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Blog post: When climate change becomes personal – A reflection on researching non-economic loss and damage

It feels almost shameful to admit, but climate change has always felt like something abstract and far away. Of course, I know that climate change is happening. I can explain the greenhouse effect. I even use climate change as an argument for banning meat from my diet, reducing my consumption of animal-based products, and travelling through Europe by bus and train.
I do all of these things because of what I know. Yet, now, for the first time in my life, climate change touched me emotionally. Or rather, slammed me in the face.
Flooding in India.
Flooding in India. Image credit: Asian Development Bank

During the past three months, I have been looking at about 300 extreme weather events that scientists have attributed to climate change in the last twenty years, ranging from wildfires in Australia and California, to droughts in Africa and hurricanes in Central America.  For each event, I searched for research on the non-economic loss and damage that it had caused. Non-economic loss and damage includes all types of destruction that are difficult or even impossible to put a price tag on. Examples are human mortality, loss of biodiversity, destruction of cultural heritage, negative health and mental health effects, loss of culture and identity, and so on. Perhaps “Suffering” would be a more appropriate term to describe it.

Exploring human suffering from climate change in the midst of a pandemic

So there I was, in an almost-empty office due to pandemic times, collecting articles about different shades of human and non-human suffering.

And even though I only read titles and abstracts, the stories slowly seeped through my skin. Behind every article were real people and places. Even the scientific language in a title such as “Maternal micronutrient status and decreased growth of Zambian infants born during and after the maize price increases resulting from the southern African drought of 2001-2002” could not stop me from imagining stunted children, desperate mothers and families whose poverty got even more hopeless because of climate change. The title “Management of the dead in Tacloban City after Typhoon Haiyan” made me freeze for a moment. In the abstract, the authors described that they found a “dignified and efficient way of identifying corpses” to enable “rapid body processing” after the typhoon. I took a deep breath and added it to the database.

For some extreme weather events, I did not find any articles about non-economic loss and damage. Such unsuccessful searches left me wondering: had these specific droughts and floods not been so bad after all, or was it just that nobody had done research on them? Even though I hoped for the first explanation, the second one is more probable. My list of extreme weather events also included hurricane Katrina, which destroyed New Orleans in 2005. A search for its impacts yielded around 3,000 articles. After scrolling through them and downloading relevant articles for three days, I gave up. I had not even managed to get through half of them. And already I felt numbed by all the studies on displacement, violence, mental health effects, destruction and loss of life caused by this single event. The project team wisely freed me from the task and decided to instead create an algorithm to dig through the “biggest” (most researched) climate events.

When it becomes personal

Perhaps it is quite useful to feel overwhelmed from time to time. It seems to create a healthy dose of humility.

Doing this research, I often wondered whether my bearing witness and my empathy had value, in some way, for someone. I don’t know. But I felt I couldn’t simply turn my empathy off. That would have been just another way of denial. “It won’t disappear if I look away, so I can as well look at it”, I remember saying to myself. The effect was that climate change now has become something that touches me emotionally. It’s about people suffering, forests burning, corals bleaching – and no longer just about some graphs on rising concentrations of CO2.

A starting point for resistance and change

Apart from the usual anti-depression advice (take a walk, meet friends, do things that you enjoy), it helped me to see my work in a bigger picture. Although my literature review on non-economic loss and damage did not feel particularly hopeful in itself, it is part of a bigger research project. In this broader scheme of things, an inventory of the effects of climate change can be linked to policy making, environmental litigation and social mobilization for climate justice. Although human and non-human suffering could be seen as the end product of climate change, it can also be the starting point for resistance and change.

 

Iris Maria Hertog, June 2020

About the author Iris Maria Hertog

Iris Maria Hertog

Iris Maria Hertog has been working as a research assistant at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies during the past academic year. The last few months, she worked  within the research project DICE - Recasting the disproportionate impacts of climate change extremes. Iris has a bachelor degree in Forest and Nature Conservation (Wageningen University, the Netherlands) and graduated from the master programme in Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science (LUMES) in 2019.

 

Iris' advice to others working with climate change

Acknowledge for yourself that you cannot resolve all the suffering in the world.

Try to find a balance between professional distance and human concern and empathy that works for you

Find ways to express your sorrow, fear, anger, hope, etc. in a constructive way, for example through art, music, writing, etc.

See your work in a bigger picture, and remind yourself regularly of its purpose and meaning

Join an organization or a social movement to feel empowered

Talk with colleagues who might be dealing with similar issues

Alternate between different taskts if a particular task become too heavy

Find out whatever other strategies work for you!

 

Further reading

Klimatpsykologi (Frida Hylander, Kali Andersson, Kata Nylén)
Active hope (Joanna Macy)

 

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