It’s OK to feel stressed out about climate change, as long as you recognise it and take action, is the advice climate campaigner Claire O’Rourke has for Australians.
The author of the new book Together We Can says feelings of anxiety and ‘climate distress’ need to be acknowledged as normal and that they are being experienced by people across the country and across generations.
She says rather than being caught up in ‘the horror of the science’ and doom scrolling climate anxiety should be reframed through a lens of compassion and understanding.
“I think if we’re not looking at ways to recognise, share and validate the emotional reaction to not only the climate impacts we’re experiencing, it will constrain society’s ability to find the solutions that we need,” O’Rourke told Central News.
“Particularly given that there’s higher levels of climate stress among young people right now.”
During the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-2020, O’Rourke was faced with the very real possibility that she and her family would have to evacuate their home in rural Austinmer, on Dharawal country, on the South Coast. Suddenly, climate change felt less of an abstract idea and instead more of a tangible issue, leading to a self-professed ‘complete climate freak out moment’.
O’Rourke, who interviewed dozens of people for her book, said she was especially surprised by the increasing levels of climate distress felt among young people. Roughly a quarter of Australians aged between 16 and 25 have been categorised as ‘alarmed’ about climate change, according to the Climate Compass.
“I thought, ‘I’m not alone’,” she said, on learning of the statistic. “It made me reflect on what kind of stories we’re telling about climate change.”
O’Rourke argues that there currently isn’t a balance between the negative, anxiety-inducing reporting surrounding climate change and the stories of innovative, creative collective efforts that are already being made to combat it.
I made a conscious decision in the book to be more consistently hopeful without being too Pollyanna about it.
A former journalist, she has worked in social change and advocacy for many years, focusing her efforts on climate change since 2014. She currently works for The Sunrise Project, a global network that seeks to help make the change from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.
“It’s very easy for people to get caught in those ‘doom vortexes’ online where you can spiral down to the bottom of where civilisation could be pretty soon without too much effort,” she said
“I think it’s useful to have some contributions that are more positive, more curious, that talk more to the potential that humans have to solve these types of problems.
“Because we do have the potential to solve them. We’ve got precedents for solving these types of problems and we need to tell more of these stories to inspire more people.”
Together We Can ‘tells the stories of everyday people all around Australia who are already making a difference’, and draws upon extensive research surrounding the impacts of climate change on not just the environment, but on society as well.
O’Rourke speaks to climate psychologists, First Nations peoples, environmentalists, entrepreneurs and many others to establish a more rounded approach to facing the climate crisis. Each chapter ends with a segment called ‘together we can…’, which summarises its information and imparts some advice to the reader.
“About 44 per cent of Australians say that they regularly feel lonely. And when people feel lonely, they’re less likely to want to actually reach out and talk to and connect with other people,” explained O’Rourke. “My rationale is that by trying to work together and connect with other people, you’ll feel better about climate change because you’ll be sharing emotions.”
But it’s not just about unity. Together We Can distinguishes itself from most climate change books by stressing the importance of promoting optimism over catastrophic thinking.
“I made a conscious decision in the book to be more consistently hopeful without being too Pollyanna about it,” she said. “You’ve got to be real, but also be hopeful and choose to be optimistic, because if you choose to be optimistic, it forces you to look for more examples of progress.
“I think it can also open more generative spaces and conversations. We have a lot of reasons to be hopeful, even though it can be challenging to be hopeful all the time.”
Together We Can ($32.99, Allen & Unwin) is out now.
Main image supplied.