The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s not the heat. It’s the existential dread.

Swimmers climb out of the water at Portland's Sellwood Riverfront Park during a heat wave Monday. (Maranie Staab/Bloomberg)

Charlie Warzel is a journalist who writes “Galaxy Brain,” a newsletter about technology, media and politics.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Walking the aisles of the grocery store on Friday, you could feel an edge in the air. One cart carried a stockpile of reusable ice packs; in another, an inflatable inner tube. Under different circumstances, these purchases might be mistaken as part of a routine midsummer haul. Not this summer.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” a grocery bagger told a woman hauling ice blocks onto the conveyor. “I don’t have air conditioning — maybe I’ll just show up here by the freezers.”

Then, as forecast, the heat hit. A record-setting wave stifled the Pacific Northwest this week, sending temperatures in Seattle to 108 degrees on Monday. Portland, Ore., hit an all-time high of 112 degrees on Sunday, only to be topped by Monday’s 115. Where I am in Whatcom County, Wash., minutes from the Canadian border, roads have literally buckled under the heat. The average June high in these parts is 69 degrees.

The physical danger is real in a region where air conditioning is rare, and the stagnating heat is impossible to ignore, but all this record-breaking has fed another sensation just as oppressive: a lingering existential dread about the future.

All week, a sinking feeling has accompanied each day’s heat; there’s a distinct psychological pain that accompanies the thought that the unbearable present is only a preview of the extreme climate to come. It was 116 degrees in British Columbia on Sunday. And it was 73 degrees on snow-covered Mt. Rainier, above 10,000 feet. In one city in Pakistan, a different system pushed temperatures to levels “hotter than the human body can handle.”

It’s not hard to imagine what comes next. And that’s what makes it so horrifying.

The phenomenon of climate anxiety has sharpened for many over the past few years. In a poll from October, 55 percent of respondents said they were “somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change on their own mental health.” People who had been insulated from the disastrous effects of warming — thanks to geography, or privilege, or both — are newly confronting this uncomfortable reality in their daily lives.

I include myself in this group. When I moved to Montana in 2017, I felt the toll of wildfire season — the acrid, choking campfire smell, the stultifying beige filter that drains color from the land and steals your breath. Since then, my lifelong anticipation of summer has been shot through with unease. I feel powerless and irritable and anxious. And as bad as 2017 was, last September’s fires and smoke were orders of magnitude worse.

We can, however, find effective ways to cope. Britt Wray, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, writes about climate anxiety and grief in her newsletter, “Gen Dread.” She explains that the field of mental health is now scrambling to develop tools for people struggling to coexist with this existential threat. One strategy, Wray says, is finding ways of embracing and accepting that distress, rather than pushing it away.

It feels unfair to come out from pandemic lockdowns and confront yet another crisis that requires reserves of resilience. But Wray argues that squaring up to your anxiety and dread around climate change “gives you resources to draw from and ultimately makes intense moments like this heat wave easier to bear.”

“If we can acknowledge our feelings and bear the fact that we’re faced with extremely difficult truths about the planet, we can use that to gather strength,” she said. “This is not easy. You need to know you’re not alone but also know that you’re not going to find a silver-bullet solution.”

One of the most important things we ought to be doing, according to Wray, is talking about the climate crisis honestly in our everyday lives, with our friends, family and colleagues. “We can’t just do it when it’s 114 degrees in our neighborhood. We need to weave it into our social fabric,” she said. It won’t be comfortable, but it will reflect the urgency of the moment we’re all living through. And this small piece of common ground is critical if we hope to address this emergency.

It’s still hot where I am. Fire season is now underway. I feel anxious as I set up the new air purifier in my home. But there is a small comfort knowing I’m not alone, just as there is a glimmer of opportunity in our collective alarm. Talking about our shared dread won’t bring down the temperature or vanish the smoke, but leaning into the grimness is grounding — because a dystopia feels only more dystopian when everyone’s trying to pretend things are fine.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Climate actions we can take now

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