Young Poets on Climate Change: How to Write about Climate Catastrophe

Across the globe, young people are rising up against climate change. And young poets are no exception. But is there a link between poetry and climate change? How can you get involved? Young Poets Networker Nadia Lines asks why activists are turning to poetry, and offers some ways into writing this huge issue.

Photo of lots of different climate protest signs - in the centre a yellow sign says 'Children of the revolution' and is illustrated by wind farms

Climate change can seem overwhelming. Oftentimes, it is. There’s no getting away from it anymore and we must all confront the reality of the world’s situation if anything is to be done about it. For me, climate change is all-encompassing, reaching out and touching every aspect of my life. This can make it both a difficult issue to write about and a surprising source of inspiration and action.

There are many reasons why poetry is a great way to respond to climate change. For one thing, it can change people’s attitudes to what is unfortunately sometimes still a controversial topic – a poem can make the issue personal and affecting. Poetry can also be an individual’s expression of all the other feelings that accompany climate catastrophe – the grief at the loss of the natural world, the joy of being able to experience what we have now, the guilt that I think we all feel (rightly or wrongly) about the state of the world.

Take Matthew Olzmann’s poem ‘Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now’:  

[…] There were bees back then, and they pollinated
a euphoria of flowers so we might
contemplate the great mysteries and finally ask,
“Hey guys, what’s transcendence?”  

And then all the bees were dead.

You can read the full poem here. I find this poem particularly effective as it is undeniably angry, yet also celebrates what we do have left of our world. Celebrating the beauty of nature has been a function of poetry for almost as long as there has been poetry, and I think that role is more important now than ever before. 

I have found that one of the best ways to begin writing about climate change isn’t always to look at the big picture – I suggest starting small. How does your own, personal experience intersect with climate change? As a young person, your encounters with climate catastrophe are unprecedented, unique. Politicians, activists and company bosses do not see the world in the way that you do. Therefore, you can ask them to look at climate change through your eyes, making it an issue that people truly care about. Try and think of the ways in which climate change affects you – how do you learn about it at school? How does it make you feel? Do you talk about climate change with your family?

Photo of young people holding up signs. In the middle a blue sign says 'As the oceans rise, so will we.'
Photo: Socialist Appeal via flickr

My poem ‘Talking to My Therapist about Climate Anxiety’ focuses on a very personal interaction with climate catastrophe. Your writing can present people with the impact of climate change on daily life, your daily life. After all, climate change is going to affect the lives of young people more than anyone else.

Sometimes, I find that people can become exhausted by climate change rhetoric – the constant rounds of guilt and blame and fear and anger often shut people down and do not make them receptive to new information or advice for change. This is not to say that poems can’t be angry or sad or scared or hopeful or political, but I would suggest that they can’t only be about these emotions. There must be other elements in the poem to pique a reader’s interest. When someone is interested and engaged with your poem, they are more likely to listen to your points about climate change.

It can be easy to fall back on the emotions of fear and hope to get people to act on climate change. However, one feeling can’t exist without the other – they must work together. Whatever your subject matter, poetry is designed to be emotive. What makes you feel strong emotions? Are there any aspects of the natural world that you couldn’t bear to lose, any experiences which would be lost in the face of climate catastrophe? What experiences would you gain? Consider writing a dramatic monologue from a perspective which doesn’t ordinarily have a voice; perhaps a favourite animal, maybe an child who hasn’t yet been born. However you go about writing climate catastrophe, remember that your voice is one of the most important out there, and you have a right to share whatever feelings you have.

Photo of a Polar bear sitting on a tiny platform of melting ice

Talking to my Therapist about Climate Anxiety 

by Nadia Lines

So we sit, as we do
every Tuesday, in chairs that are somehow
too deep, with the six feet
of professional distance
spread out on the rug before us.

How was your week?

Not great – I wring my hands – not great
I am not working as hard as I could be and
my sister won’t talk to me
and my mum has a cold and I’m terrified she’ll die
and I can’t sleep at night because I’m up at night tumbling into terror about our approaching climate catastrophe.

Usually, my therapist replies by listening quietly,
watching – not
saying much
until the inevitable twenty-minute deconstruction of my suffering at the end of the hour,
and sometimes,
if I am crying,
she will tell me that
nobody is going to die.
This time, she simply nods. 

For more climate change writing prompts, check out our previous challenges: I am the Universe by Helen Mort explores writing climate change, Turn Up The Volume with Oxfam offers ways into writing climate protest poems, and Melting Ice suggests prompts for writing about our disappearing polar regions. You might also like to read the other features in this series:
Photo of Nadia Lines reading at a microphone. She is a young white woman. Her brown hair is in a bun and she smiles.
Photo: Cesare de Giglio for The Poetry Society

Nadia Lines lives in Hertfordshire. She discovered poetry through the work of Keats when she was 14. Since then, she has been published by the Keats-Shelley Review and Young Poets Network. This year, she also won the Orwell Youth Prize and has performed poetry for the Moon Festival and Extinction Rebellion. She’s currently staging a Shakespeare spoof and volunteers at her library.

Published September, 2019

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *