The Paris Agreement of 2015 saw nearly two hundred countries commit to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions enough to avert irreversible damage to societies around the globe. The agreement ultimately seeks to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Although the initial months of the pandemic assisted in this effort — fewer cars on the road and planes in the air — by September 2020 CO2 emissions had recovered to the previous year’s level, and they reached record highs in 2022. In March of this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a daunting report: without immediate reduction of fossil-fuel consumption, the world will reach the 1.5 degree Celsius mark within the next decade. Beyond that, according to the IPCC, lies the likelihood of myriad interconnected risks: famine, disease, violent conflict, involuntary migration, drought, fire, floods, and unbearable heat.
Such projections are amplified in a media culture that depends on clicks for advertising dollars. A deluge of such gloomy news can obscure the opportunities to make progress combating climate change. If all feels lost, some of us are likely to tune out.
When the IPCC first met, in November of 1988, Rebecca Priestley was an undergrad at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) in New Zealand. She graduated with a bachelor of science in geology in 1990, the same year the IPCC released its first report identifying climate change as one of the most important long-term threats to humanity. Since then, Priestley’s been contemplating, researching, and writing about the climate crisis. For six years she wrote a weekly science column for national current-affairs magazine the New Zealand Listener, often covering climate science. Ultimately, however, Priestley felt she wasn’t being emotionally honest with the column. In print she took a detached point of view, rather than discussing the real fears and anger she felt and shared with the climate scientists she interviewed.
Priestley completed an honors degree in physical geography in 1992, and a PhD in the history of science at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch in 2010. Seven years later she earned a master’s in creative writing from VUW’s creative-writing center, the International Institute of Modern Letters. She now writes creative nonfiction about the realities of climate change, connecting the personal anxieties she feels to the greater global threat of unchecked warming. Her latest book, Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica, came out in 2019. Last year her essay “Coming Soon to a Beach Near You,” published by Griffith Review, documented the frustration of trying to communicate the climate crisis to a seemingly apathetic audience.
I spoke to Priestley, who is now a professor of science in society, for a few hours over Zoom during an unsettlingly warm Virginia winter and a New Zealand summer that saw the northern part of that island nation ravaged by a cyclone. We spoke about the need for urgent action concerning climate change, but, perhaps more important, we also talked about the necessity of imagining a better future.
Lewis: This past winter in Virginia we had a whole week and a half where it got over 60 degrees Fahrenheit, sometimes up to 70 or 75. People were really excited; they could go outside and drink on patios. But for the first time I heard a lot of people say, “This is disturbing. This feels wrong.” I was curious if you had a moment when something made climate change real for you.
Priestley: I don’t think I had a single moment like that. I first started learning about climate change as an undergraduate in the 1980s. Then there was the first IPCC report in 1990. And I have been thinking about it ever since.
Your question reminds me of when I was in Antarctica in January 2018. Often at Scott Base, the New Zealand Antarctic research station on Ross Island, people would meet in the bar before dinner. I remember we were watching the news from home, and there was a report about a summer heat wave in Invercargill. This small town in the coldest part of New Zealand had 32 degree Celsius [90 degree Fahrenheit] heat. It was unprecedented. The news was showing people going to the beach and eating ice cream. Everyone was smiling; they were getting to have a summer in this place that’s known for being cold and miserable and windy. I looked around the bar at Scott Base, where just about every science project was about climate change or in some way connected to climate change, and there were no smiles on faces. People were shaking their heads.
Lewis: Do you think climate change is too big for most people to wrap their heads around?
Priestley: Yes. Timothy Morton at Rice University in Texas has called global warming a “hyperobject” — something that’s too big to conceive of or come to terms with, especially if it’s not affecting your day-to-day life, where things are going as they always have. A lot of climate scientists are talking about how things are going to be in 2100, which is outside the life span of most people alive today. And there’s uncertainty involved in any projection. So I understand why it might be too hard for someone to think about. Every time there’s an extreme, unprecedented weather event, we can say that such events are more likely due to climate change, but we can’t pin the cause of a single adverse-weather event to a change in climate. We’re like the proverbial frog in a pot of water that’s heating up: we don’t notice until it’s too late.
It doesn’t help to focus on the worst-case scenario. If the problem seems too enormous, some people feel paralyzed or give up and say, “Let’s just get drunk and enjoy ourselves, because we don’t have long.”
Lewis: How do you think we could convey the reality of climate change to people who don’t want to think about it?
