Jonica Newby calls snow her heart place. Her despair has intensified as she has come to understand what global warming may mean in a world without snow. A world without snow would not just be a personal tragedy but catastrophic for our climate: snow reflects heat; without it, the world will warm at an increasing rate.
How she asks, can she deal with the grief of the loss of so much? Environmentalists and activists, farmers, firefighters, all know the threat of climate change, and for them, the fear becomes more real. So, how can we live a happy life under the weight of this piece of knowledge, she asks?
Just after the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report in August, I approached Dr Newby for an interview about her book, Beyond Climate Grief: A journey of love, snow, fire and an enchanted beer can”. She was quick to respond and generous with her time.
Now that we have absorbed the urgent news from the IPCC and just a few weeks from COP26, we are watching our government scrambling to develop a coherent policy to take to Glasgow. This brings a renewed mix of hope and grief and anger for many – all themes explored by Dr Newby in her book.
Dr Newby begins her book with her love affair with snow. She has loved snow since her childhood, and visits the alps regularly.
Running in parallel to her grief about the loss of snow is the bowel cancer diagnosis of her beloved partner, Robyn Williams.
“So, as I struggled to process my snow grief, I began to draw parallels between my intense short-term emotional experiences with Robyn’s cancer and the unfathomably big threat of global warming,’ she writes.
Dr Newby takes us with her on her journey as she engages with psychological and evolutionary biology experts, musician Missy Higgins, comedian Charlie Pickering and entrepreneur Mike Cannon Brookes.
Each chapter is named for an emotion: grief, love, courage, anger, creativity, worry, leadership, humour, denial, joy, horror, disaster brain, acceptance, pride, and meaning.
When disaster looms, you have to change your plans
Dr Newby began writing in 2019, just before the devastating bushfires of 2019-20. She had written two chapters when the fires hit.
“I knew that I was struggling with this issue, and I figured I couldn’t be the only one. I refer to this as the tipping point – something you know mostly in an abstract way, suddenly becomes real, emotional, visceral.“
Then the fires came.
“When they arrived, it was like nothing we could have imagined. Within weeks my world was literally turned upside down.”
Dr Newby said that one of the driving ideas for the book was that when disaster looms, you have to change your plans.
“And ironically, that’s exactly what happened with this book, I had to change my plan.”
“This is not the book that I set out to write. The original plan was no longer valid.”
Dr Newby’s mother lived in Mallacoota, and the fires for her were frighteningly close and immediate.
After the fires began, Dr Newby said she started writing in the present and putting more of herself into the narrative. Her partner Robyn describes it as Gonzo journalism.
“I was writing for real as it was happening. My life and book became one thing. There was no separation.”
“I started each morning as a sort of diary, writing dot points – what the hell happened that day. And then sometimes there were also my sensations of what was going on.”
Dr Newby did not want to write an academic study; she wanted to explore the experiences of people across different areas of life: psychology, music, even comedy.
“As a science reporter for so long, I don’t see a separation between our larger lives and the idea of a boxed-in expert – they all kind of flow across each other. So as an investigative reporter, if you like, I was trying to seek out some of the best people I could find.”
“I wanted to write about something so important to all of us, and real and emotional. The wisdom that I got on the journey wasn’t always from the people I expected.”
The book has a narrative feel. Dr Newby often refers to the hero narrative and the fiction of Tolkien.
The IPCC report came out in the week proclaiming it was ‘Code Red’ for the earth’s climate, I spoke with Jonica. Given the dismal response from our government, I asked her whether anything had shifted for her – does grief come back?
Dr Newby said the IPCC did not come as a surprise – we knew what would be in it.
“The thing about grief is that don’t get “over it”; you kind of get through it.”
“The analogy is losing a partner. Of course, grief is going to come back for me. We’ve all got to live with this for the rest of our lives. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be absolutely happy and joyful a lot of the time.”
“There’s an algorithm that says: “First name and validate the emotion. Second, change what you can, and third, accept what you can’t [change]”. Obviously, there’s a hell of a lot to unpack in each of those three things but it’s a good little quick summary.”
Is it too early or too unthinkable or even too unethical to think about life in a significantly altered world, I ask?
“I’m already facing that. That is the reality of understanding what’s happening.”
Dr Newby calls it “staring at the beast.” “I found myself personifying global warming as The Beast, like the monster out of any epic fantasy,” she writes.
“I’m much more aware that you can’t necessarily know exactly what is ahead – the last couple of years have had shown that, but there are going to be a lot more disruptions and we are going to have more natural disasters.”
Hope as the enemy
In the book, Dr Newby said that sometimes she feels hope is the enemy. I ask her about this.
