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How do we keep going after yet another climate report?
Coping with feelings of exhaustion and hopelessness after the latest IPCC-report.
Welcome to Climate Psyched, the newsletter where we dive into all things psychological, behavioral and emotional related to the climate crisis. And this week we’re well into the emotional and existential depths of it all, with the release of the IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report.
The main question we’ve been asked this week is: How do we keep going after yet another depressing report, met with yet more political passivity - and what do we need in order to find strength to not give up?
On Monday the last report of the 6th IPCC reports was released: The AR6 Synthesis Report, with a 36 pages long summary for policymakers, and a longer version of 85 pages, while the full report is yet to come. Several climate researchers and journalists have in the past few days made generous summaries of the main takeaways of the report (read Katharine Hayhoes great thread here) and reminded us that the IPCC reports are always conservative in their estimations, not the least the summary for policymakers where non-scientists can have their say before publication. As climate writer Arit Niranjan explained, delegates from primarily rich and fossil fuel intensive countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Norway and China lobbied hard to water down the language of the summary, e.g. stating that fossil fuels is the cause of climate change. That means that things are even worse than what the report says.
Unsurprisingly the report hasn’t been met with any significant political action. Greta Thunberg stated: after yesterday's #IPCC report, everything is back to normal – as always. We continue to ignore the climate crisis as if nothing happened. Our societies are still in denial, and those in power go on with their never ending quests to maximise profits. We cannot afford this.
This report is said to be the final warning from the world’s collective climate scientists - but what’s to say that this warning will be met with more action than the gazillion previous warnings? And what more: how do we find strength to continue onwards when it feels like we’ve been here multiple times before?
Why does it feel like a bad relationship?
Being in the climate field (in the broadest sense) can often feel like being slung between extremes of hopefulness and hopelessness. Big reports, like those from IPCC, can trigger both hopefulness (finally something might happen!) and hopelessness (why would anything happen now when it hasn’t after all the previous reports have been published?).
That feeling of almost giving up and then gaining a bit of hope when events like the release of a climate report happens is - in psychological terms - called intermittent reinforcement. It’s the same thing that happens when you play the slot machines, and are about to give up when you suddenly get a win, leading you to keep playing. Or when you’re in a crappy relationship, about to break up, but suddenly your partner does something romantic or kind enough to make you think that the relationship might still be worth fighting for. Intermittent reinforcement usually works well to keep us going, which is why it’s hard to leave the slot machine even though you’re losing money.
Now, paradoxically enough, getting a sense of hopelessness with each release of climate reports is also a form of intermittent reinforcement. Reinforcement that nothing is, indeed happening. We’re reinforced in our distrust towards passive politicians and in our disbelief that we’re able to change the course.
When a behavior is reinforced, the likelihood of us repeating that behavior increases. Intermittent reinforcement (the type that happens every now and then, but not all the time) can be quite exhausting. If you’re in a crappy relationship there’s usually a certain level of relief when having made the decision to leave. If at that point, a sudden romantic gesture throws you back in, you might feel, well, tired.
Now, we’re not saying that intermittent reinforcement of either hope or hopelessness in the events of new climate reports is good or bad, we’re just explaining the psychology behind it. And why you might feel exhausted after each new publication.
Zooming in too much will make you stuck and want to rush
When hard things happen, a very human response is to zoom in on the problem. Our perspectives narrow down which makes the problems seem bigger than our slim perspective can take in, and we tend to become more black-or-white, all-or-nothing in our thinking. It can feel like everything needs to happen NOW and that everything is up to ME, that there’s no time to rest and that every sign of passivity cancels out whatever progress being made.
How much we tend to get stuck and how much we zoom in has partly to do with our personal window of tolerance. The window of tolerance (a term coined by psychiatry professor Dan Siegel) describes the emotional space within which we are able to function and thrive. If our emotions throw us out of our window of tolerance they get hard to manage, we might find it hard to function, and instead shut down or start avoiding things we find difficult.
When we’re overwhelmed by emotions it’s hard to think clearly, but it’s also hard to see the bigger picture and where we fit into that picture.
The window of tolerance can expand if we practice our emotion regulation (we wrote about that in our last post), but it’s never gonna be infinite. When climate related emotions become to intense we are usually helped by a combination of pausing, grieving, seeking support and - when we’ve cared for our feelings - taking action.
One way of practicing emotion regulation is by zooming out and trying to see things from a little distance, but also allowing us to see both the good and bad things at once. Because that’s the way it is in the climate crisis; a lot of good and a lot of bad things are happening simultaneously. When we zoom out we’re also able to see that whilst progress isn’t happening all the time and everywhere, progress is being made in multiple corners of the world. Some countries who’ve previously been at the forefront (like Sweden where we live) might temporarily be stepping back, but at the same time others are stepping up. When we zoom out we’re able to see that we can lean on each other in different times, that there are those that have paved the path in previous years, and that we now will continue to pave the path for those in the coming years. The climate work doesn’t stand and fall with us (or with the latest IPCC report!), but that doesn’t mean that the steps we take are unimportant. It just means that this is a lifelong work, which will have its rougher as well as kinder periods, and that the work we do ourselves need the work done by others to make a long term lasting effect.
We’ve previously written about hope, the difference between passive and active hope, but also how hope needs to relate to concrete action rather than something large and abstract such as “I hope we make it.” The same goes here: break down what you’re hoping for into concrete pieces, preferably ones that you yourself have some sort of agency over. “I hope the IPCC report can serve as a reminder of why it’s important for me to keep working for change.”
Remember that information does not equal action. Information that comes in the form of essential climate research (i.e. IPCC reports) is what we use to build our case, as our motivation and reminder that it’s worth it to keep working for change. But it’s all the different ways we work towards change (working together to put pressure on politicians, engage in direct action, influence our children’s schools, putting up solar panels, starting a communal garden etc.) that will make the big difference. Not the report in itself.
We don’t know for sure what will happen in the next pivotal decade, but we do know this: we have a lot of work ahead of us, and we need to be in it for the long run. Putting some of our time into taking care of ourselves, expanding our window of tolerance, caring for our mental and physical health and our important relationships will make us better prepared for periods of hardships. Prioritizing our own resilience will be well invested time.
If you feel yourself getting too caught up in hopelessness, or in a black-or-white-thinking, practice zooming out. Zoom out to see that parallel to passive politicians and profit hungry fossil companies and lobbyists, there is massive progress happening. Zoom out to see that even if your own country might steer in the wrong direction, there are others that are currently leading the way. Zoom out to see that you’re not alone in this, and that there’s enough of us to allow each other to rest, grief and be tired. Zoom out to see that this is a lifelong mission, one that we are all important, but not the only, parts of. Zoom out to see how extraordinary it is to be alive on this small planet that’s existed for billions of years, in one of billions of galaxies, at a pivotal time that will define the future of humanity and our ecosystems.
That is worth fighting for. This world is worth fighting for. And we’ll do it together.
See you all in a month! Until then, feel free to like, share the post or just leave a thought or two below.