I have recently been suffering from climate fatigue.
As an environmental journalist, I have spent the past six years writing about melting ice sheets, bleaching coral reefs, and deadly heatwaves. I’ve reported on insufficient climate policies and the endless attempts to shift the blame.
As a young reporter, I felt nauseous when reading about the effects of climate change. But over time, the shock factor evaporated. I still cared, but in the cerebral way that allows you to flick through newspapers full of wars, disasters and injustices without wanting to leap off the nearest cliff.
Yet the emotions that evaded me were clearly afflicting others. I have friends and colleagues who have spoken out about the grief they feel at the destruction of the planet. The “death of dreams”, as one climate scientist put it.
The eternal difficulty in reporting on climate change is that we, in the developed world, are always one step removed. It is a problem couched in the language of forecasts and futurity, the worst effects hitting places we’ll never go to and ecosystems we’ll never see. We have built flood defences and outsourced our pollution, so that we can stay dry and breathe easy. One privilege of wealth is being able to sidestep the tangible losses already hurting poorer nations.
But there is one place where this privilege doesn’t apply: our natural world.
Last summer, I moved from London, via Chicago, to northern England. Up here, nature is like the giant that terrorises a village. You are aware of its nearness; you feel the lure of its golden coins. I have spent more weekends outdoors than ever before, hiking barefoot through sulphurous mud to Holy Island, and elsewhere, watching owls skirt ancient woodland in January’s half-light.
As I spent more time in nature, I strove to understand it. I learnt the names of birds and flowers, got binoculars for Christmas. Slowly, the landscape began to change. Once grand and amorphous, it crystallised into a mosaic of bitterns, oystercatchers, Crane’s-bill and cowslips. Distilled into its component parts, it became increasingly obvious what I stood to lose.
On Monday, a UN report warned that one million species are at risk of extinction, and that there have already been stark declines in animals and ecosystems across the globe. This is not solely due to climate change: agriculture, hunting, deforestation and fishing are also to blame.
Regardless of the reasons, this is personal. The report doesn’t drill down to the local level, but we have enough science to fill in the gaps. In Northumberland, barn owl populations are down, while wild calves are dying because they were born in winter; both trends have been linked to climate change. Little Terns across the northeast are breeding in fewer colonies as sites are lost to flood defences and rising sea levels. Yet our hunger for fossil fuels continues: beautiful Druridge Bay has been marked out as the site for a new opencast coal mine.
It is through these local tragedies that I now perceive our planetary crisis. This time, it hurts.
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