Friday essay: 'I feel my heart breaking today' – a climate scientist's path through grief towards hope

·14-min read
Joelle Gergis pictured in 2020 following the Black Summer bushfires. Photo: ANU Media
Joelle Gergis pictured in 2020 following the Black Summer bushfires. Photo: ANU Media

I have spent hundreds of hours trawling through countless UN reports and scientific papers until my eyes sting and I can no longer absorb any more information. I feel overwhelmed and saturated with sorrow. As a sensitive person with a difficult background, sometimes I find the reality of the world we live in unbearable. I just can’t understand why we inflict so much pain on each other and our planet.

There are days when it’s hard to take in all of the senseless destruction and somehow try and accept so much avoidable suffering. Increasingly I fantasise about quitting my job; I dream of living a simple, escapist life by the sea. I want to learn how to be delusional, to be somehow blind to the reality of the world shifting before my eyes.

While I struggle to not give in to my own despair, I know it’s wrong to expect young people and the unborn to clean up the world’s mess. They have inherited a problem not of their own making. My privilege, education and conscience deny me the luxury of looking away. Although sometimes it takes a heavy toll, I want to share everything I can as quickly as possible while I still can because I know that time is running out. I’ve come to realise that the only way forward is not a detour through denial, but straight through the heartland of grief.

When you realise that all that sustains us is at stake, it’s almost too much to process. The reptilian brain wants to take flight and avoid confronting the unthinkable danger bearing down upon us. The poet T.S. Eliot was onto something when he wrote “humankind cannot bear very much reality”.

To shy away from difficult emotions is a very natural part of the human condition. But just because we can’t face something, doesn’t mean it disappears. Blocking feelings of empathy and concern to avoid psychological pain is a common defence mechanism designed to protect us from becoming too emotionally overwhelmed.

Endlessly distracting ourselves with mundane matters is a way of distancing ourselves from feeling conflicted and distressed by the realisation that we, individually and collectively, have an ethical dilemma to face around caring about each other, and the future of all life on Earth.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture where we actively avoid talking about hard realities; darker parts of our psyche are considered dysfunctional or socially unacceptable to share. Especially in public. But trying to be relentlessly cheerful, stoic or avoidant in the face of serious loss simply buries more authentic emotions that will eventually come up for air. Denial only ever rests in a shallow grave.

Read more: 'Laid awake and wept': destruction of nature takes a toll on the human psyche. Here's one way to cope

Accepting feelings of loss

When we talk about climate change, people are often nervous to acknowledge the painful feelings that accompany a serious loss. We quickly skirt around complex emotions, landing on the safer ground of practical solutions like signing up for renewable electricity to feel a sense of control in the face of far bleaker realities. We are afraid to have the tough conversations that connect us with the darker shades of human emotion and shameful collective histories.

But grief is not something to be pushed away: it is a sign of the depth of the attachment we feel for something, be it a loved one or the planet. If we don’t allow ourselves to grieve, we stop ourselves from emotionally processing the reality of our loss. It prevents us facing the need to change the way we live and respond to our new reality with an open heart.

As more psychologists begin engaging with this topic, they are telling us that being willing to acknowledge our personal and collective grief might be our only way out of the planetary mess we are in. When we are finally willing to accept feelings of intense loss – for ourselves, the planet, and every child’s future – we can use the intensity of our emotional response to finally propel us into action. We must have the heart and the courage to be moved by what we see.

Because the truth is that life as we know it hangs in the balance; every fraction of a degree of warming matters. Every year of further delay matters. It’s the difference between how much we destabilise the ice sheets, the amount of dangerous heat we are exposed to each summer, and whether or not millions of people lose their homes to rising seas.

The longer we delay, the more irreversible climate change we will lock in. Any young person can tell you that stabilising the Earth’s climate is literally a matter of life or death. It will impact the stability of their daily lives, their decision to start families, and their chance to witness the natural wonders of the world as their parents did. The ability of current and future generations to live on a stable planet rests on the decisions the world collectively makes right now.

