polar bear climate change
Long Reads

“I’ve stopped pretending that climate change crisis doesn’t affect me – and you should, too”

Why does it take a photo of a polar bear stranded in a town in Siberia for us to finally sit up and take notice of the climate change crisis? Writer and researcher Eleanor Flowers takes a closer look at our guilt, and encourages us to act – now.

Didn’t our hearts sink when we saw the recent image of the displaced polar bear scouring the urban landscape of northern Siberia for food? Wasn’t it tragic to see her so desperately far from the icy blue of her own habitat?

Did you click? I scrolled by, too afraid to face the wretchedness of my own inaction. I switched to Instagram for a spot of mindless browsing instead, but even there I was met with the terrifying viral photograph of the dogs wading through melting sea ice in Greenland. These photographs are like a punch to the gut.

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The recent image resonated so loudly because images of sad polar bears are embedded within our collective memory. These bears are the poster-species of the coming catastrophe that we so foolishly believed we had more time to ignore. 

In recent years, researchers have understood that we need visual representations to help us grapple with the emotional gravity of the climate crisis. This was especially important back when the idea of climate change was more abstract, and we weren’t witnessing our carbon footprints having such a dramatic effect. While scientific jargon (remember when the crisis was called ‘global warming’?) felt void of emotion, it was the pictures of the polar bears cast adrift on broken icebergs that tugged at our conscience. 

polar bear stranded in siberia
The stranded polar bear was desperately searching for food, hundreds of miles from home

Our changing climate is no longer an abstract idea. Scientific consensus from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is that we have already reached approximately 1°C of human-induced warming. We also know that, for myriad reasons, we are witnessing a loss of the Earth’s wildlife and that entire species are going extinct. While scientists are working rigorously to understand the complex climate system, and have achieved much helpful knowledge, nobody can predict exactly how the future will play out.

What is likely is that our current emissions trajectory will lead to much higher temperatures. These rising temperatures will pose big risks to our health, livelihoods, food security and water supply. The projections, coupled with powerful images, are of course scary, and upsetting. At this point it is important we open up nuanced dialogues about our changing planet and how this affects us emotionally.

After all, discussion leads to thoughtful action; stifled fear leads only to public paralysis. We do not need another blockbuster report from the IPCC to tell us that any later than today will be too late to act. It has been years since the first images of the stranded polar bears emerged. Have we become victims of our own complacency, or does this go deeper than sheer laziness?

Adults can be fantastic pretenders. We tend to think it is children who live in imaginary worlds, but only an adult could look at the image of the lonely mother bear and carry on as though Earth wasn’t melting around us. Children tell the truth, and the global climate school strikes are testament to this. 

16-year-old Greta Thunberg leads a climate change protest with other teenagers

When I was 16, just over a decade ago now, I too was openly afraid of a future where the planet was too hot to host humanity. As I became a woman, I learned to squash my instinctive fears and to follow the business-as-usual crowd as we careered toward the cliff edge. I wonder, had we had image-intensive social media back then (MSN was lacking), whether we might have sounded the alarm too. I regret that we didn’t cry out then, and I marvel at the generation that are so powerfully vocalising this issue now.

The sociologist Dr Kari Norgaard attributes our socially engineered ignorance, particular to adults, to deep feelings of guilt and fear. Norgaard studied how the inhabitants of a town on the west coast of Norway are able to carry on as usual, even though the snow which sustains their ski-resort businesses dwindles each year. Norway is a country simultaneously funded by oil exports and married to the idea of being a shining model of eco-friendly living. It is a good example of what happens when we feel too guilty to change. It is not so much that we deny the climate is changing, but that we dismiss the accompanying feelings of terror and guilt. Such dismissal impedes our ability to change.

If we aren’t climate deniers, but we aren’t changing our lifestyles fast enough, what does that make us? Dr Katie Hayes, a researcher who works with communities affected by super flooding in Canada, thinks we suffer from climate disassociation. Hayes reckons that we half accept the reality of the crisis but reject the responsibility to take action, because it’s too fearsome. Climate disassociation is particularly pertinent in privileged countries, who are at once culpable for high emissions and more resilient than those countries whose weaker infrastructures are already being devastated by the climate crisis.

I do not personally know a single person, including myself, who lives an emissions-free existence. However, since I began to express my fears about the environmental emergency, I have been able to better question how I can change. How can I break my cycles of unhealthy consumption? How can I use my voting power to demand progress, and my voice as a writer to encourage the conversations we urgently need to begin to have? 

polar bear stranded siberia
The stranded bear attempts to find food in a plastic bag

For too long we’ve ignored the child within us that knows many adults have got it wrong. The headlines that hurt our feelings and our silence will be our undoing.

Not everyone is going to agree on how to solve this problem, obviously. If it wasn’t so huge, we would have cracked it by now. But we need to rip the plaster off and begin to have these difficult conversations. It is also important to remember that acknowledging our emotional entanglements with climate change should not be synonymous with blind panic. Social and scientific processes surrounding the crisis are intensely complex, and we should do our utmost to educate ourselves broadly.

Treat it as a therapy session, because the emotional toll this terrifying news takes cannot be buried any longer. This is the only way to mend our broken hearts, our failing systems and our poorly planet. Picture this: in 10 years’ time, we could hold our children in our arms, and tell them that we did it, we solved the climate crisis.

Images: Getty