How denial is worsening our trauma

Among the different ways humans respond to trauma, specialists tell us, is to go into denial. Our senses register a threat, but our conscious minds continue as if nothing is amiss. Such is the present state of Jeremy Rockliff’s Liberal government.

It would be a relief to discover that leaving climate change off his list of ministerial responsibilities was the premier’s way of signalling that he grasped fully the dimensions of the climate crisis and wanted to make it everyone’s concern. 

Alas, no. Not only was climate change excluded; so was science. To abolish or downgrade ministerial responsibility for either of these critical elements in our future is like smashing the car headlights ahead of a long night-time road trip.

This is a government in denial about a well-documented threat to our future. In the world’s poorest, most exposed nations, this threat is playing out in the form of lost livelihoods, broken communities and sometimes death. Only good fortune and our relative wealth shields us for now from a similar fate. 

Sadly, Tasmania’s state of denial is not unique. Australia’s federal and state governments – and governments throughout the developed world – are all in denial about their carbon emissions and humanity’s imminent climate peril.

While claiming to understand this peril, the federal government says little to its people about the gravity of the situation. It continues to treat the burning of fossil fuels or their export for burning in another country as legitimate, respectable behaviour. In addition, it is approving new mines and massively expanded processing capacity for fossil fuels, helping to lock in their continued use for many decades.

When you think about it, this is astonishing. Since the middle of last century science has been warning with increasing urgency and backed by an ever-growing mountain of evidence that our fossil fuel use is destabilising the climate. Governments acknowledged the legitimacy of that warning at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. 

Yet here we are, 32 years later, careening down a steepening slope that we know will end in a cliff, behaving as if nothing has changed. I personally still drive a petrol-fuelled car and burn gas for cooking, so yes, I’m also responsible in my small way. But we elect leaders to lead, and they’re patently not doing it.

It is not good enough that we no longer have a designated climate change or science minister, or a clear, scheduled, funded pathway to eliminating fossil fuels from our lives, or that the major alternative party has said nothing about this gross failure. Somehow, we have to start knocking some sense into those who seek to govern.

Tasmanians have limited capacity to influence the national government and even less what happens outside our borders. But here on this island, our home, we can really make things happen – especially when the most recent election has forced the Liberal government to negotiate with others in order to survive. A door is now open for ordinary people to make their political leaders behave responsibly. 

If it wanted to the new parliament could force the government to agree to a new cross-party standing committee, drawn from both chambers, to gather the best available climate policy advice and facilitate its rollout. Being called to account for failing to act may be enough to persuade the government to adopt a proactive attitude.

Continued inaction is threatening our health. The Dutch-American psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, in exploring the impact on people of denying that something is amiss, notes in his book “The Body Keeps the Score” that while the mind may learn to ignore external warning signs, the alarm signals don’t stop. He continues:

“The emotional brain keeps working, and stress hormones keep sending signals to the muscles to tense for action or immobilize in collapse. The physical effects on the organs go on unabated until they demand notice when they are expressed as illness. Medications, drugs and alcohol can also temporarily dull or obliterate unbearable sensations and feelings. But the body continues to keep the score.”

While government fiddles, the body – the global system – is keeping the score. We can hide symptoms of our world’s global warming affliction but it is taking its toll on our wellbeing. That trauma will overwhelm us if we are unable or unwilling to recognise it and the imminent danger it poses.

The denial of climate reality by Jeremy Rockliff and his ministers is helping to make us all sicker. It may also have an adverse impact on an already-fragile coalition. But the future of this government is the least of our concerns.

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