It’s official.  The scientists agree.  The world is heating up.  By the end of the century the average global temperature will be 4 degrees warmer.   The ice caps will have melted.  Sea levels will have risen by 2 metres and many of our coastal cities will be underwater.  Billions of people will have died.  The world as we know it will be destroyed.  So why aren’t we more worried about it? 

Not so long ago, the voices predicting global warming could be safely ignored as gloom and doom merchants.  There were more reassuring voices telling us this was just part of the normal oscillation in climate that has taken place for the last few million years.  But not now.   Climate change is with us.   England has just experienced the warmest spring and the wettest summer for at least 50 years.  And 2006 was the warmest year on record.  The frequency and severity of tropical storms has increased.  The arctic ice cap is thinner and breaking up, and polar bears are drowning.  Whole islands off the coast of Bangladesh are disappearing.         

So it’s not that we don’t believe it is happening; it’s more that we don’t want to believe it.  After all, if we were to really take climate change seriously, we would all need to get rid of our cars, buy ourselves bikes, insulate our house more efficiently, cut down on the use of electric lighting and power, stop traveling by air and install solar panels on our roofs and windmills in our gardens.  We would also need to move away from the coast, change our jobs,  educate our children in the use of sustainable energy and even have no more children.  The implications are enormous, the sacrifices too great.  And, we might reasonably argue, there is little point in any one of us making these sacrifices unless everybody else does it.   

Only governments can introduce measures that would make a difference.  They could tax the use of cars so heavily that people would have to use public transport, they could penalize home owners that utilized too much energy, they could cut own on street lighting, limit air travel, but such measures would probably make them unelectable.  And what would be the point of a country like Britain bringing in all of these changes unless it was matched by America and China.  It seems that billions would need to die of drought, flood, famine and disease before the world finds its political will.     

Governments, like the people they serve, are putting their heads in the sand and hoping that climate change will go away.   But it won’t.  Al Gore has listed the measures that would need to be taken to reverse global warming.   They need to be instigated right now if they are to have any effect at all.  The longer we ignore the problem, the less likely we are to get away with it.  Indeed, some scientists believe we are already beyond the tipping point where such measures will be effective.      

We are all in denial about this.  Of course we are.  We have to be.  If we weren’t we would give up or go mad.  The only thing that keeps us sane in the face of impending disaster is hope; a blind faith that it will be alright in the end. The alternative is too dreadful to contemplate. If we lose that hope, then we lose the will to live and just give up. 

In medical terminology, people who lose hope are suffering from depression.  And depression is the commonest illness afflicting civilized man.  Many more people, however, seem to be able to retain hope even when things seem impossible.   It’s what keeps them alive.  When the Swedish doctor, Axel Munthe, went to Naples in 1888 to help with the devastating cholera epidemic raging in that city,  he observed that people were engaged in an orgy of sex, as if in the presence of death there was a desperate urge for life.   Mountaineers, skydivers, some soldiers only seem to find that sense of affirmation they call life in the presence of disaster.   The anorexic is so intent on the survival of their independent will,  they ignore the reality that their body is being starved to near death.  The smoker ignores the ever more dramatic death messages on the backs of cigarette packets.  It can never happen to them.     Death for many of us is something abstract that happens some time in the future.   And even when we are old and death is round the corner, we still ‘rage against the dying of the light’.  It is too big to face.  Those who have religion can only face death by believing in a much better life afterwards.     

The way we look at impending disaster is like the way we look at death.  It is distant.  It doesn’t affect us.  So when, in an episode of Only Fools and Horses, Del Boy asks Rodney what he is so upset about,  Rodders responds with insouciance;  ‘Oh you know, the poles are melting, the rainforests are disappearing, millions are starving in Africa and Cassandra hasn’t spoken to me for weeks.’  We are more concerned the proximal, the here and now, because that is the only thing we can engage with.   

Every day we are read about death and disaster in our newspapers.  Every night we watch it entranced on our television screens.  There is no good news.  But we don’t really engage with it.  We can’t.  If we did, it would drive us mad.  I have patients so worried about the possible implications of the symptoms they experience in their bodies, that their life is a living hell.  The solution is not to be found in the tablets that never work nor the futile quest for the one doctor who will understand and cure their condition.  It is to assert a confidence in their body, a faith that they can control their symptoms, a belief that they are not going to die painfully of cancer.   

So when faced with the knowledge that the world as we know it will end within the lifespan of our children or grandchildren,  we have to keep the faith that it will not happen – or else we will indeed go mad.  This indeed requires a healthy sense of denial; the question is what form this takes.  Do we just carry on with life and ignore what is happening?   Do we pray for salvation?  Or can we indeed develop the collective political will to confound the predictions?               

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