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How to avoid hopelessness when talking about climate change
March 13, 2023
Few issues present a greater impact to the future of college-aged people than climate change. However, learning about the problem and its impacts can often create feelings of hopelessness. To keep these feelings from overwhelming people and preventing action, it’s essential that the issue be presented along with ways to prevent despair by offering ways to take action.
In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen testified to Congress that global warming had arrived and identified the cause as the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is the process by which gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane are emitted faster than they are removed from the atmosphere, leading to heat that would normally radiate back into space being trapped. Scientists have identified human activity as the cause of the current increase in the greenhouse effect, particularly due to the use of fossil fuels.
Due to this, the average global temperature of the Earth has increased around 0.14 degrees Fahrenheit each decade since 1880. This process is increasing in speed, with an average increase of 0.32 degrees Fahrenheit from pre-industrial levels each decade since 1981. As the World Meteorological Organization noted in January, this has led to data showing that the last eight years, 2015-2022 specifically, have been the warmest years on record globally.
While these increases may sound small, minute changes in the Earth’s temperature can have dramatic impacts. These changes affect a variety of Earth’s natural processes, as well as biological processes which we and other species depend on for survival.
“When you think about it, climate change is impacting just about everything and everyone on the planet,” said Dr. Leslie Duram, a professor of geography and environmental resources and the director of the Environmental Studies minor program at SIU. Duram cited present impacts we are seeing and expect to see worsen, including sea level rise, longer and more intense forest fire seasons, an increase in the intensity of hurricanes, changes in precipitation and drought patterns, and longer periods of temperature extremes. Beyond these natural processes, she also cited heat-related impacts on human health, the expansion of species like ticks which can spread disease and the extinction of entire species.
Unfortunately, some of these changes will now be unavoidable. Under the Paris Climate Agreement, almost every country agreed that the global temperature increase should be limited to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2°C), with hopes that it could be kept below 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5°C). However, “most of the science now is saying we won’t be able to meet 2.7°F, so we’re dealing with 3.6°F already,” noted Duram, “and if we continue to emit greenhouse gasses at the level where we are now, we still will rise beyond the 3.6°F.”
While it may be difficult to comprehend the full level of consequences which will result from climate change, understanding the magnitude of its impacts is essential for ensuring that we are working to address it and doing so in a just way.
Typically, speaking on the catastrophic nature of the problem has led to political action and greater public advocacy for addressing the crisis.
“I think right now we’re seeing a shift in public opinion that says we need to address it, but that’s because of the accelerating crises,” said Dr. Dustin Greenwalt, an SIU assistant professor of practice with a specialization in Environmental Communications. Greenwalt references how catastrophic rhetoric has inspired political action through groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Rising Tide North America.
“One of the really famous moments was [when] the people of Tuvalu came to the United Nations,” Dr. Greenwalt noted. “Tuvalu is an island in the South Pacific that is at sea level, and Tuvalu barely exists anymore, people are already climate refugees. And those sorts of moments bubbled up into a broader kind of recognition.”
Despite the importance of not hiding the reality of the crisis, some individuals faced with the magnitude of climate change’s potentially devastating impacts can develop feelings of hopelessness or depression. This may arise from dread of personal impacts, a sense that the issue is out of their hands, or a sense the political factors may keep them from being able to help solve the issue.
“If you just talk about problems, then people just feel hopeless, and they feel almost unable to address the problem,” Duram said. “So, it’s very important that in addition to teaching about the problems, we teach solutions.”
She noted that speaking about clean energy, new technology for addressing climate challenges, actions that individuals can take and how to educate others all serve to help individuals get beyond these feelings of hopelessness by demonstrating that progress is possible and being made.
Duram also stressed the importance of voting in addressing climate change, in addition to individual action. On a big picture level, she points out, we need policies and systemwide changes which require politicians who will take action. Beyond this, she stressed the importance of identifying ways to make climate change more individualized and finding a way to incorporate climate change adaptation or awareness into things they deal with in their daily lives, such as in planning infrastructure and in medical care.
However, further feelings of hopelessness can arrive when voting either fails to produce results in a timely manner, or not at all. While still essential in gaining institutional support, voting alone may not meaningfully address peoples’ desire to see action.
“I think that people feel like, generally, there is a crisis of political representation in our society,” Greenwalt added. “I think that [climate change] is a part of the broader set of crises, economic, political, and ecological, that they’re facing and don’t feel like the government is going to take meaningful action, and they haven’t been offered alternatives.”
As viable alternatives, Greenwalt highlighted the importance of building movements and organizations which advocate and protest for action, along with building more resiliency in their local communities and taking steps to stop further expansion of fossil fuel production and infrastructure. As examples, he pointed to climate justice causes such as addressing the disparity between emissions (greatest in the global north) and impacts (greatest in the global south), and more localized movements such as the current push to protect Atlanta Forest in Georgia, which is currently being targeted for development.
Overall, the best way to overcome the feeling that climate change presents a hopeless challenge is to get involved in addressing it. This may be voting for candidates who will act on climate change, helping to inform and educate others, engaging in protest and advocacy, or finding local groups who are working to ensure their own communities are able to adapt and support each other. The worst option is to let this hopelessness cause inaction, which only serves to reinforce those feelings.
(Editor’s note: Isaac Ludington is a law student at SIU, but his writing should not be seen as a reflection of the opinion of the School of Law, or taken as legal advice.)
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