Priestley: We can talk about the benefits of moving away from a carbon-based economy and using more renewable-energy sources. There are a lot of positives to that. It doesn’t mean we all lose out. A lot of arguments against taking action on climate change are based on the assertion that we can’t afford it; it will have a negative impact on the economy. But there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. A transition to renewable energy and sustainable forms of transport will create jobs. And supporting public transport, bicycle lanes, tree-planting projects, and community food gardens will make our cities more liveable. If we make better use of our public spaces, maybe individual households won’t need to accumulate so much stuff. And the people who’ve never been able to afford all that stuff can have access to some of the good things in life, too. British writer and environmental activist George Monbiot talks about a model of “private sufficiency, public luxury,” which could make our cities more sustainable and more equitable.
But if we don’t work to reduce our carbon emissions, and also start sucking excess carbon out of the atmosphere, then we’ll see more droughts, floods, fires, scarcity, and wars. And the economic and other impacts of all that will be catastrophic, especially for the poor and the middle classes. The rich will find ways to stay rich.
To be clear: I’m not talking about burning the system down. That sort of talk would just alienate people who already feel frightened and think that climate-change activists are going to impose some sort of authoritarian communist regime on them. I simply think that the things we can do to respond to climate change will also make the world a better place for most people.
Lewis: Your essay in Griffith Review talked about giving funerals to glaciers. I hadn’t really thought about the grief involved in dealing with climate change. I’m more focused on “OK, we have to do this right now, or we’re dead!”
Priestley: It doesn’t help to focus on the worst-case scenario. If the problem seems too enormous, some people feel paralyzed or give up and say, “Let’s just get drunk and enjoy ourselves, because we don’t have long.”
In 2019 we did a survey of New Zealanders and asked how much they thought the sea level could rise by 2100 in a worst-case scenario. The science says it could be one to two meters above 2000 levels by 2100, but we had people who were ticking the boxes for five meters, eight meters, fifteen meters of sea-level rise by 2100, which is physically impossible. The ice just can’t melt that fast even if you put a great big blowtorch to it. It would take hundreds of years for that to happen. When people envision that sort of thing, they feel helpless. All these warnings about “We’ve got ten years to act!” haven’t made people suddenly pull out all the stops and make the necessary changes.
The media will often pounce on the worst-case scenario when they report on a scientific paper, but sea-level-rise projections are complicated. Sea-level rise is driven by multiple factors: thermal expansion of the ocean [as water temperature increases, so does the volume of water — Ed.], melting of land-based glaciers, and melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. But the extent to which the Antarctic ice sheet will contribute is hard to predict. When two American scientists published a paper in 2016 about how much Antarctic ice melt could contribute to sea-level rise, the news headlines spoke of “catastrophic collapse” and “dire warnings.” About that same time, I went to a conference held by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The lead author of the paper was there, and he and others talked about how upset they were by the media coverage, because what they also say in that paper is that if we can limit global warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius, we might be able to stop the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet. For them that was the key finding: we think there is this threshold, and if we can keep warming below that, we can save the ice sheet. But the media had picked up on an unlikely worst-case scenario and made that the message, rather than “We’ve got a chance to make sure things work out OK, and here’s what we need to do.”
Climate-change communication is fraught; there are no easy answers. You’re also dealing with profit-driven news organizations that need people to click on articles. When climate scientists report their findings, oftentimes they’re concerned about conveying a message of hope that might inspire appropriate changes in behavior and not just upset people. I’m not trained in psychology, but psychology researchers are increasingly getting involved in science communication, trying to understand the way people respond to what they read in the media and online.
We need national governments and regional governments to take the lead. We need to vote for people who are going to promote change. The market will not respond fast enough to make the necessary changes.
Lewis: What do you think the worst-case scenario actually is?
Priestley: The IPCC projection for a scenario in which carbon emissions continue to rise unchecked throughout this century is warming of up to 5.4 degrees Celsius by 2100, which could result in a two-meter rise in sea levels. That’s a scary thought.
Cyclone Gabrielle hit the northern part of New Zealand in February. We had a lot of warnings. The MetService [the national meteorological service of New Zealand — Ed.] was tracking the cyclone and giving daily updates on where it might hit and what the impact was likely to be. There were some evacuations. Even with all that preparedness, eleven people died. The rainfall in some areas was double the record amount. There were flash floods. People had to be rescued from rooftops by helicopter. The storm caused billions of dollars in damage. Some of the main fruit- and vegetable-growing areas of the country have been decimated. The cleanup is still going on, and a lot of homes are unlivable. I think six bridges were washed away. A conversation is starting about “managed retreat,” the need for residents to move away from some vulnerable areas. New Zealand is said to be one of the best places to live in a warming world, and we’ve just seen this happen.
