My week in the heat

I haven’t been on holiday near the Equator or sitting in a sauna at some upmarket health club that I don’t belong to. The heat comes from reading and listening to climate science. Hot temperatures and hot in the sense of stoking my anger. As tomorrow is Earth Day, yet another awareness campaign, I promise I won’t mention any numbers or statistics as you will have heard enough, and I don’t think they’re very helpful. What we need is a shift in thinking. Here are some highlights that have rattled my head this week and have brought me to this conclusion.

In David Wallace-Wells’ newsletter, the environmentalist describes how critiques of the ‘catastrophic thinking’ in recent climate activism have been ‘regularly and conspicuously levelled by complacent centrists and patronizing greybeards against the alarmist fringe of the climate movement — yes, warming was happening, they acknowledged, and yes, it represented a challenge to the world’s collective status quo, but still, all of this hyperbolic talk was, let’s be honest, a bit much.’ This does an excellent job of depicting the stance of many public figures who are not climate change deniers but are not fighting for the environment either. It is as if positioning oneself in the middle of the argument, avoiding extremes, is reasonable. In this case, it’s not.

I’ve been reading Simon Sharpe’s Five Times Faster: Rethinking the Science, Economics, and Diplomacy of Climate Change, where the issue of communicating the dangers of climate change is looked at from a slightly different angle. Sharpe argues that climate scientists have been pulling their punches when presenting their findings to the public and to policy makers because these scientists have tended to talk in terms of predictions, which they are naturally cautious in making. It would be better, according to Sharpe to address the effects of climate change in terms of risk assessment – that is, looking at the worst possible scenario. He compares risk assessment in other fields to make his case. ‘What would become of a national security adviser who stormed out of a briefing on a terrorist threat complaining that it was all too depressing? Or a chief medical officer who decided not to warn political leaders of an approaching pandemic in case the bad news caused them to ‘switch off’? Obviously, such negligence is unthinkable.’ Yet, scientists, economists and politicians have skirted around risk assessment in the context of climate change. My blood boils thinking about it.

I took a break from these commentaries on catastrophic thinking and parlance only to find this item in the New York Times: ‘India is among the most vulnerable countries to human-caused climate change. And its poorest people are at the greatest risk…. This week, many parts of India were under heat wave alerts. Schools and colleges were closed in most parts of West Bengal state.’ Over to EuroNews, where there were stories around the fact that 2022 had the warmest summer on record across Europe. There was no escaping it.

Finally, returning to Simon Sharpe as he has the right words to describe what’s been going on in my head this week. He writes, ‘Thinking about climate change risks can be emotionally draining. You might feel you’ve heard enough by this point. There are increasing reports of climate change scientists and activists needing psychological support to cope with the strains of constantly staring into the abyss, trying to tell people about it, and witnessing the utter inadequacy of our collective response.’ Am I an activist, or an ordinary news junkie, needing psychological support? Perhaps not yet, but I did find writing this blog therapeutic.