A good treatment for climate anxiety is to get involved in the fight – here are some lessons learnt.
I’m not a guy who likes to talk a lot.
I’m a 60-something-year-old anaesthetist working in western Victoria. You might think in my spare time I’d choose to hang out with my four kids and infant grandson, doing what baby boomers growing old disgracefully tend to do.
So, how did a person like me become an advocate for action on climate change? How did I end up being the guy who rings politicians, seeking meetings to talk to them about the health effects of a rapidly heating planet?
The truth is the birth of my grandson and a confluence of other events led me to act. I was already becoming increasingly worried about climate change. When covid hit, it forced a major rethink.
It seemed like everyone was listening to scientists and I thought, maybe they’re ready to listen on climate too. Around the same time, my daughter asked me to advise on a chapter she was writing for a book about climate health. I ended up reading her work many times. Through it, I felt her anxiety.
Not long after, I happened to see a video by Doctors for the Environment discussing techniques for lobbying politicians. I joined DEA immediately and completed a leadership and change course that resulted in new knowledge, some confidence and an opportunity to make connections with like-minded people.
But still, I wondered if I was up to the task – changing a politician’s mind is no easy thing. My “imposter syndrome” was real, but my new friends and colleagues thought I could do it.
I took my partner with me to the first meeting. I wore a suit! I probably looked a little like Bob Brown.
We met with our local federal member and, despite some issues with Zoom, the meeting went remarkably well. I realised I was better informed than the MP and that representing a trusted group in society gave me an authoritative voice.
Inevitably, becoming an activist came with a steep learning curve. I realised one could be manipulated in these encounters, and that being seen as aligned with one political party was not productive.
I learnt that communication methods matter, and personal or emotive stories in particular are effective. “Teaching” facts does very little to shift opinions, but finding common ground can help. For politicians, hearing a solution is more agreeable than hearing a complaint, and better yet, solutions with cost savings are particularly attractive.
And what of my imposter syndrome? Well, I was too busy to worry, off and running, achieving small successes. I felt suddenly useful and was getting things done. It seemed a good treatment for my climate anxiety.
Learning and thinking intensively about climate change and the shocking effects of global heating on our health can be harrowing work. I realised early on that I would need to consider my own psychological health.
DEA offers valuable advice on how to manage this aspect of advocacy work, and I learnt I needed to be selective in the roles I take on. That might mean public speaking, committee work and strategy, attending demonstrations, engaging with politicians and simple funding for others’ activities.
Obviously, it’s not realistic to do everything, and one will have strengths and weaknesses in each area. Perhaps a particular niche will become obvious, as it did for me.
But even more importantly, I learnt I must be happy with the small triumphs that come along the way. Climate action is definitely not a sprint, but celebrating successes helps with mental health, energy and motivation.
Dr Don Serle is an anaesthetist in western Victoria.