The emotional challenges of global climate change

Twenty-seven concerned elders gathered recently in a meeting room at the David Suzuki Foundation in Vancouver, British Columbia. The occasion was the Suzuki Elders’ first attempt at a Salon, defined as “a gathering where people talk in a way that is meant to be listened to and perhaps passionately acted upon”. Salons are incubators where ideas are conceived, gestated, and hatched. They can be frontiers of social and cultural change. The subject chosen for this first Salon was the emotional challenges posed by global climate change.

What is climate change? Life on Earth is possible only because of the warmth of the sun. While much of the incoming solar radiation is reflected back into space, a small portion of it is trapped by the thin layer of gases that make up our insulating atmosphere. One of these gases is carbon dioxide (CO2) which is released by activities such as the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and the cutting down of trees. Earth’s atmosphere today contains 42% more carbon dioxide than it did before the industrial era. In fact, we humans have released so much CO2 and other greenhouse gases that our planet’s atmosphere is now like a thick, heat-trapping blanket. Since 1900 the global average temperature has risen by 0.8o C and the northern hemisphere is substantially warmer than at any point during the past 1000 years. The year 2014 was the warmest year on meteorological record.

Why need we become emotional about the climate change process? The answer lies in the pages of the 2014 reports from the InterIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international body set up to assess climate change. The IPCC summarize the present and anticipated environmental impacts in this schematic.IPCC 2014 global climate change

How are we to react to this portend of our Earth’s future? As Elders experienced in leadership and concerned about our environment, what are our challenges in the work for change? How do we help each other harness the inevitable emotions brought on by contemplating such changes and embark on a path of action to make a difference to the our future world?Meadows

The salon participants attempted to encapsulate their emotions through descriptive couplets describing their personal responses to the phrase “global climate change.”Noun-adjective pairs shadowed

Our dilemma is that we face difficult choices. We may decide that we will do nothing to change the present path the world is on, or reach the conclusion that whatever we do will be too little and too late or inadequate to do enough good. Alternatively we might choose to work as hard and as fast as we can to reduce impacts on our global support systems and do the very best we can to avert catastrophe. Any way we choose will result in massive changes for all earth’s creatures. Whichever way we proceed, everyone – leaders and others – will have their well-being and their ability to function effectively challenged. Leaders will need to be grounded in this realization and be prepared to guide others.

One of us (Don) described his path from early concerns about environmental damage, inspired by Rachael Carson, to his involvement with the Transition Town movement on Bowen Island, British Columbia. There he met with a small study group (Inner Transitions) that explored the place of grief as a part of being alive and as an outcome of knowing about the predicaments of the world.

Don introduced the concept of the importance of grief as a possible important part of SE’s work, but soon found that this perspective was too narrow. When he reframed his ideas it became clear that there were in fact many emotions that were involved. Activists and some leaders think about the world’s predicaments and realize what is happening. On the other hand, many people don’t seem to have any appreciation of the issues, they may be deniers or they simply don’t care.

Activists and leaders will experience emotions that help them in their work or alternatively they might have to grapple with emotions that hinder what they are doing or that affect their personal well-being. To help and work with persons in the community at large, we need to know whether their emotions help them see the need to participate or drive them away, possibly incapacitating them personally. We must also consider how emotions affect our youth. The task then becomes to:

  • collectively get clear about what emotions are and how they affect our work;
  • individually get in touch with the effects of our personal emotions;
  • work together in supporting each other in collective and individual exploration.

What to do with emotions
The Salon demonstrated significant interest in knowing about and exploring further the relationship between emotions, actions on climate change and elder leadership. There are several directions that we can engage in from here:

  • Investigate at a theoretical level, perhaps with experienced help, what emotions are and how they can affect behavior.
  • Relate how the use of an awareness of emotions can influence how the Suzuki Elders work with climate change. How is our own leadership affected by emotions?
  • Begin working at our individual emotional exploration, particularly about grief.
  • Establish a grief support group, as in Transition Town’s Heart and Soul groups, perhaps in collaboration with Village Vancouver.
  • Consider the possibility of carrying our understanding of the effect of emotions throughout the SE community, and to the wider community.

 Posted by Don Marshall and Stan Hirst


1 comment

  1. Although I am deeply sympathetic to the purpose of the salon and look forward to further discussions, I also have some suspicion 0f “psychologizing” the problem. I recall a book written by James Hillman that looks at the history of the “therapeudic model” and the title says most of what the book is about, “We’ve had 100 years of therapy ( and the world is getting worse.)

    Lots of useful things are done by angry, frustrated people and it is possible, I think, to be “reasonably emotional” about the sad state of things.

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