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As Temperatures Soar and Wildfires Burn Abroad, Summer Dread is Returning to My Body

These days, when I come back into the house after being out on the land, it’s dust that I drop, not the mud I carried in on my boots and clothes during the past three years when the rain kept everything, and everyone, sodden most of the time. The rain that also kept at bay the feeling of impending disaster that now attaches itself to the arrival of an Australian summer.

Not that La Niña was safe, as all of those whose homes and habitats were washed away know. But in the early months of 2023, as if the weather gods had snapped a finger, soaked turned to parched, and I find myself here again. Borne by news of soaring temperatures and wildfires in the northern hemisphere, the shift from a medium to a high likelihood of the arrival of El Niño to the official declaration of its onset, and the feeling of hardening earth under my feet, summer dread is returning to my body.

As the winter months dissipate and the timer to summer is racing, the dread I wake up into is both a daily shock and also uncannily normalised.

The early mornings I used to spend strolling the donkeys over to their daytime pasture are now committed to lead training so that all of us become “comfortable” with emergency evacuation procedures. It’s galling for them and a chore for me, but also shadowed by some of my grimmest memories – frantically manhandling them on to a truck at 44-odd degrees on 28 December 2019, the fire baying on the other side of the Shoalhaven River. I now have casual conversations with neighbours about what level of threat should count as the criterion for putting a message on the emergency WhatsApp group. I read news of the Maui fires on my phone as I stand and watch the concrete bunker being dug into the old orchard and wonder whether this is the new form of privilege.

A NSW south coast blaze in December 2019

Four years on from the black summer fires, in this month when they already started in the north in 2019, anticipating what climate change will mean for the Australian summer feels very different. Whether you experienced those fires as months of muted light, breathing in the remains of the distant burnt, or directly, in the form of the conflagrations that destroyed lives, homes, habitats, communities and ecosystems, the looming future is no longer abstract.

For the most part, those fears remain unspoken – as if silence might cast a protective spell

I know I’m not the only one feeling this toxic mix of emotions: a tremor through my body when another climate-related news item flashes across the screen. The drop in my stomach when I look at the weather app and every single day is marked with a sun icon. My throat tightening when I see a graph displaying another sharply ascending line.

I also suspect I’m not the only one uneasy about how little we are speaking about it. As we watch images of the fires in Maui and Canada and Greece and Algeria, or hear that July 2023 recorded the highest temperatures on record across the planet, surely many of us are feeling anxious about what it’s going to be like here in December, January and February, if not earlier. The coming heat, I know, will kill the most vulnerable, and the future fires that will again devastate human and animal lives threaten to crowd out my efforts to focus on whatever I am doing. But for the most part, those fears remain unspoken – as if silence might cast a protective spell, or saying it out loud would make it so.

A man amid a fire in Rhodes, Greece, in July

That so many of us still fall into this type of magical thinking is hardly surprising. And it is not just because we don’t know what to say, or because we’re terrified by our own emotions. It’s also a response to a sense of impotence and perhaps even hopelessness in the face of the abject failure on the part of our democratically empowered governments to act in a manner commensurate with the scale of the catastrophes – the one we already experienced and the ones to come. Most of us know, somewhere, what type of summer we are heading for. Worse still, we know that on the current trajectory those who look back in the decades to come will see these early 2020s summers as relatively mild.

Like the impacts of climate change itself, dread and terror and grief are neither evenly nor fairly distributed, as my colleague Dr Blanche Verlie has shown. They track other lines of inequality and injustice, falling most brutally on those who will be most severely impacted: the ones whose young lives will carry them well into a harrowing future; the ones whose poverty precludes escape; the ones whose social marginalisation and vulnerability exacerbates their exposure to heat or flood or fire; the ones whose millennia of relationship with, and care for, Country will see kin and culture decimated.

At the other end of the scale lie the ones whose privilege will shield them from the worst effects, whose investment in perpetuating fossil-fuelled economies precludes acknowledging their complicity, and whose unstinting faith in the promise of endless technological progress shuns any suggestion that the future will not keep on getting better. Theirs is not only a comforting delusion but a criminal impediment to the actions that need to be taken.

People in the Shoalhaven, south of Sydney, where I live, know well the reasonableness of fear.

The Currowan fire that burned for 74 days could neither be controlled nor its movements forecast, let alone stopped. 30 December 2019 and 3 January 2020 were just two of the dates when the fire prediction maps did not reach the towns and stretches of country incinerated 24 hours later. All of us – people and animals – learned that not only our protective but also our predictive capacities were now redundant. The strategies people had deployed in the past to protect themselves and the animals they lived with proved feeble. Birds who might have flown out to sea to escape fires past lay dead on beaches, exhausted. The native animals that were not killed found themselves in unrecognisable worlds without shelter or food or water.

A burned kangaroo is carried north of Cooma, NSW, in 2020

‘The only way through climate dread’

During the past year I worked with a team speaking with people who had rescued, cared for and tried to assist domesticated, farmed and wild animals during and after the black summer fires. With the Covid-19 pandemic starting less than two months after the fires ended, few had ever spoken about what they had done or seen or felt, and they are carrying the trauma into the coming summer. But that is not all they are carrying; they, like others who have lived through climate change-driven disasters, are also bringing to this summer the hard-won knowledge that solidarity and collective action are the best antidotes to terror, dread and the mental health tolls of ongoing climate disasters.

Grief is, after all, the other side of love, and anger the other side of the courage and determination

When we gathered groups of people who had lived through the fires, witnessed human and animal suffering and death and saved who they could, two critical shifts started to happen.

First, as horse owners, wildlife carers and farmers shared their memories and fears for the future, they started to recognise how normal and rational their emotions were, and to build together a sense of being part of a community of experience and feeling.

Second, they started to go to work on creating plans for how to better cooperate and build collective strategies to support each other and their human, animal and ecological communities in the face of future disasters.

These two shifts – the emotional ones and the action-oriented ones – are connected. Grief is, after all, the other side of love, and anger the other side of the courage and determination to right injustice.

As we confront projections that threaten the lives we had imagined would unfurl into the future, it’s tempting to reach for what Jenny Offill called the obligatory note of hope. But false illusions are a flimsy barrier against reality and no foundation for the actions that would justify authentic hope. They are also, at this point, criminally irresponsible.

The truth is that this summer and the summers to come will bring extreme heat and fires, the extent of which we cannot yet know.

But the truth is also that there is so much we can, collectively, be doing to ease the burden for all Earth beings as we move into that future. As counterintuitive as it may sound, looking our predicament square in the eye and then, in the face of what we see, organising and acting – collectively, politically and practically – with a view to caring for the planet that is our earthly home is the only way through climate dread.

  • Danielle Celermajer is a professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences and deputy director of the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney. Her book Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future (Penguin 2021) was written in the wake of the black summer fires

Source : The Guardian