After my father and brother passed away, I suppressed my sadness in the same manner that we ignore the issue of climate change. However, it did not disappear. – Conal Hanna
The children’s designated bedtime had already passed, and my irritation was starting to become apparent.
While they dawdled, I worried – thinking about the remaining tasks on my to-do list before I could finally go to bed. Finally, as I rushed to tuck in my daughter, she looked at me with a worried look and asked: “Dad, does Poppy require surgery?”
I was taken aback by the sudden realization. Bill, my father-in-law, had just undergone surgery to remove bladder cancer. I didn’t want to share this news with my nine-year-old for various reasons that I will elaborate on. And at that moment, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her. I was momentarily speechless before coming up with an excuse about Poppy needing a hip replacement soon. Luckily, this was also true and it calmed my daughter enough for her to fall asleep.
Unfortunately, I was the one who had to face the truth. As I looked through my phone, I only found one notification regarding Bill’s surgery, which she must have come across. It was evident that we would have to discuss this with the kids tomorrow.
Recently, I’ve been contemplating the concept of denial and how it consumes a significant portion of our lives. I’ve also been reflecting on our tendency to shelter those we care about from unpleasant realities.
Unfortunately, Bill’s diagnosis was delivered to us during a particularly challenging year in 2023. In March, my brother Peter passed away, possibly due to a minor medical issue that was exacerbated by him operating a forklift. And just five months later, my father suffered a sudden and serious heart attack. I couldn’t help but think that his grief over losing Pete played a role in his own health decline.
After they passed away, we discovered that both of them had been dealing with minor health issues that, looking back, were indications of what was to come. Only their partners knew about these concerns and were sworn to keep it a secret. Both men didn’t want to cause any worry for others. Even after Peter’s death, which was related to his heart, my father never mentioned that he had also received abnormal results from a heart test six months prior.
I have found it difficult to come to terms with this.
Just two months later, I found myself protecting my own children from negative information. The next morning, I was honest with them and tried to clarify why I had lied. As I did this, I was overwhelmed by the emotions of the past year. I also came to the realization that I had been in denial about Bill for the previous few days. It’s not just our family and friends that we deceive.
Denial has its uses, admittedly. Many times last year I chose to ignore my grief’s existence just to get through the day. The secret is to keep yourself busy. As a long-term strategy, however, it’s not particularly sustainable.
The arrival of a severe summer season arrived sooner than expected in my region of Australia. The intense smoke from bushfires had dimmed the sunlight for several days in the beginning of spring 2019 when I came across an essay by Jonathan Franzen. He made a compelling argument that the fight against climate change was ultimately futile. I felt a wave of sadness. “But we barely made an effort,” I recall thinking.
This was the start of my initial experience with climate anxiety. Suddenly, the idea of global warming transformed from a distant concept to something tangible and immediate. I was not very pleasant to be around for some time.
One month later, I read an article in The Conversation that changed my perspective on apocalyptic predictions. The academics Iain Walker and Zoe Leviston discussed “three categories of climate change deniers”: those who reject the idea of a warming world, those who acknowledge warming but deny it is caused by humans, and the largest group who engage in “implicatory denial” according to the authors.
The evidence of climate change is not disputed and its meaning is not distorted, according to the authors. However, what is denied or downplayed are the emotional, political, and ethical consequences of these facts for us. We neglect to take responsibility for addressing the issue and fail to take action despite being informed of the urgency to do so.
Choosing to ignore the moral obligation to take action is just as damaging as any other form of denial, and some may argue that it is even worse.
These words had a significant impact on my family and how we live. Within the following year, we decreased our consumption of meat and dairy, improved our composting, and altered our attitude towards material possessions such as clothing, cleaning products, and breakfast cereals containing palm oil. While it was not without its challenges (thanks to Covid-19), I have overcome much more difficult tasks as well.
The primary obstacles were primarily mental, as we embraced the unease of understanding our influence on the world and attempted to release preconceived notions about the expected way of life.
After one year, we had decreased our emissions by approximately 47% (or 83% if we took into account the additional solar energy that we had contributed to the power grid). We experienced a sense of satisfaction, at least for a period of time.
Unfortunately, the amount of carbon that my family has successfully reduced from entering the atmosphere annually, which is approximately 20 tonnes, may seem insignificant. However, when this amount is multiplied by 800 million, which accounts for nearly half of the world’s emissions caused by the wealthiest 10% of individuals, it begins to make a noticeable difference.
After organizing our own household, my original intention was to advocate for taking action against climate change. I wanted to gently challenge the “implicatory denial” I observed in others. However, while reducing our emissions turned out to be easier than expected, discussing it has been more difficult. This is partly due to a fear of being perceived as judgmental and partly a desire to avoid burdening social interactions with a heavy and joyless reality. When it comes to my children, I am also trying to protect them from a rational yet overwhelming anxiety.
It appears to be the ultimate dilemma when it comes to climate change. We tend to avoid discussing it in social settings to avoid causing discomfort, but if we continue to ignore the reality of the situation, it will only lead to more severe consequences in the future – which would be even more distressing.
Acquiring the skill of acceptance
I have been discussing my grief with a psychologist over the past year, and they have a formula for measuring suffering.
Pain multiplied by Resistance equals Suffering.
The main idea is that fighting against pain only amplifies it. He suggested I schedule time to openly mourn. This has proven to be beneficial.
Although I acknowledge the advantages, there have been numerous occasions where my mind has opposed being pulled down that route. It’s truly astounding how alluring it can be to stay occupied when faced with challenging emotions. Reflecting on my own behavior has allowed me to gain insight into how my father and brother disregarded their own uncomfortable realities. Despite being informed at the time of diagnosis that they were not in imminent peril, they chose to ignore it.
The two intelligent men failed to follow the doctors’ advice for additional tests in a timely manner. Looking back, this decision seems foolish. However, the idea of facing an existential threat was too overwhelming, so they chose to prioritize their immediate duties in their busy lives.
The deaths have made me realize the immense difficulty of addressing climate change. Facts are useless if people are unwilling to think beyond what they can see and imagine the unimaginable.
I will never be certain if there was anything I could have said to make my father and brother take the doctors’ advice more seriously. To others, I urge you to learn from their mistakes. Ignoring a problem, no matter how tempting, will not make it disappear. It is more likely to result in feelings of regret. We all have tasks to accomplish, but denying the truth, whether out of fear, love, or distraction, does not change its validity.
Will climate change inevitably alter our way of living? Should we continue to ignore this reality for the sake of ourselves and future generations?