How do we keep going?

Talk given at Extinction Rebellion Meeting in Zurich 3.10.2021

Over 20 years as climate policy analyst I have advised governments and NGOs on carbon trading and CO2 accounting. I would like to share a bit of my experience. I will not focus on my research but rather on the question: How do we keep going?

“The climate is like an angry beast and we are poking it with sticks.”
Wallace Smith Broecker, climate scientist, 1998.

Prof. Julia Steinberger brilliant essay illustrates the immensity we are facing: We have turned the planet’s climate clock back by 2-3 million years already in less than 100 years.

Global temperature lags behind CO2 concentration in the atmosphere by a few decades. This inertia is a kind gift we have been granted for the next few decades. But we have already set in motion changes beyond imagination.

IPCC in its last report is clearer than ever: We will exceed the 1.5 °C target by 2040, no matter what we do. And we are approaching irreversible tipping points.

Since I am on earth (54 years) we have emitted  three quarters of all CO2 since the beginning of industrialization.  In my work as a researcher and activist I have been reasoning, arguing, cajoling, pushing, pleading, yelling, screaming for decades.

Two things stand out:

  • We are in this for the long haul.
  • There are no easy answers.

In 2015 and 2016 I lost 4 friends to cancer.  On Christmas of 2016 my best friend of 38 years called me and told me: I have cancer too. It’s advanced. Five months later she was dead and my life came to a screeching halt. I had to reexamine life, my life and my work more profoundly than I ever have. I want to share with you what I have learned on this personal and professional path of facing death and loss.

Should we be optimists or realists?

There is much in-fighting among climate activists and scientists:

  • Doomists versus optimists
  • Techno-believers versus anti-capitalists
  • Personal action versus political action

This infighting weakens us and I believe it stems partly from our difficulty to comprehend and accept the complexity of the societal challenge climate change poses. There are so many ways to approach this immense challenge. There is no easy and simple solution. Someone once said: For every complex problem there is a simple solution…and it is always wrong. And there are so many different ways react emotionally to climate change.

There are some of us who need optimism to keep going:

Franka my musician friend who died was an unrelenting optimist. A few days before she died she visited a recording studio. The guy in the studio looked at her in horror because it was plain obvious she was deathly ill. He asked her: How are you doing? And she replied: Oh quite well, I have some physical challenges but other ways things are going great. In the three years she had after her cancer diagnosis, she recorded five albums. Her denial made her live life to the fullest.

Some of us need to be optimists to work on climate change.  Christina Figueres who headed the Paris negotiation calls it:  Stubborn optimism

And all of us need some amount of emotional denial. Denial has a bad reputation but it is really only a troubling thing if it leads to indifference and complacency.

We need to take breaks. There is a natural rhythm we have to obey: there are times to going inward times to move outward. Audry Lorde, the black American poet and activist put it this way:

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence
It’s an act of self-preservation
And that is an act of political welfare

This also means that we need time to grief the immense loss we have already experienced and the suffering that is unavoidable.

Grief is messy and grief is never easy.

Grief is personal. My best friend wanted much time alone, which she was coming to grips with the fact that she would die shortly after her 50th birthday. I on the other hand feel comforted when I am not alone but with friends, with kindred spirits.

Politically speaking: The goal of systems of oppression is to dis-spirit you. That’s why it is an act of rebellion to grief but not despair, to preserve your agency.

Agency is the feeling that you can change things. Research on happiness shows: more than anything it is the feeling of agency that shields us from despair.

What does it take to have agency?

We live in a very unequal world. The rich and powerful have shaped this world and have prevented action for the last 40 years at least.

One cannot help but feel helpless in the face of this immense injustice. It is true, as an individual there is only so much you can change.

This is why we have to seek community. Only in numbers will we be able to break the patterns that hold us in our deeply unsustainable ways of life.

We have agency because we are the powerful and rich: The average Swiss emits 12 t CO2e every year. We have the 9th highest emissions in the world. With this power comes responsibility and opportunity:

 We can help change the world as

  • Citizens,
  • Consumers and Role models
  • Investors
  • Members of organisations

Let’s focus on the things we can change.

Let’s explore and examine again and again where and how we have most agency.

To summarize

  • Do what fills you with purpose and what gives you joy.
  • Think hard and research well where you can make the biggest change. (Focus on politics, not plastics)
  • Be curious about the ideas and opinions of others who want to address climate change but have ideas that are different from yours.
  • Take care of yourself and of the world in equal measures.
  • Be kind, to yourself and others.

Let me end with a quote from Vaclav Havel, the great playwrite and czech human rights activist and  statesman :

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

Thank you!