How to mitigate climate change – and climate change anxiety

Bob Sandford and Mary Oliver say: “Pay attention”

Bob Sandford, EPCOR Chair in Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water Environment and Health, argues that the extreme weather events of summer 2018 are an indicator that we have crossed over the threshold into a new climactic regime. The word “threshold” is a reference to Rockstrӧm’s seminal work on planetary boundaries (discussed here) where while humanity has enjoyed stability in temperature, freshwater, and biogeochemical flows for the previous 10,000 years, human activities have wrought unprecedented change in several key planetary systems – any one of which could push the global system to a space where all life is threatened. At a POLIS Water Sustainability Project seminar at the University of Victoria, Sandford shared apocalyptic images of the fires and floods that he feels will become a new normal.

Sandford shared that the most important climate feedbacks all involve water. As an example, he cited the Clausius-Clapeyron relation that explains how a warmer atmosphere holds more water, with severe implications for both duration and severity of extreme weather events like storms and droughts and the accompanying forest fires and floods. The science is sobering, and the political response is underwhelming: there is a clear relationship between the funding spent by the government on repairing damages from natural disasters and yet there is little to no proactive policy change in response to the lessons learned from previous disasters. However, Sandford communicated his thoughts on potential solutions and his reasons for optimism.

  1. The new (and only) word is buffer. Intact and functioning natural systems have innate buffering qualities that make them more resilient. It is imperative that we understand how to restore natural systems to benefit from their buffering qualities.
  2. We need language and a space to grieve the alteration and destruction of our environment. But then, as leaders, we need to create communities that don’t devolve into anxiety but can instead be spaces for support and action. Sandford shared an image of the sculpture, The Spirit of Haidi Gwaii, a black canoe that has a variety of human and beastie passengers, communicates the truth that it takes diversity and interdependence to survive.
  3. Developing a sense of place. A strong sense of place can facilitate a common vision and a shared sense of humanity. There are clear and strong examples of how this can and has been done in indigenous systems and governing. To improve public understanding, we need to be calm and thoughtful. This can come from an improved sense of place. In keeping with Sandford’s underlying theme regarding the importance of water, he poetically expressed “seeing water” to pay attention to our environment in such a way that moves beyond the limitations of science to truth.

The thoughts from Sandford resonate with the poems of Mary Oliver, American poet and Pulitzer Prize-winner. Mary Oliver who was the soul who walked into the woods with a small notebook to write and to move and to be with nature. Oliver passed away last week, but we are left with her poetry and a command to pay attention:


Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell me about it.


Please do.