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Are Our Emotions Preventing Us From Taking Action on Climate Change?

Discussions about climate change can't all be about numbers -- we need to realize that our emotional reactions may dictate whether we make the massive political and cultural shifts necessary.

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Anger, if productively channeled, can motivate people to action—not the futile action of attempting to limit individual consumption—but political action.  Anger can motivate us to demand massive action from politicians. Our elected representatives need to be told that they are failing in their most fundamental duty— keeping their citizens safe. Politicians need to know that we will hold them accountable for their inaction. Corporations need to be told that they will be harshly punished if they stand in the way of a sustainable future for the planet. Anger can be extremely productive if it motivates us to harness our power as citizens to work for systemic change: to demonstrate, to demand, to vote and to take direct action.

Fear

Fear is the most rational emotional reaction to climate change, and also holds the potential to be harnessed productively. Hurricane Sandy is but a preview, a taste, of the devastation towards which we are careening. Scientific projections of the damage climate change will cause range from uncomfortable to the truly catastrophic. We humans live at the mercy of our climate. Without a stable climate, the most basic foundations of human life—food, water, and shelter—will be threatened. We should fear for ourselves, for our children, and for the future of our civilization. We should be animated by our fear; motivated towards entering the public square and demanding massive political action at National and International levels.

Grief

Feelings of sadness, devastation, and grief are also rational responses to climate change. People have already lost their lives due to climate change, through severe weather and food shortages linked to changing agricultural conditions. We are in the process of devastating many species and ecological systems, many of which will be extinguished forever. We have deprived our children of being able to appreciate the same natural beauty and diversity that we experienced. More importantly, we are losing our sense of safety and normalcy. New York is now vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding. Will Colorado continue to be vulnerable to severe wildfires? Will the Midwest suffer from chronic droughts? Will civilization withstand the changes?

We grieve the certainty and security that comes with a stable climate. We have built our society upon certain expectations of the climate. We have chosen where to build our cities, where to grow crops, and how to make our lives based on a set of assumptions about how the climate works, and about the cheapness and availability of resources. These assumptions are being disproved, and we grieve their loss. We grieve because we have suffered losses the safety, security, and abundance that we believed was our birthright. We grieve because we know that the problem will get worse for coming generations.

A grief reaction is a rational response to climate change—but to the extent that it makes us feel helpless, like passive victims—it is a barrier to productive action.  We must fight nihilism and passivity, feeling that the problems are too great to be solved, and cultivate a cultural attitude of determination and courage. Yes, it is possible that humanity will lose our battle with climate change. It is even possible that we have already crossed the threshold that the environment is so badly damaged that there is nothing that we can do to save it. If this is true, then grief is the most rational and fitting emotional response. But if there is a chance for remediation of our climate, for preserving our planet for future generations, then we have a moral obligation to adopt the attitude of “Live or die trying.” We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to give saving the planet our very best effort. If we give up now, drowned in pre-emptive grief, we guarantee our own defeat.

 
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