It’s important for us to talk about what we’re doing to address climate change — and not just individuals but also businesses. Many of the businesses that are doing good things have benefited. These are companies that set bolder carbon-reduction targets than were set by the Paris Agreement. It makes sense, too, because this is what consumers want — especially younger consumers. Businesses like the footwear brand Allbirds are saving money and winning over consumers by operating on sustainable principles, working toward carbon neutrality, and making efforts to reduce their energy consumption. They use recycled materials, recycle their waste, and give financial support to environmental and social initiatives.
There’s only so much an individual can do. Recycling is great for keeping waste out of a landfill, but it doesn’t do much to slow climate change. We need solutions that involve governments — though I know Americans don’t like the government telling them what to do! [Laughs.] We need national governments and regional governments to take the lead. We need to vote for people who are going to promote change. The market will not respond fast enough to make the necessary changes, just like the market alone couldn’t have dealt with the COVID pandemic.
Lewis: When I read reports saying we have only this many years left to turn things around, I think, I have a life. I have to get up and go to work. Am I just going to carry this around with me all day?
Priestley: I grapple with that, too: having all this information in your head and trying to effect change, but still maintaining the capacity for joy.
We can find ways to sustain ourselves even in the middle of a disaster. I was able to find some happiness during the pandemic by spending more time in my garden and tending that small patch of earth. I live near an area of my city called the Town Belt, which is a communal green space with trees and walkways and bike paths. During the lockdown one of my neighbors, an ecological engineer, started clearing an intermittent stream that he’d found on a slope in the Town Belt. There was a culvert, and he thought he saw some native fish in a tiny, murky pool by the culvert entrance, so he cleared away all these invasive weeds and revealed a little stream that emerges when it rains. Then he started planting, reclaiming this bit of land, making this small part of the world better. That sort of thing can help you feel like you have some agency. Where I live, we have community tree-planting projects to help reestablish native trees where the original forests were burned off by the European settlers. Trees suck carbon out of the atmosphere, and you’re getting together with other people to do something positive.
Lewis: How do you address this looming threat with children?
Priestley: When I talk to my kids about climate change, I focus on what we’re going to do. We’ve mostly stopped eating meat — though I still eat fish sometimes. After our last car crapped out, we couldn’t afford an electric vehicle, so we’re doing without. My husband rides a bike to work at his university, and my teenagers and I take the bus to school and work. We use a shared-car service called Mevo when we need to. I’ve also been trying to use trains and overland travel rather than flying.
I don’t think we should try to shield kids from this. If you’ve got an opportunity to plant a tree with your kids, do it and talk about how that’s helping. Go on a protest march and talk about why activism is important. Tell them: This is why we don’t eat meat. This is why we don’t have a car. This is why we’re going on this march. Let’s all make a sign out of cardboard and paint, and we’ll take it and go yell at the politicians for a while. Or we’re going to participate in this community volunteer project. Where I live, the school might get kids involved in tree-planting projects and the like. Of course, I live in New Zealand, and my kids go to the most liberal high school in town, and I work in a university full of liberal thinkers. So my experience is not necessarily representative of the global population.
My kids now call me out on things. On a recent trip we traveled over land and sea one way and flew back, and one of my kids said, “Mum, I thought you said we weren’t going to fly anymore.” Or if we serve them chicken for dinner, one of them will say, “Mum, I thought we agreed we weren’t going to eat meat anymore.” I just love being called out like that, seeing my kids embracing as the norm these things that for my generation were a huge change. When I was their age, the first thing a teenager wanted to do was learn how to drive a car. Now they all want an iPhone. I’m not fully up to date on the environmental impacts of everyone having an iPhone [laughs], but at least it’s not a car. My teens use public transport and walk. They talk about politics. That said, there’s no way I’m going to put the responsibility for solving this on the younger generations. That’s not OK. It’s not fair to them.
Lewis: What do you think the global response to COVID suggests about our ability to deal with climate change?
