climate change, and I cry during it. I mean sometimes that happens. It’s more like, something little happens, like my toast burns, and I have an existential breakdown because I think it’s a metaphor for how the world is burning because we aren’t paying attention.
I found myself dry retching in the shower for over an hour one evening. The contractions of my stomach muscles, sense of my throat exploding, and my whole body convulsing, felt like I was trying to spew up some kind of demon, a wretchedness, a loneliness and desperation, a sense of loss for all that could have been but probably won’t, for that which is but will no longer be.
It is such an emotional challenge to deal with, especially when you accept the fact that you and the society we live in today are to blame.
As these quotations demonstrate, my undergraduate students – and I – are deeply distressed about climate change, as are many people around the world, young people especially.
Yet our capacity to feel is rarely acknowledged as a legitimate way of knowing climate change. Public and academic approaches to human-climate relations still tend to normalise and advocate scientific modes of climate knowledge, which promote mental comprehension of statistics and graphs through disembodied abstraction. In Australia and other places where climate action has been stymied by systemic and institutionalised denial, activists (of all sorts) have worked to firm up the borders and reputation of science, and distinguish it from ideological, irrational, and emotional ‘post-truth’ regimes. However, positioning climate change as a phenomenon to be known primarily through science has led to approaches to public engagement that are highly disengaging, as well as ignoring the emotional pain of those who are already concerned.
Research is increasingly finding that climate denial’s apparent opposite, climate anxiety, is one of the major barriers to climate action. Indeed, what appears to be apathy can actually be feelings of grief and disempowerment that are too difficult to engage with, leading to denial as a mechanism for short-term emotional coping. If there is a lack of care, it is not that most of us do not care, but that we do not know how to care. We do not have the inter/personal competencies necessary for engaging with the intense combination of guilt and fear induced by this existential crisis.
What if lived, embodied, emotional, interpersonal and relational experiences were considered constitutive of climate and as valuable ways to comprehend it?
I believe that if we are to adequately respond to climate change, we need to consider humans’ ability to feel climate as a serious and powerful mode of engagement.
This book argues that we need to learn to live with climate change. Learning to live with climate change begins from an understanding that climate is living-with. Climate as living-with attunes to how the planetary and epochal phenomenon of climate change is metabolically, emotionally and politically enmeshed within our everyday, mundane, inter/personal lives and compels respect, reciprocity and responsibility for this expansive relationality.
While this can sound like a romantic or rose-tinted approach, in an era of climate crisis and ecological collapse, being interconnected with nature is not a choice, nor is it inherently nice: it is our interrelatedness that makes our organs fail in extreme heat, leaves local economies reeling from cyclones, and leads to complex intergenerational grief when ancestral homelands are slowly eaten away by the rising tides. And it is through our interconnectedness with climate that we are making this happen.
Appreciating our intimate relationality with climate change is therefore deeply distressing. Understanding climate as living-with acknowledges we can and do feel violences inflicted on the atmosphere and broader planetary relations in our own bodies, as these violences are also inflicted, in some ways, on ourselves.
Thus, we need to be able to muster the courage to face up to our vulnerability and complicity in climate change, painful as it is, because it is only from there that we will be able to transform ourselves and our worlds. We must cultivate an ethos of living-with – respecting, being part of, enduring and responding to – climate change.
“Rather than cultivate tolerance of the unconscionable violences that are being wrought on species, ecosystems, human people and communities, we need to transform ourselves and our affective norms and repertoires.”
Rather than emotional resilience, learning to live with climate change aspires for affective transformation. The climate crisis is traumatic because it renders apparent the grotesque manifestations of our unchecked individualistic sense of self. Rather than cultivate tolerance of the unconscionable violences that are being wrought on species, ecosystems, human people and communities, we need to transform ourselves and our affective norms and repertoires.
Advocating for affective transformation as a response to complicit people’s ecological distress is an effort to cultivate emotional climate justice: to work with emotions for climate justice, and to work towards a more just distribution of the emotional impacts of climate change.
“Learning to live with climate change is therefore not about resignation or giving up. Rather, it is about engaging with and facing up to the horrific realities of climate change and striving to make things otherwise…”
Our responses to ecological distress need to ensure that we do not try to ‘bounce back’ to anthropocentric individualism. Rather, we need to change who we are through, and as a means of, responding to the affective pain of climate change. We need to bear worlds, where ‘worlds’ are understood as complex sets of more-than- human relations, dispositions, practices, structures, perceptions and identities. We need to be able to endure the pain that business-as-usual worlds are enacting, in order to generate more liveable worlds. Learning to live with climate change is therefore not about resignation or giving up. Rather, it is about engaging with and facing up to the horrific realities of climate change and striving to make things otherwise despite knowing that we may not be able to ‘save the world.’ Indeed, learning to live with climate change acknowledges that ‘the’ world is not ending, but ‘a’ world is, and that some worlds need to end in order to allow others room to breathe.
As a systemic issue that is progressively killing more and more people, species, ecosystems and livelihoods, if we face up to and engage with these issues, climate change could be the teacher we need to help us learn how to live.
This is an edited excerpt from Blanche’s new book, Learning to Live with Climate Change, published by Routledge, which is available as a free e-book. Blanche will launch the book at a panel event hosted by the Sydney Environment Institute on 26 August 2021.
Blanche Verlie is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney, an Australian climate change educator and researcher currently living on unceded Gadigal Country. Blanche has over 10 years’ experience teaching sustainability and climate change in universities, as well as experience in community-based climate change communication and activism. Blanche has a multidisciplinary background, brings an intersectional feminist approach to her work and is passionate about supporting people to engage with the emotional intensities of climate change.