Hope, despair and 4° C

May 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Keeping global temperature rise below 2° C is “just a nice utopia” according to Fatih Birol of the International Energy Agency. What happens to hope in the face of increasingly gloomy predictions for the future?

4° looks likely

Last year, despite global recession, greenhouse gas emissions rose again. The IEA’s predictions suggest that it is extremely unlikely that the world can be kept below the point at which dangerous climate change occurs. 4° C looks an increasingly likely scenario by the end of this century. Children born today will be old people – if they survive that long – in a world stricken by drought, food shortages, mass migrations and resource wars.

In the 18 months since Copenhagen I have increasingly found myself listening to stories about the dark places people find themselves in as they contemplate this future. Existential questions about the purpose of life, re-evaluations of basic beliefs about human nature or the political process, and interrogation of assumptions about solutions have all featured in these conversations, alongside experiences of deep depression. Some have spoken not of despair, but of loss of hope. It is an important distinction.

Is there a difference between despair and loss of hope?

Hope is the well-spring of day-to-day life. I hope the weather will be fine tomorrow. I hope the cake I am baking turns out well. I hope my son enjoys his birthday. Loss of hope is the most profound of losses. It results in a turning away from life. It is usually a silent, deathly place most commonly seen amongst the dying at the point where it no longer feels worth hoping for even the smallest part of life – the sun through an open window, a smile from someone loved. Loss of hope means withdrawal from life, giving up, dying psychically if not literally.

Despair is different. It can function as a defence against anxiety in the form of apathy, disinterest or alienation. But it can also, when explored, reveal a complexity of emotion and confusion that is worth understanding. Rage, indignation, fear, disbelief, longing, guilt and terror can all lie behind the simple assertion of despair. Resolving such feelings means facing loss and engaging with grief. This matters.

Grief at our failure

In order to protect against loss of hope and withdrawal from life, despair must be acknowledged and grief must be worked through. Grief for what? Primarily, at present, grief that the attempts of the last 25 years to avoid climate chaos have not succeeded, though each person will express this differently, depending on the part they have played and the hopes they have nurtured.

From this process of mourning, hope may be regenerated, not hope for what is no longer possible but hope for other goals that remain worthwhile, even in the face of such anxiety-provoking news. Hope, for example, that one can still live rightly and live well, that it is still worthwhile to fight for a humane and just society that will deal fairly with whatever comes, that it is still worth trying to avert the worst, to hope and fight for 3° and not 4° C. With this can come the recovery of hope in the rest of life, the recovery of joy in the sun streaming through an open window or the smile of someone you love.

Raising the question of catastrophic climate change raises difficult questions about how we should talk to people about the issue. What is it OK to say? What is it OK to share? Today’s news coverage carried the usual hopes that the IEA’s announcement would shock the world and be the wake-up call to politicians. We know however that the effect of bad news is frequently short-lived. A commitment to do something is followed speedily by defensive moves to protect against the anxiety that bad news brings. Politicians are not only subject to all kinds of competing issues to consider but are human like the rest of us. Thinking about climate change is hard. Avoiding the subject is attractive. As I wrote back in February, the essential element is the creation of a safe space. I’ll be writing more about this later…

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