Priestley: It shows that we can take fast, decisive action and make massive changes in a short amount of time. In New Zealand we went into a nationwide lockdown at the first signs that COVID-19 was spreading in the community. We could do that because we’re an island nation and because we’re somewhat isolated, so we had time to see what was happening in countries like Italy and the UK. Our government and our impressive prime minister at the time, Jacinda Ardern, took a really preventative approach. They introduced a strict lockdown, one of the strictest in the world. In that first wave of the pandemic, we managed to eliminate COVID from the community. That sense of people working together, that collective response to an existential threat — I found that really heartening. We stocked up on supplies, hunkered down, and obsessively watched the news. But we were also looking out for our neighbors. We were saying hi to people when we went for walks around the community. We had a prime minister who was telling everyone, “Be kind.” We had a national media campaign to unite us. There was a real sense of collective action, and most New Zealanders willingly went along with this plan. There were some who had issues with it, but on the whole we were like a team of 5 million. There was something really positive and lovely about that. That makes me think maybe it’s possible for us to work together to deal with climate change as well.
As Gen Xers my husband and I had sort of been waiting for an apocalypse since our teenage years. I grew up with the threat of global annihilation. During the 1980s it was nuclear war. Then came climate change. Then we got the pandemic on top of that. And suddenly nukes are back to being something that we worry about, too. But for a while there was a sense that individuals, families, communities, government, and businesses were all working together, responding to this threat. So I have no doubt that we could do the same with climate change if we had the collective will to do it — and if there weren’t people actively fighting against taking action.
Lewis: What differences do you see among the generations in terms of how they view the threat of climate change?
Priestley: A colleague of mine has recently done some research that shows the older generations are more likely to ignore news about climate change. And that’s kind of unfortunate, because it’s the generation before mine who experienced the period of relative prosperity and rapid growth that contributed to the mess we’re in today.
My kids are Gen Z. I really like that they’ve started calling out older generations for not doing enough. They’re more conscious of these issues and are committed to lowering carbon emissions. The younger generation also seems to have a sense of humor about it that my generation doesn’t. Gen Z humor is over my head sometimes, but it’s good to be able to laugh.
The difference between the nuclear threat and the climate-change threat is complicity. With nuclear annihilation, the major powers in the Northern Hemisphere — the U.S., the Soviet Union, France, the UK — were testing bombs and building up arsenals of nuclear weapons while the rest of the world watched. Here in New Zealand we played no part in that. We opposed it. But with climate change, we’ve all played a part. Unless you’re from a country that is not highly industrialized, you’ve had a hand in it. So there’s guilt there. And even once you start to reduce your carbon footprint, you have to ask, “Am I doing enough?” There’s uncertainty about what different amounts of warming will mean for the planet. We’re certain that burning fossil fuels, along with other human activity, is causing the planet to warm, which will cause the sea level to rise, but we don’t know the exact amount of global warming that will, for example, cause the West Antarctic ice sheet to melt.
So people don’t know exactly how much they should be doing. And, again, there’s too much pressure on the individual. We really need our governments to lead on this. It’s not something that a billion armies of one can sort out.
Lewis: Do you think there’s a difference between hope and optimism?
Priestley: Yes. I don’t think I’m optimistic. I’m realistic. But to keep functioning, I have to be hopeful. If you don’t have hope, what’s the point? As I said, we’re not heading toward the worst-case scenario, but we’re also not heading toward the targets that we set in the Paris Agreement. We’re sort of in the middle — climateactiontracker.org shows that current policies and actions will take us to around a 2.7 degree Celsius increase by 2100 — and the more we can do to bring temperatures down, the better.
Covering climate change can be such a serious, miserable business. I suffer a lot of personal anxiety from it. I find it hard to let go and have fun, but I know that I need to be able to do that to be effective. And I think there are many possible futures that could be better for the planet and more equitable for the human population, which is exciting to think about.
So many TV shows and films — at the moment I’m watching The Last of Us and Station Eleven — are about nasty postapocalyptic worlds. Wouldn’t it be great if some TV shows and movies portrayed a vision of the future we might want to live in? You can still have drama in a world like that. We need to be able to envision a world that’s better than the one we have now, where the human race not only survives but is able to live on the planet in a sustainable way.
Lewis: In terms of media and pop culture, have we always been this obsessed with Armageddon? I remember more excitement about the future when I was a kid in the 1990s. Do you think that the media landscape of it has changed?
Priestley: In the 1970s there was a BBC show called Survivors that I watched with my mum. It was set in the UK after a plague pandemic had wiped out most of the human race. There were small groups of people starting again, living off the land and setting up communities. I started rewatching that during our first COVID lockdown — very nostalgic. [Laughs.] Bad things happen to the survivors, but there’s also something lovely about the way they join together and live communally, making sure that everyone’s fed and looked after. Even though it was a scary premise, there was some optimism.
