The courageous leadership is coming from children

Photo by ROSA WOODS / STUFF

The Guardian has started including carbon counts in its weather reports. July’s average: 411.77 parts per million in the atmosphere. It’s 3.06 more than July last year.

The points per million prick the bubble I have put myself in. It bursts, and I’m overwhelmed by the enormity of it again. I go quiet; I start giving my tight, tepid smile. My husband takes my young daughter out, and I spend the day intermittently crying as I clean the house.

My climate anxiety started around October last year, when the IPCC released their matter of factly titled report: Global Warming 1.5C. Drought, extreme cyclones, species extinction, ice shelf instability, sea level rise, food and water shortages. Less than ten years to stop the worst of it. It got worse with the release of The Uninhabitable Earth a month later, the author blunty describing what our world will become if we don’t make drastic changes, and media outlets obliging with stock images of wildfires, air choked with dust.

My daughter, aged four, wants to be a dancer. She also wants to be a vet, a firefighter, Wonderwoman. She asks me about the countries I have been to and what the people are like and who uses chopsticks and how big are the buildings and do they have tigers there or just in Russia and then asks – will I go there one day?

I tell her yes, because I’m too ashamed and scared to tell her how bad it is. That we may all be grounded by the time she’s ready for her OE. I’m too frightened and anxious myself to be able to provide the reassurance a mother should be able to provide to her daughter. That she can be whatever she wants to be, and have all the adventures we have been able to have, to enjoy the freedom and certainty we have.

But I tell her yes, because otherwise I’d be telling her this: the future looks bleak. There are too many people in this Earth for the planet to sustain. We are locked into a life of consumerism that damages Papatūānuku in unimaginable ways. Our leaders know what’s happening, they know the risk it presents, they know the urgency of the problem, and they’re doing as little as possible about it.

Instead, the courageous leadership is coming from children. Young people, deeply and rightly angry at the inaction of the adults in power. They’re organising, they’re marching, they’re persistent and they’re hopeful despite having no reason to be. As I watch them stream down Lambton Quay, I all at once feel proud and in awe of the fire in their bellies, and ashamed that the weight of this problem has fallen on their small shoulders.

The courageous leadership is coming from the smallest of the world’s nations, Tuvalu, the Marshalls, the Maldives. “No good fruit this last month, all the trees died,” says a man from Tuvalu on my headphones as I stroll past a supermarket. “The coconut trees, their fruit just fall on the ground at the wrong time because of that sickness.”

As my understanding of climate change deepens, so does the gulf between me and the people I love. I feel a growing sense of anger that they are carrying on their lives as if nothing is happening.

It’s like a scream caught in my throat, like when I’m dreaming I’m in danger and I try to scream but nothing comes out.

My parents continue to vote based on their 50-year farming history, rather than on their grandchildren’s future. My in-laws continue to take three international trips a year, and return with plastic toys and plastic clothes for my child. My husband continues to drive our petrol car to the supermarket, three blocks away, because it’s raining. I retreat from conversations about Christmas or travel or shopping or speculation about what our children’s futures will be like because they make me feel dizzy with anxiety and anger.

My urge is to shake them and yell at them, but I don’t. I practice calm, rational conversations in my head about the issues, though I’m too afraid to have them. I want to beg with them to help me stop this, help me to forge an okay future for my daughter. We all love her, right? But it feels akin to calling them on their casual racism, or their driving. It’s calling them on their lifestyles, on their inaction, on their responsibility for this mess, on their hypocrisy – and my own.

So instead, I think about tidy, gentle ways to kill myself when our family has run out of food, because I don’t want to be a burden. I think about what skills I’ll need to teach my daughter in order for her to survive in a world that I imagine to be somewhat like The Walking Dead. Is foraging or learning to use a gun more useful? I imagine other people’s children, the ones who were unlucky enough to be born closer to the equator, starving, while we do nothing, because New Zealand is okay for now.

I wonder about what kind of people New Zealanders will turn out to be when half the world becomes unlivable and a true tidal wave of people head South to survive. Will we welcome people on to our shores and share what we have, or will we arm ourselves to keep it?

I explained all of this to a counsellor, told her about the dread, the cold feeling on my skin, the sick feeling that something very bad is happening. We talk about ways to cope with the undeniable knowledge that it is a crisis, it is real, and it is unlikely to be averted. Unlike previous anxiety, it’s not my mind playing tricks on me, it’s not a feeling I can control. It’s happening, and I’m scared.

I try to keep myself from reading about the worst of it. I know enough that I am motivated to action, but anything more and I freeze. It only takes a small piece of information, like accidentally reading that plants exposed to greater levels of carbon dioxide grow faster but have little nutritional value, and I’m back to square one: shaky with fear and crying in the bathroom.

When I have the energy, I write submissions and sign petitions. I ride my bike. I compost. I buy second-hand. I plant trees.

I try to hold on to some words I read in an online parenting group, intended for children but of continual comfort to me: It won’t happen all at once, and when it does, you’ll be surrounded by family and friends.

Some of our writers wish to remain anonymous.

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