Sea levels will continue to rise, Homes will be flooded. Weather will be more extreme with droughts, floods and hurricanes.  There will be shortages of food and widespread famine. There will be epidemics of disease, mass migration, civil unrest, war. People will suffer a loss of livelihood and liberty. There will be a complete breakdown of civilisation. Predictions of the effects of climate change are apocalyptic.  It seems that ‘the end of the world is nigh’, but is calamity that imminent or are our media outlets too short of money and too high on catastrophe and ‘fake news’.     

It does not seem to me so long ago that our then prime minister, The Right Honorable Mr Harold MacMillan, The Westminster Walrus, told us that we had never had it so good.  He was right.  The sixties were a time of optimism and freedom when everything seemed possible and few were aware of a warming planet.  Public optimism has been going downhill ever since.   

50 years on, we may have not quite have reached the point when governments must step in with radical solutions, but we have perhaps reached a critical stage of awareness.  If patterns of extreme weather continue and begin to impact on our way of life, we will all be spending more of our income on essentials like housing and food and less on holidays and entertainment. Cheap flights will disappear.  We may have to give up our car and get a bike.  Many of our individual freedoms will be curtailed or become very expensive. Our diet will become less diverse as imported food will cost more.  The attempts we may all have to make to avert or mitigate the most catastrophic losses, will threaten our aspiration, culture and identity and involve the loss of our accustomed lifestyle.

Nevertheless, many will respond to such doom-laden predictions with indifference, apathy or cynicism.  Increased awareness of climate change has not yet translated into appropriate concern and action.  How can we think about it without either going into denial or sinking into depression and inertia?  At a recent meeting of The Sheffield Psychoanalytical Journal Club, my friend and fellow therapist Stephanie Howlett presented for discussion a paper on ‘Loss and Climate Change’ by psychoanalytical psychotherapist, Rosemary Randall, director of Cambridge Carbon Footprint. 

Climate change is like getting old or facing a terminal illness; it’s a loss that is bound to happen. Life, of course, is a terminal illness, but we only become aware of that when we approach the end and can experience the symptoms of decline.  So we might gain some insight into how to cope with climate change by thinking about how elderly people cope with their impending demise.  But climate change is not just something that’s facing the elderly, it is something that affects the young as well.  And the elderly among us may never experience the changes that will affect our children or grandchildren; the major effects of climate change on food supply and population dynamics may not occur for another 20 years.  So is the fear of climate change something that affects the young more because they will experience the worst effects or does it predominantly affect the old because they are already aware of the end of their own lives?  Young people often regard themselves as immortal; death only happens to their grandparents.    

So how are people dealing with the reality of climate change?   Some, like Donald Trump, deny it is happening.  They regard it as fake news, exaggerated by a sensationalist media, but isn’t that itself an assault on truth?  More acknowledge the reality of climate change, but disavow its seriousness. Disavowal means you don’t have to face the anxiety; it is happening elsewhere.  The present continues to feel safe but fear is split off and projected into the future; on the one hand,  false comfort; on the other, nightmare.  If we can manage to stop catastrophising the future and wrapping the present in cotton wool, we may diminish both extremes and make loss manageable for our children and grandchildren.  

Others may accept the reality of climate change, but blame others; the Americans or the Chinese or those with expensive cars and life styles, all the while maintaining their own way of life. It’s the same with Brexit: the government are hopeless and the EU vindictive.  Ministers downplay the seriousness of the situation and affect an attitude of control; they have to, otherwise they would never be re-elected.  In psychoanalytical terms, both are examples of collective splitting and projection.

Even if we full acknowledge climate change, we all have to find our own way of dealing with that reality if we are to avoid sinking into hopelessness and depression.  Some may adopt a manic defence.  ‘I’m alright Jack: I can have a good life in New Zealand or Scandinavia. I am not going to let it affect me’. Or ‘ok I know it’s going to happen, but I will make the most of the time left to me’.  The broadcaster, Clive James, has been dying for years but in the meantime has managed to write some of his best poetry.  In The Story of San Michele, the Swedish doctor, Axel Munthe observed that during the devastating cholera epidemic in Naples, people took to making love, often with complete strangers – on park benches, in fountains, anywhere – as if in a frantic bid to find life in the midst of death. 