Read more: IPCC report: this decade is critical for adapting to inevitable climate change impacts and rising costs

We know exactly what we need to do

We know exactly what we need to do, but we still aren’t prepared to do it. Instead, we watch extreme weather increasingly ravage every corner of the world with every passing season. Right now, even following the United Nations’ 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, emission pledges are still not on track to achieve the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Considered by many as humanity’s “last chance” to stabilise the climate, instead current net-zero emissions pledges have us hurtling towards global warming of 1.4–2.8°C. And that’s a best-case scenario, only if all commitments – which are not legally binding, or in the case of developing nations, not yet adequately financed – are honoured completely. Currently implemented policies have us tracking 1.9–3.7°C of warming by the end of the century, with a best estimate of 2.6°C. This level of global warming will reconfigure life as we know it.

While I desperately hoped that COP26 would be the political tipping point that changed everything, my rational mind knew that some governments – like my own here in Australia – are still in the strangle-hold of the fossil fuel industry. There are corporate interests that are willing to sacrifice our planetary life-support system to keep the fossil fuel industry alive for as long as humanly possible, using unproven technology.

Carbon capture and storage, known as CCS, is based on the idea that you can extract carbon dioxide from the smokestacks of coal plants or steel factories, compress it, transport it and then inject it back underground, where, in theory, it will remain forever. And that’s assuming you can find the right geologic conditions that are stable enough over millennia so that carbon doesn’t leak out and back into the atmosphere.

The problem is not only that the technology is enormously expensive, but that despite over 20 years of research, it is still unproven to work at the scale required to substantially reduce emissions. According to the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, there are 27 operational CCS facilities globally, predominantly in the United States, jointly able to capture 36.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

Read more: Biden signs Inflation Reduction Act: Its climate promise relies heavily on carbon capture, meaning thousands of miles of pipeline

For context, the world emitted 39.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2021 – that’s roughly 1000 times greater than what’s possible to capture with current CCS technology. Put another way, CCS plants can only offset around 0.1% of global carbon emissions each year. To reach net-zero emissions by 2050, scientists calculate that carbon dioxide needs to decline by approximately 1.4 billion tonnes each year.

The industry group estimates that between US$655 billion and US$1280 billion is required to make this a reality. Aside from the trillion-dollar price tag, it’s critical to realise that CCS projects take around ten years to progress through concept, feasibility, design and construction phases before becoming operational – time we simply don’t have.

Relying on technology that is not ready to be deployed on the scale needed to immediately and drastically address the emergency we face is at best reckless, and at worst an inter-generational crime. It also delays facing the reality that we must stop burning fossil fuels – we need to take serious action and not rely on unproven technology to save the day. As people in climate justice circles like to say, “delay is the new denial”. We need to turn the tap off new carbon emissions and start mopping up the damage.

An emergency unfolding in real time

While addressing climate change is highly complicated, the truth is simply this: we must leave fossil fuels in the ground to stabilise the Earth’s climate. A 2021 study led by Dan Welsby from the University College London calculated that around 90% of coal and nearly 60% of oil and natural gas reserves need to remain unextracted to give the world a 50% chance of stabilising global warming at 1.5°C.

The authors conclude:

This implies that most regions must reach peak production now or during the next decade, rendering many operational and planned fossil fuel projects unviable.

Despite the IPCC also clearly demonstrating that virtually all of the observed warming to date has been driven by greenhouse gas emissions (namely carbon dioxide), even nations such as the US, Germany and the United Kingdom, who claim to be leading the transition to clean energy, are still planning to develop new coalmines, oil fields and gas reserves.

While more than 40 countries committed to phasing out coal-fired power before the middle of the century at the COP26 summit in 2021, some of the world’s biggest coal-dependent nations, like Australia, China, India and the US, did not sign up. As long as the protection of the fossil fuel industry continues, real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will not be possible in time to avert disaster.

It is clear that many of our political leaders still don’t have the heart or the courage to be moved by the tragedies we see unfolding all around us. Despite the overwhelming evidence of an escalating crisis, they are choosing to continue to put profits over people and the planet. These are the people we have voted for, the people we have put in charge of our future.

As a climate scientist, I find myself in the extraordinary position of trying to write about an emergency that is unfolding in real time; I don’t know how this story will end. So in solidarity with young people all over the world – the millions of School Strike for Climate protesters and countless other climate action groups fighting for your future right across the planet – I want you to know that we are listening; we will not leave you to clean up this mess alone.

