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War, Helplessness, and Hope

On 28 February, I waited with a heavy heart for the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This report has been seven years in the making and is put together by the world’s top climate scientists. It looks specifically at “impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability.” It came out mid-morning, and the contents were not surprising. UN secretary-general António Guterres said: “I’ve seen many reports, but nothing like the new IPCC climate report, an atlas of human suffering, and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”

The last sentences of the report are clear:

The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.

(Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

How was this existentially important news reported? Hardly at all. The Guardian, one of the UK’s best newspapers for climate crisis reportage, made it their top news headline for several hours but by the afternoon it had already been kicked off by news about the National Health Service. This “top headline” was beneath 12 separate reports about the war in Ukraine.

Of course, the war in Ukraine is frightening and terrible, and it is imperative that those seeking peace watch closely and do what they can. I could write about the links between the fossil fuel industry, capitalism, and war, but I am not an expert in the complexities of this. What I do know is that focussing all of our attention on the war—and, before this, on the pandemic—is like trying to fix a pain in someone’s foot, when the cause of the pain is a fever rampaging through the patient’s body. Our planet is heating up and we are racing toward ever-worsening tipping points. When will the climate and ecological emergency garner the attention it needs?

If the planet’s fever is climate change, then what is causing the fever? The Buddha knows: greed, hate, and delusion. In our attempts to shore up our insecurities and to avoid our worst fears about ourselves, we cause harm. We cling to fame, wealth, and power, we push away other’s criticisms of us, and we blanket ourselves in comfortable denial. War happens because leaders are desperate for more, and they give up on asking nicely. Underneath war lies generations of personal and societal trauma. Underneath the climate crisis lies the same thing.

What can we do about all of this? Helplessness is a horrible emotion to feel—many of us have been feeling it this past week as we witness the atrocities in Ukraine. Over the past few years, since I “awoke” to the climate crisis, helplessness has been a constant companion. What can I do as I see the human race hurtling toward our own extinction? How can I be heard? How can I live with these awful realities?

I find that an excellent antidote to my own feelings of helplessness is taking action. I am fortunate that my work life allows me some time and space to take action. I am part of a new group called Beyond Fossil Fuels Together, and in March we will sit in silent vigil outside the Houses of Parliament in London—all day and all night for a fortnight. I will go to Extinction Rebellion’s week of action in London in April. And later today, as I write this, my husband and I will attend our weekly vigil for the Earth in the middle of our town.

I also need to be careful. In my anxiousness to assuage my feelings of helplessness, I can overestimate my influence. I need to remember that the small actions I take will not actually save the planet. I am only one of 7.9 billion people and I don’t rule a country or sit on the board of a fossil fuels multinational. I have a few thousand friends on Facebook and I run a small-town temple. I don’t have a personal line to the prime minister and I never will.

Acknowledging these facts doesn’t discourage me, but keeps me sane. The reality of my limitations frees me to do what I can to the best of my abilities, and then hand the rest over to the Buddha. Whether we still have a habitable planet by 2100 is not under my control. What is under my control is speaking about these issues with the people I know, writing articles like this one, and taking some vacation time each year to go onto the streets. What is under my control is taking care of myself so that I can continue—by taking actual vacations, going out with my friends, and enjoying the spring flowers in the temple garden. What is under my control are these next ordinary tasks just in front of me.

I can’t stop wars or pandemics or the climate and ecological emergency. I can follow the Buddha’s teachings and keep opening my heart to the suffering of the world. I can accept that I have limitations, and lean into the unlimited compassion and wisdom of the Buddha. I can remember to appreciate the life I have been given—how precious it is!

See more

Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

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