Existential Dread

Barbara Stoner
4 min readDec 8, 2023

From The Guardian, October 2021: “This year has provided bitter evidence that even current levels of warming are disastrous, with astounding floods in Germany and China, Hades-like fires from Canada to California to Greece and rain, rather than snow, falling for the first time at the summit of a rapidly melting Greenland…A “heat dome” that pulverized previous temperature records in the US’s Pacific northwest and Canada’s west coast in June, [killed[ hundreds of people as well as a billion sea creatures roasted alive in their shells off the coast…”

The last year alone has seen a series of devastating climate disasters in various parts of the world such as Cyclone Idai, deadly heatwaves in India, Pakistan, and Europe, and flooding in south-east Asia. From Mozambique to Bangladesh millions of people have already lost their homes, livelihoods, and loved ones as a result of more dangerous and more frequent extreme weather events.

Nearly 50 battles have been fought so far this year. There is, of course, Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Hamas, but there are also: Azerbaijan and Armenia, conflict in the Niger Delta, a Myanmar civil war, Honduras, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

Everywhere another wave of Covid is striking at the survivors of former attacks. In countries from Europe to South America, right wing movements are on the rise, many of them promising returns to former, if mythical, idyllic times. China and India hold out the prospect of stability in unstable times.

I can’t help but think that these events are somehow related.

David Wallace Wells asks, in a recent newsletter, why if every conventional top-line measure of the health of the economy is strong, why are so many Americans so despondent about the state of the country and its future, with poll after poll showing deep dissatisfaction with the state of the economy? He then references the pandemic, as being a major factor in populations the world over feeling pessimistic about the future. And since he regularly reports on climate change, I’m sure that he would agree with me that the future feels, in many ways, too dark to need shades.

I suspect that a major factor in all of these is climate change.

Climate change may not even be brought up in policy discussions that are taking place in board and war rooms the world over. But I think it is there. A heavy, dark cloud that, willy-nilly, informs many decisions that lead to conflict, even to war — to anything that will make the decision-makers look as if they are doing something. Anything. To ward off the disaster that lies ahead. Few seem to have a solid image of what that disaster will entail. Will there be famine? Will there be floods? Will there be temperatures that no one can survive? Do they have a way to avert any of this?

Likely no. But easily stirred animosities. Conflicts. Wars. These things feel more real than last winter’s floods, last summer’s heat. Hamas only had to slaughter a few thousand Israelis in order to get more than 15,000 of their own people killed. And only five Republicans can ensure that Ukraine gets no more help from us in expelling an aggressor.

The cloud that is climate change, climate change already here and still coming on stronger, hovers over all of us. Why else do people seem to dismiss Joe Biden’s accomplishments over the past three years so easily? Yes, at first we all got checks, and that was great, but that didn’t last — couldn’t last. Then we got an infrastructure bill, which promised to deliver American jobs building long-planned projects. And a chips bill, to deliver more American manufacturing. And somewhere in there Joe managed to bring insulin down to $35/month. But what good, I imagine people thinking, are bridges and technology and even staying alive when flood, famine and foes are at the door? Or maybe they aren’t thinking that, precisely. But doesn’t it all seem as if none of it makes any difference? Otherwise, why is everyone here still so down hearted about the economy?

Is climate change manifesting as an existential dread?

I doubt that there is any way to verify my suspicion, but I would suggest that you think about it in relation to the news that yet another nation is choosing nationalism, closing borders, striking out at old foes, claiming disputed land. Each of these actions may have their roots in history or in local politics. There is nothing about Argentina choosing a right wing president or coups in the Sahel that cannot be explained by history or local dissatisfaction.

And yet, while all of that is true, never before have the nations faced the tsunami that is climate change, rushing toward their shores, ignoring their border guards, threatening to topple every tin god and paper tiger on the planet.

How does that not have an impact?

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