Many scientists also feel angry, scared and sad. We don’t often talk about it openly, but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel really upset about what’s going on. So just for the record, here’s how I felt watching the Northern Hemisphere’s brutal summer of 2021 play out in the final weeks leading up to the release of our IPCC report:

Sometimes it’s so overwhelming to realise how fast the world is changing. I was writing about the recent [June 2021] Canadian heatwave and realised that there are now so many places that are being fundamentally transformed. In all likelihood I won’t ever get to experience those places as they once were. So many places have become so disturbed and degraded. It feels like things are starting not only to crumble, but come away in huge chunks, disintegrating before our eyes. These days I’m finding it hard to bear witness to the increasing instability.

Even the most conservative scientists I know of are starting to share their own sense of panic on Twitter. It’s a recent shift that confirms my suspicion that something really terrible is unfolding, something that creates a sickening sense of dread in the pit of my stomach. It makes me want to recoil to protect myself from the horror of it all. It breaks my heart that we can sit back and allow the abuse of our planet to continue so unashamedly. If our planet were a child, there would be a moral outcry of disgust and rage – how can we bear to stand back and watch the life be beaten out of the very thing that sustains us? It’s brutal, horrific, to think about how badly we have abused our Earth. I feel my heart breaking today.

We all have our dark moments; it’s a rational response to a really distressing situation. Sometimes the best thing to do is just let the sadness flow through you; it’s okay to feel the way that you do. As a wise person once told me: it’s okay to cry. The thing to know is that eventually these feelings will pass, like storm clouds passing through the sky.

Everyone has good and bad days; when you feel overwhelmed, it’s important to take a break to regain your perspective and remember the bigger picture. It’s easy to focus on the people making things worse, overlooking all of the incredible people doing everything they can to make the world a better place.

In all darkness, there is light

You don’t have to look far to see there is still so much goodness in humanity. Think of our healthcare workers on the front-line of the COVID-19 crisis, volunteer firefighters protecting our precious places, protesters from all walks of life taking to the streets to give future generations and nature a fighting chance. IPCC scientists from all over the world who worked thousands of unpaid hours through a deadly pandemic to produce the most comprehensive climate report humanity has ever compiled.

We all do these things because we care about each other and our planet. I have a quote by Indian lawyer and social activist Mahatma Gandhi right here on my desk that says:

In the midst of death, life persists; in the midst of untruth, truth persists; in the midst of darkness, light persists.

It’s a vital reminder that, no matter how bad things get, in all darkness, there is light.

While the scale of the problem is overwhelming, don’t let the fact that you can’t do everything stop you from doing something. What you choose to do, no matter how small, makes a difference, even if you can’t see how right now. You can be part of the generation that chooses a better future for everyone. In her book Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World, American poet Lisa Wells writes:

If our descendants are alive and well in a hundred years, it will not be because we exported our unexamined lives to another planet; it will be because we were, in this era, able to articulate visions of life on Earth that did not result in their destruction … Formerly my idea of sustainability had been vague and of the ‘leave no trace’ variety… ways of life are possible in which human beings not only thrive but also repair damage and even increase biodiversity and beauty of the planet. It is a story predicated on leaving a trace, a legacy.

I hope that enough people like you are waking up right across the planet and saying: enough is enough – we demand a better world. The science is telling us that this is our last chance to avert planetary disaster. Let’s choose to leave a legacy of care and repair, one that sees humanity not only survive but thrive.

The good news is that the revolution we have all been waiting for is already happening. We just don’t hear much about it, as the fossil fuel industry has run a relentless fear campaign to protect their corporate interests. The truth is that change is already sweeping the world, from boardrooms to homes right across the planet.

This is humanity’s moment to right the wrongs of the past, to heal our relationship with each other and all life on Earth. It’s now time to meet the visionaries who are already showing us that another world is not only possible, but inevitable. And unstoppable.

A new day is dawning.

This is an edited extract from Humanity’s Moment: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope, by Joelle Gergis (Black Inc)

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Joelle Gergis, Australian National University.

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Dr Joelle Gergis has received funding from the Australian Research Council and the Australian Government's Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources in the past. She currently receives funding from the Australian National University.