I have faced that life-wrenching question not once but twice in the last four years.The first time was when my partner, the ABC’s famed Science Show host Robyn Williams, dropped dead in front of me. Robyn had just had a cancer diagnosis, but was otherwise well and on his second round of chemo when I heard a weird thump and went to investigate. There on the floor was my partner of 20 years and he was white, white, white. Not breathing, just fish gasps… no no no no! I flew across the floor, my mind screaming,
This is it, this is the day he dies, on this beautiful sunny day. It’s happening, right now. Couldn’t find a pulse, shaking too hard… three minutes went by and I didn’t know how to do CPR but I knew at four minutes it was brain damage.
What would you do to save the one you love? Answer: whatever you can. One push, two push, three four five… and on six a line of pink went up his neck and face and he woke up and said, “Why are you crying?”
The year was 2017. I was on a once in a lifetime holiday, having just bid farewell to 20 years as a science reporter on ABC TV’s Catalyst, and I was visiting one of my fantasy places: Japan’s snow country. You see, I’d fallen in love with snow as a child; beguiled by its sparkling enchantment in fairy stories and Lord of the Rings, and then when I moved to Sydney as an adult, I fell for a real snowland: Kunama Namadji; Australia’s magical Snowy Mountains. It became my heart place – we all have them, places we fall in love with like we do a person. So the Japan trip was a special treat and I was having a ball; skiing powder for the first time, visiting onsens, hanging out with Swiss ski instructors on holidays… Hang on – what’s a Swiss ski instructor doing here in January, his busiest time of year? His answer: “I came to find good snow.” Switzerland had a green Christmas that year. I was shocked.
Later that week, half the Great Barrier Reef died. And as I looked around at my magical white kingdom, it suddenly struck me my beloved heart place could be lost too. On my return to Australia, I found graph after graph showing that if we don’t dramatically change course, within a few decades snow in Australia will be gone. This was the moment the abstract of climate change suddenly became real, emotional, and personal. Like the moment I realised Robyn really could die, I realised in my bones snow could die. No, no, no! Overwhelmed, I started crying. For months I cried. I’d plunged into a deep clinical depression – a state I later learned to term climate grief.
You’re probably thinking at this point I’ll tell you how eventually I started a not-for-profit, or a renewables business or joined extinction rebellion. No, nothing so grand. I was simply desperate to know – how do I live a good and happy life under the weight of this distressing knowledge? Without simply blanking it out? And how do I help my friends – the mums who don’t know what to say to their anxious children, the passionate young adults who are hitting burnout – or are scared to have kids?
Finally I reasoned, I’m a science reporter for goodness sake: why don’t I just science the shit out of it – and ask some experts? That was the beginning of a journey that ultimately became my book: ‘Beyond Climate Grief: a journey of love, snow, fire and enchanted beer can.’My first aim was to validate this term “climate grief”. It’s real, and I know I’m not the only one struggling with emotional overwhelm. And the trouble is, it’s so easy to just go “too hard”, look away and get stuck in denial, or despair, and shut the emotions out.
But grief is important. It honours what you love. And what I learned is that if you face “The Beast”, as I’ve come to personify climate change, you can use the grief as a bouncing point to really look at what matters in life and find the courage for action and active hope. One thing I realised early on is that it helps to think of our climate actions as similar to your partner getting a cancer diagnosis. You wouldn’t look away; you love them.
So you take whatever action or treatment is necessary to bring about the best possible future outcome… but you also relish the precious wonder of now. If anything, life becomes more meaningful. So think of your own beloved heart-place – your beach, your forest, your lake, or just the dream of a safe summer for your kids – and picture what’s ahead if we don’t turn the climate juggernaut around. It’s very motivating!
I also sought the advice of people far wiser than me. The amazing Missy Higgins, whose own confrontation with climate grief led to her beautiful album ‘Solastalgia‘, taught me the importance of a healthy information diet. The news cycle is designed to push fear buttons, drowning us in a soup of anxiety. We must learn to regulate our intake of bad news, and balance it daily with good news. This is especially important for those passionate young adults at risk of burnout. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from psychologist Dr Susie Burke, who told me, “look for heroes.”
Once you start looking, they’re everywhere. Some are in my book… like the Castlemaine kids, who helped kickstart the whole global school strike phenomenon. Or businessman Mike Cannon Brookes, who is committing millions to his inspiring vision for Australia’s renewable superpower future. Or the ordinary citizens who fought nightmare fires with buckets, or provided food or shelter or nursed wildlife. They are the antidote for all the distorting negatives.
Expert psychologists helped me answer how parents can help their kids emotionally, and then my quest took an unexpectedly epic turn when a climate-change-forged fire monster descended on my Mum’s town of Mallacoota. It was an extraordinary reminder of what is really at stake here – what we are all facing in Australia going forward. And why we really can’t look away. But the positive is that, as the disaster psychologists told me repeatedly, it’s a chance to reflect on what matters most in our lives and reassess our goals and the importance of friendship, community and working together for a common future – something many of us have woken up to in the wake of Apocalypse 1.0 and 2.0; fires and plague.
I honestly think the next generation will foster more meaningful lives. And if there’s one thing that came through in my journey again and again, it’s that uncomfortable emotions are there for one reason; they are urging us to act.
We are not all Greta. We are not all Mike Cannon Brookes or David Attenborough.
There is a limit to what we can do as individuals. But we can join others to apply pressure where it matters. Our superpower as a species is our ability to cooperate – together we are much more likely to prevail. We have to reach the social tipping point that will force all politicians and organisations to embrace rapid transformation, because these climate realities are not going away. The 2020s have already seen a steep change in impact – three cataclysmic floods in NSW, a devastating cyclone in WA, months of catastrophic fire across every state.
So I urge you, don’t look away from your climate grief. Harness it; transform it into courage, joy, motivation and active hope. And ask yourself; what will I do to save the life and the lands we love?
You can’t know if it will work. But if you love, you have to know you tried, right? I didn’t think when my partner was lying white on the floor that my puny inexpert CPR would help. But it did.