Let's stop talking about climate 'resilience' and start talking about climate trauma
We are in a climate emergency. And you were born at just the right moment to help change everything.
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An unpreparable storm
With sustained winds of 150 mph when it came ashore, Hurricane Ida was the strongest landfalling hurricane in Louisiana history — tying last year’s Hurricane Laura. It’s the first time in history there’s been a US state that’s endured two hurricanes that strong in back-to-back years.
Ida brought unimaginable wind far inland, its 40-foot waves showed up on seismic equipment, and its storm surge was so strong that it temporarily reversed the flow of the Mississippi River. Going from non-existent to a near-Category-5 landfall in 72 hrs is something no hurricane had ever done before in the Atlantic.
The sounds this storm made were like hell:
In pandemic New Orleans, mandatory evacuations now require 72 hours notice. That means that Ida’s rapid intensification put Louisiana in uncharted territory. It was literally impossible for New Orleans to prepare for something like Ida.
As a meteorologist, that’s a chilling fact. We’re in a situation where hurricanes can now grow more powerful and more quickly than our cities can make themselves safe.
We knew this was going to happen. We know that climate change is making storms like this happen more often. Still, Ida was shocking — the sixth tropical storm or hurricane to hit Louisiana in little more than a year.
There was no way that Louisiana could be ‘resilient’ to something like this. This is trauma — an intentional, repeated wound that keeps being opened over and over again.
Let’s be clear about this: Ida isn’t just a hurricane that happened, it was a disaster partly created by the fossil fuel industry. That should make us all angry, and we should channel that anger into transformative change led by people on the front lines of this crisis. The hurricane hit the core of “cancer alley” — the toxic stretch of river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry created. This is what climate change looks like. Hurricane Ida is a product of the climate emergency, and the people of Louisiana shouldn’t have to constantly internalize their basic survival into some sort of badge of “resilience”.
This is abuse. This is trauma.
Louisiana doesn’t deserve this — no one does.
the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
"the often remarkable resilience of so many British institutions"
the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
"nylon is excellent in wearability and resilience"
a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.
"a personal trauma like the death of a child"
emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may be associated with physical shock and sometimes leads to long-term neurosis, chronic stress, or anxiety.
"the event is relived with all the accompanying trauma"
"rupture of the diaphragm caused by blunt trauma"
What’s happening right now around the world fits both definitions of the word “trauma”: Climate change is a deeply distressing and disturbing experience. It’s also a physical injury. An injury, after more than 30 years of ignored warnings and broken promises, that can now be considered intentional.
Climate change isn’t something that’s just happening to us. It’s being done to us.
Climate change isn’t a natural occurrence that we need to be ‘resilient’ to. It’s a trauma that’s being inflicted on us against our will. It’s exhausting.
Our leaders need to stop asking us to be resilient, and start fixing the problem.
The consensus is clear: The vast majority of the world’s population now views climate change as an “emergency”, according to nearly two-thirds of the 1.2 million respondents in 50 countries in the largest poll ever taken on climate change, earlier this year. A recent survey of young people found 56% of respondents think that humanity is ‘doomed’. Children around the world are experiencing climate anxiety — something that no generation of humans before us have ever had to deal with.
Yet world leaders are acting at anything but an emergency pace. In fact, rather than “building back better”, 2021 has seen skyrocketing emissions growth around the world as factories, travel, and farms switch back into business as usual mode even as the Covid pandemic continues to rage on. At this growth rate, 2022 will have the highest emissions of any year in human history — a horrifically shocking fact that should provoke outrage on every street of every city in the world.
Not only are our leaders not rapidly reducing emissions, they’re doubling down on fossil fuels at a moment when the science clearly says that new fossil fuels should stay in the ground, forever.
How many life-changing storms should one person, one family, one community have to go through in a single lifetime?