“Of course, I have hope, we all do. For example, I know people who put their hope in the next election that there will be a Labor or a Greens Prime Minister. But what happens if that doesn’t happen? Do you fall back into that pit of despair and anger? So that’s exactly the sort of thing I was trying to grapple with in the book and personally, where I talked about hope sometimes feeling like the enemy is because it leaves you so vulnerable to despair.”
“So, prepare – imagine the best scenario, but be mentally aware that the worst is also possible.”
“And, you know, it’s the same duality that we have when we have a partner with cancer. Obviously, part of you wants and hopes for the best outcome, and then another part of you goes, ‘but it may not be that way’. And this is why we do need to act, because we can’t assume that it’s going to be that way.”
“I think we have a complex relationship with the word hope… I’m honestly hoping for a world where my snow stays, and the barrier reef remains largely intact. That’s what I hope for. But that is not even necessarily likely.”
How then do we live with grief without it overwhelming us?
Dr Newby said that as she wrote the book, she was drawn to some of the language of active hope, a concept first coined by philosopher Dr Joanna Macy and her co-writer Chris Johnson.
“You go through the grief. And you welcome it as a necessary sort of transition. But then what happens next is a call to adventure.
“It speaks to that epic narrative – the Tolkienesque fairy tale style of storytelling that appeals to me and that captures a lot of the reality of humanity. It reframes what’s ahead, as ‘be prepared, you’re going to get thrown curveballs.’”
Dr Newby says that Joanna Macy’s central tenant is that active hope is a practice of choice. It is something you do – it doesn’t require optimism.
“We can apply it, even in areas where we feel hopeless. It transforms into constructive collaborative action.”
It is not denial, Dr Newby says. Each of us has a unique contribution to bring to the world. And this is what Joanna Marcy calls our gift of active hope.
“A very simplified version [of active hope] that you can hang on to – I picture the best future, I understand what the reality could be, and I put my action toward that first possible future and that’s what keeps my enthusiasm and optimism and drive going.”
Being part of the solution – bring your two buckets
In one powerful chapter in the book, Dr Newby tells the story of Nicholas, a homeowner confronting his first fire – all he has as the fireballs and the ember rain down and he fights to save his home, are his two buckets.
“Unexpectedly on his own, fortified with the desire to protect the life he’s built, Nicholas enters survival mode: running up and down the street, fighting spot fires with buckets of water, occasionally a hose,” Dr Newby writes.
Nicholas thinks about retreating to the beach.
‘And then just the thought in your head, like the … the animals … all the trees.’ Nicholas looks up, grieving. ‘It’s like all the things, the beauty this place has to offer, is burning … in front of you. And it’s out of your control. You know? There’s nothing … really, you’re … you’re just a person with two buckets.’
Dr Newby says, the language of fear is paralysing, rather, she says, find out what you love.
“What would you do to save what you love?”
“I think this is a way of framing [the question of action] that has more appeal and longevity.”
Dr Newby talks about pride in her penultimate chapter – pride in being part of the solution.
In her book she writes, “…pride, like love, evolved to motivate us for the long, hard preparation required for future planning.”
So, Nicholas’s two buckets have become an analogy for personal action for Dr Newby.
“It’s a powerful moment in the book, even more powerful than I realised, once I’ve gone out and started talking about it, because it is such a profound metaphor for all of us under global warming, it’s so big, and each of us is just a person with two buckets.”
“There’s something very visual about that image of that small person with two buckets – it sinks into your brain and your head, and your emotions, and you go, ‘Well, that’s all I can do, all I can do is bring is my buckets.’”
“Mike Cannon Brookes has got millions and billions of dollars’ worth of buckets to bring. And I actually have a bit of creativity, and I’ve written a book I hope people will relate to. So, you just go back to Joanna Macy‘s inspiring vision – you just bring what you already have. It’s all you can do.”
My friend Mary, who has reflected on climate grief a lot, considers Dr Newby’s book a breakthrough.
“Not because it’s academic, but because as a scientist Jonica Newby has broached the subject of the incredible humanity that travels with this existential threat of climate change as it’s currently rolling out.”
“There is a personal journey of snow and saving winter. There is the personal journey with her partner’s cancer. And then she goes to all the other voices – a collage of emotions.
“Her message is active hope. Its cataclysmic really – the bushfires give you a sense of the total horror, but the voices in her book give you a sense that there are real people everywhere doing their best to stare down the beast.”
Beyond Climate Grief: A journey of love, snow, fire and an enchanted beer can”.
Published by New South Books on 1st March 2021.
Dr Jonica Newby is a TV producer, writer, director and presenter with 20 years of experience making quality factual television in the specialist science genre. She has twice won Australia’s most prestigious science journalism prize, the Eureka Award, and is the recipient of a World TV Award.
Cover image by Shutterstock.