There used to be a lot of hope that technology was going to create a better and brighter world. What’s it delivering us lately? Artificial intelligence (AI). How’s that going to work out? Not great, I think. Who’s making the decisions about what sort of technologies we want as a society, about what would make life better for us? I think there’s a growing need for citizens’ assemblies, where citizens are involved in decisions about the direction of research and what technologies are explored and funded, rather than these decisions being made by companies based on what’s going to give them the best financial return. Or by government agencies, for that matter. There’s room for more voices to be involved.
I can tell you as a professor that what’s happening with AI is incredibly disruptive for the education sector. A lot of us are redesigning assessments because students can now use AI to write essays. But it’s also scary about where it’s leading society in general. Tools like AI and facial-recognition software and cryptocurrency all require massive computing power, which is demanding high levels of energy, which is adding to carbon emissions. These things are presented as the inevitable result of progress, but they’re creating little actual value for society. As individuals, as households, as families, as communities, as villages and towns and cities, what kind of world do we want to live in? The status quo is not going to lead us there. So, what do we want to change?
Lewis: You mentioned joy earlier. Do you think joy is a way to process grief?
Priestley: I don’t know, but it makes me think about how, after a funeral, people get together, tell stories, have a few drinks, and laugh. The tears of sadness are very close to the tears of joy and silliness. But I don’t know if it works that way with climate grief. Climate change is such an enormous thing, and joy is often something quite personal and individual.
I’ve just gotten back from a trip with my family to Abel Tasman National Park. It was just gorgeous. We went hiking and swam in the sea and slept in tramping huts. And I experienced the joy of seeing a weka, which is a bird native to New Zealand. A weka family with four fluffy babies were foraging for food scraps around our campsite. The wekas were really cheeky. The parents would come into the hut, and the kids would chase them out. One of the birds ran under the sleeping platform. The babies were these funny black fluff balls, and everyone was smiling. I often get joy from encounters with nature like that.
We’re going through something profound right now as a species. Systems are going to have to change. Things could either get much worse . . . or we could try to work together.
Lewis: I asked about joy because I feel like joy and hope can go hand in hand. In my mind both require some action. I’m thinking about you tending your garden during the lockdown. Finding these little things we can do makes this confusing existential dilemma easier to handle. Does that make sense?
Priestley: Yes. There’s a realization that comes with age: I’ve learned that, for me, what leads to genuine moments of joy is being in nature or being with people, not buying stuff or getting Instagram likes or whatever. Those things can give you a dopamine hit, but they are not the same as joy.
Anytime I’m feeling overwhelmed, I just look into the night sky, and it makes me laugh. We’re so insignificant, you know? The planet’s going to go on. Human civilization as we know it might end, but the human race will not perish anytime soon.
We’re going through something profound right now as a species. Systems are going to have to change. Things could either get much worse — with more inequality and rich nations taking advantage of their privilege and vulnerable nations suffering — or we could try to work together. The last time I talked like this to a journalist, she said, “Yeah, let’s all hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ ” [Laughs.] But I have hope that we will move in a direction where things get better, even though I’m not sure that’s going to happen.
Lewis: Do you have any sort of faith that helps you process your hopes and fears for the future?
Priestley: I’m not religious. I guess I have an aversion to organized religion. I kind of pray, but I don’t know to what. [Laughs.] I do think there’s something powerful about people coming together in large numbers. I took my daughter to a Harry Styles concert in Auckland recently — forty thousand people in a big outdoor stadium, mostly girls and their mums and friends. Before Harry Styles came on, one of the songs they played over the PA was “Poi E,” a 1980s song by the Pātea Māori Club. A very Kiwi song. And there was something really lovely about the way the whole crowd sang along in Māori. It made me feel good about humanity. At a Harry Styles concert! Who would have thought?
I also find comfort in small groups. I led a writing workshop a few weekends back called “Writing about Nature While the World Is Burning.” Just eleven students. I started by acknowledging all the global issues that make us feel anxious and stressed and upset. Then I talked about how we can focus on small, specific, local things and make a connection between them and the bigger picture. I was happy that, by the end, most of the writers were smiling and feeling inspired and hopeful. Writing can be so powerful. I guess that’s what I was trying to give them: a sense that, as writers, we have the power to reach audiences and share stories of hope and indicate possible ways forward and out of this mess. It’s not just that we can do that; we have a responsibility to do that. As individuals and as a community, we have a responsibility.