Translated into our personal experience, that looks like:
Sorting through soggy photos *again*
Breathing the smoke for one more day *again*
Leaving everything behind *again*
Wondering how you’re going to start all over *again*
Stopping yourself from giving up *again*
You don’t have to personally live through a hurricane or wildfire to be feeling like this. I’m feeling it. We’re all feeling it.
It’s OK to hurt. It’s OK to be angry. But healing wounds requires time and repair, both of which are very hard to come by when the same people keep making the problem worse.
“Resilience” has its limits. We’re there.
Climate change is a trauma that’s moving all of us physically and emotionally to places that make us feel unsafe. What happens when there’s nowhere else to go?
My overwhelming feelings of the past several months are shock, worry, sadness, desperation, and empathy. If you’re feeling this way too, it’s OK to call this trauma.
From California to Haiti to Afghanistan to New Orleans, from fires to flood to injustice to revolution, it’s all so much. And I’m just an observer — safe in my home with my kids and my garden and our pet hamster. Nothing makes sense.
This summer, I’m realizing that this is just how it is now. For the rest of my life. For the rest of my kids’ lives.
I don't know what else there is to say. My heart is breaking for people I've never met, for injustice and more layers of trauma we knew were coming.
This year, I’ve fizzled down to writing just one article a month or so. I just don’t know what to say anymore. I’m not the only climate reporter who has burned out — Emily Atkin wrote about her struggles a few months ago. In many ways, climate activists have it even worse. And the folks whose homes are being flooded are being driven further and further into injustice and exploitation. It’s tough to stay motivated when it feels like everything is moving in exactly the wrong direction.
We aren’t checking out because we don’t care. We’re checking out because it’s not possible for our bodies to physically care this much anymore.
A few weeks ago, I asked The Phoenix readers how you’re feeling right now. Dozens of you repeated different heartfelt and heartbreaking versions of the same thing: It’s all just so much.
It's not "just" Covid we're going through. This year CO2 levels reached a point unseen by any living creature on Earth in the past four million years. By any measure, every year of our kids’ entire lives will be wildly unusual. They’re measuring time in months, not years.
It didn’t have to be this way, but that doesn’t really matter anymore. It is how it is. And until we truly admit we need systemic change, see ourselves in that struggle, and mobilize against the people and organizations who brought us here, it’s going to keep getting worse.
Healing the trauma
Burnt out on writing, I didn’t know what else to do. So, I ordered some seeds for our garden. And I planted some metaphorical seeds.
For decades, media coverage of weather and climate disasters has been apocalyptic, extractive, and leaves readers feeling hopeless and with no vision of lasting change. That model is broken. This is also *exactly* why I’m building Currently, a weather service for the climate emergency.
Become a Currently Founding Member
We’re building Currently not as a “cure” for eco-anxiety and eco-grief. It’s the opposite: truly processing those feelings creates room for transformative, sustainable action. Because we’re not just “saving the planet”, we’re also saving each other.
Last year, the Center for Public Integrity spoke to more than 200 disaster survivors and asked them for advice on how to help others heal from emotional trauma. Five major themes emerged: 1) Be aware, 2) Seek support, 3) Offer help, 4) Take action, and 5) Prepare for next time.
Currently helps people do all five of these, in community with each other. It’s what I think needs to exist for us to help us get through this phase of the climate emergency.
Since we began working on Currently, I’ve felt my energy return. It’s a way for me to engage in the climate emergency, be of service, and process the trauma of this moment. It has reminded me that there’s a place for me, even when I feel like everything’s too much.
It’s my hope that each of you can find your place, too. It’s OK to hurt, but it’s also OK to find your place of joy.
Don’t be silent. Don’t wait for a better moment. This is the best moment you’re going to get. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for.
It’s OK to be nervous, even scared. I am, every day. But there are billions of people on your side, and they’re depending on your courage and your moral clarity to utterly transform your tiny corner of this big broken system we’re all a part of.
This is the work you were meant to do. You are perfectly qualified for it. In fact, we can’t do it without you.
The bottom line is: We can't do this without each other. We are in a climate emergency. And we were born at exactly the right time to change everything.