Although we may wish to accept what is happening and engage with it in a positive sense, most of us will probably protect ourselves by banishing it from our minds and not thinking about it until something forces us to. Death is going to happen but not yet.  Continual fretting about the impending loss can only lead to depression and inertia – the less you can do, the more loss you suffer. But when loss remains unspoken, then change and adjustment cannot follow.  A better understanding of the nature of the loss might allow it to be brought back into public discourse and for people to feel a sense of agency.  God-fearing members of religious communities may regard death a necessary sacrifice to assure everlasting life in Paradise.  Our current secular society does not have such comforting delusions.  

But is climate change something we can engage with?  Or is it, like a terminal illness, an overwhelming inevitability.  Engagement means facing up to our own destructiveness.  Mother Earth is both our breast and our toilet and we are destroying both by compromising food supply and polluting the planet.  Can we ever assuage our personal sense of guilt by getting a bike, not going on long haul flights and installing solar panels?  Maybe not, but by engaging, it may feel good to be part of a solution, however futile.

Loss, even anticipated loss, involves a gradual withdrawal of energy from the loved object. Grief is a process of adjustment and acceptance, always in progress, two steps forward, one step back, never complete.  When a loved one dies, life can never be the same again, but meaning can be restored and it may even become possible to flourish.  With climate change, it’s our world that must end. How can we ever get our minds around that?  Denial and disavowal may be part of an ongoing process that may allow that painful reality to be assimilated. Many of us may accept the idea of climate change intellectually but moving from there to the reality of a lived emotional experience and acceptance of its irreversibility may not be possible. 

Perhaps we should all join the Green Party and campaign for radical solutions?  Collective action can make people feel so much better when they are in the jaws of calamity. Sharing the enormity of the problem might paradoxically garner enough  support to make life tolerable if not enjoyable. During the dark days of 1940, Winston Churchill did not attempt to hide the stark reality of Britain’s situation and was able to appeal to a spirit of resilience in the British people.  Hope, however futile, can always stave off feelings of despair and the ensuing inertia.  But does the same communal sense of purpose still exist in our current narcissistic society, where every man and every woman are for themselves and posting it all on Facebook. It is likely that most will only engage when endgame is upon them, but that will only be to turn to religion. 

The east coast of England is being washed away.  Tidal currents sweeping down from the north are gradually eroding the coast from Flamborough Head south to Suffolk, moving shingle and silt down into long narrow spits as at Spurn Head and Orford Ness,  collapsing the shingle banks in front of the wetland reserves of Cley and Minsmere and eroding the soft sandy cliffs of Dunwich.  Accelerated by high tides and strong winds, the topography is changing.  Acres of agricultural land are threatened along with scores of coastal communities. 

To some extent, the erosion is predictable.  Computer models can factor in tides, currents, geology, bathymetry, and they provide an rough idea, but what actually happens often depends on politics and local interests.  As, my brother Simon, who is an artist interested in environmental issues, told me, ‘The situation is very different on the impoverished Holderness and Lincolnshire Coastline compared with the more affluent Suffolk Coast where there are major amenities like a nuclear power station, a world famous nature reserve and big coastal communities of Lowestoft, Southwold, Aldeburgh and Felixstowe.’  Down there, the coast is being protected by blocks of Norwegian granite and sand dredged up just off shore, but such measures are short term solutions.  Over the longer term, usch measures are counterproductive.  The granite blocks can sink and the tides find their way round the back of them while dredging offshore sandbanks can remove the first bulwark against erosion. 

‘What the land means varies from place to place’, Simon explained. ‘Such meanings are political  and local and their cumulative effect cannot be easily factored in.  Decisions on whether to allow arable or to allow the river to break through to the sea (as at Aldeburgh) are often made by local councils without reference to the bigger picture.  So what you can have is some local amenities protected, a golf club here, a ferry terminal there at the expense of desolation at bigger areas up and down the coast.’    

As an artist without the restrictions of commerce and local politics, Simon is free to use his imagination to create what might happen in the future.  He is not confined by the physical constructs of the computer modellers, he can bring in concepts of politics and meaning to gain a more realistic understanding of what might happen.  It’s a chaotic system but like the weather, not entirely unpredictable.

Not for the first time, have I seen comparisons between what Simon is doing and what I am interested in.  We think about things the same way.  Most illness is more influenced by the meaning of what happens to an individual; diet, infection, gender, contamination may be able to be factored in but are only part of the story.  For both coast and the disease host, you need to get up front and personal.


The image, Sand patterns, Isle of Eigg, by Dudley Williams  was the winner of the classic view, adult class, in this years Landscape Photographer off the Year competition.

