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Climate Opinion

Lessons from the frontline of climate anxiety

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If you really want to understand the human face of the climate crisis in Australia, sit down with Rev. Stephen Robinson.

Having spent more than 20 years as a disaster response chaplain helping people at evacuation centres and through the worst times of their lives, he gives an even-handed, calm and unflinchingly frightening assessment.

The bottom line is this; it’s always the poorest and most vulnerable, those who are already struggling and living on the edge, who are most affected by the worsening storms, bushfires, floods, heatwaves and droughts.

And the growing complexity and intensity of disasters means whole communities do not have time to recover before the next event hits.

Stephen speaks of Tenterfield in September last year, where farmers were already strapped emotionally and financially from the drought when the bushfires went through. Much of the remaining stock were killed. Even stock that survived the flames had no feed or water left to sustain them. Then a storm hit in November, damaging water infrastructure and washing ash into dams and rivers – killing fish and leaving residents with water that was next to undrinkable. There are more and more stories which echo Tenterfield’s experience.

Stephen Robinson was one of the keynote speakers at our recent Climate Pastoral Care Conference, which took a deep dive into climate anxiety, communication and care. The growing importance of this topic is demonstrated by the fact that the conference had five times more registrations than last year.

In Stephen’s ministry, need drives him, but hope calls him.

Peak health bodies, including the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Psychological Society, have declared a climate emergency in recognition that global warming is the biggest health issue of the 21st Century.

Climate anxiety is increasing, especially in children. Ninety-five per cent of Australian children know climate change is a serious problem. Four in five are anxious about it reducing their quality of life and one in five will have fewer or no children because of it. We also know heatwaves are linked to increased suicide rates and hospitalisations for mental and behavioural disorders. Then, there are the less obvious impacts, such as reduced sense of place and identity, or loss of general wellbeing and full participation in society.

At the conference, we heard from psychologists, doctors, researchers and Indigenous voices about how to recognise and tackle these issues and they give essential lessons for anyone working with vulnerable communities.

Despite what politicians say about taxpayers and GDP, the real mark of any society, any real community is how we care for each other, especially those who are struggling. Our church is trying to pay attention and offer care to those who are struggling and to the world in which we live.

Our faith in Jesus is about healing, hope and new life, so we are called to act comprehensively – and immediately.

Most agree that the first step is to face your own feelings before you try to help anyone else. This means you must acknowledge the threat and then properly deal with it through emotional self-regulation. Without doing this, we may become angry, resigned, hopeless or burn out.

Then, we must encourage people that are close to us to talk about their feelings of loss, grief, anger and confusion in ways that are free from judgment. It’s especially important that we acknowledge the feelings of children and don’t pretend that global warming will magically disappear or be solved by adults.

Another important step is to give hope and help retain faith in humanity. Communicate the positive and concrete ways that people are making a difference. A change to a greener economy after COVID-19 is an enormous opportunity for jobs and renewing communities, and there are a million examples to give hope.

Finally, encourage people to take an action. It doesn’t matter what it is, or how big it is. It can be planting a tree, reducing your home energy use, or writing to your local member of parliament. Taking action is an excellent antidote to feelings of despair and hopelessness, especially when it is taken with other people.

The difference between climate anxiety and some other forms of mental distress, is that it’s a logical response to a real and terrible threat. So, the ways we deal with it must also be rooted in reality and the concrete ways we can all act to reduce greenhouse gases.

We must care for each other. We must seek justice for our world, and for those least able to speak and act for themselves in the face of this existential challenge. This will take time and money and commitment, as it must, as this is the only world we have.

Need drives us. Hope calls us.

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