0645 GMT  07/12/10

Successful expedition.  Grytviken basking in balmy zero.   Back on shelf at minus 14, well stocked with lamp oil, whalemeat, blubber, pickled cabbage and two bottles of aquavit!!  Freezing fog.  When we speak, the words stay in the air and hang around outside the tent.  Voice message from Oates there last night.  Unrepeatable, poor chap! 



A hesitant dawn, you silence the bells 

And change the scene

with that touch of myth   

that turns every  living thing to ice.


Flakes bristle from every twig,

spicules sparkle like Christmas,

then detach and sink,

swinging through a sunlit sea. 


The trees, decked like brides,

Mock the hungry deer with confetti

No celebration here as they clash  

And paw the snow In  their frostration.

0755 GMT 2.12.10.

Snow flurries overnight but pressure rising.  Blizzard yesterday made transport impossible; even sledges didn’t run.  By 6pm, snow tractor got through.  Now stuck in drift. Troops digging out.  Mount Sheffield completely cut off.  No radio contact. 

Supplies will last another week.  Plenty of logs for oven.  Bags of flour, so can make bread.  Half a cauliflower and a few potatoes, two cans of chick peas, pasta and rice and lots of spice.  Oates gone, but lots of muesli.  Huskies hungry – don’t like the way they stare at me and salivate.  Must let them go.    

Please arrange air drop of skis, brandy, tomatoes and onions.    

Predicted minus ten tonight, breaking out winter duvet.

Chin up, as always. 


PS. Who needs the Gulf Stream anyway?












It’s so clear in the freezer,

the sky deeper.

Steam rises from the falls,

turns grass stems to prayer flags

and trees into wedding gowns.

The windows of the big house

shine gold while

Thomas Payne’s excellent bridge

burns like a biscuit

against moors of palest pink. 


Crystal deep,

the sparkling deer

join with cosy sheep

in a warm circuit of silage,

fermenting an uneasy friendship,

a cloven harmony of hunger.

Flashing red, a woodpecker picks

at frozen bark

while titmice forage

out of habit more than hope.    


Spying a discarded raft, I climb aboard

and launch myself down the slope until,

disgorged in a tumble of laughter,

I get the drift, use my hands

like rockets on a space module,

gain stability but no direction. 

A stranger watches by the cattle grid,

‘I’ve only come for my grandson.’

I smile like a sheep in silage

and resolve to buy a sledge.

The weather was a bit grim this morning; just off freezing and pouring in rain. I slipped on the mud and was soaked through in seconds, losing any insulation afforded by my leggings.  My hands soon felt like blocks of ice, but my back, which was covered with a winter running top and a light waterproof , remained dry and warm and I didn’t feel chilled.  I wasn’t even shivering, but this got me thinking exactley where we feel cold.  

I think we feel it at the back of our necks, across the shoulders and a few inches down the centre of our backs. I call it the shiver spot.  It’s where shivering seems to start.  Say you have washed in the open air or been for a swim in a cold river, and your teeth are chattering, if you pour hot water onto the shiver spot, or better still get somebody else to do it, then the chattering and shivering stops immediately.  The effect is still there if you pour warm water over your shoulders though less intense. 

But why is that?  What is special about that spot?  Well in animals it is the major subcutaneous site of brown fat, that particular type of metabolically active fat that generates heat in animals that live in temperate or cold zones. Brown adipose tissue (BAT for short) is well supplied with sympathetic nerves, which are activated by cold;  a   fall of temperature of the skin of the shiver spot of just a few degrees is enough to trigger an anticipatory thermogenic response that will prevent a drop in core temperature. This area has, as it were, a hot line to the brain. A drop in the temperature of the hands and the feet is not enough to cause a thermogenic response probably because this induces a local vasoconstriction that shunts blood away from the skin and returns it to the trunk via counter current heat exchange between the major arteries and veins in the centre of the limb. 

A fall in the temperature of the skin at the back of the neck is a much more immediate indicator of an imminent fall in core temperature because the back is more exposed – think of the way all mammals curl up in the cold.  Also that area at the back of the neck is close to blood vessels supplying that part of the brain stem that houses the life support systems of the body, so the temperature of this area must be maintained as a matter of necessity. 

But what about a rise in temperature? Does this area also stimulate heat loss?  I don’t think it does.  But if not, is there any sweat spot.  Might it be the mouth?  Foods that produce a sensation of heat in the mouth stimulate sweating immediately.  Does gustatory sweating have any role in temperature regulation?  Or is there another area?  Does anybody know?