At home with Jonica Newby

Dr Jonica Newby is a science reporter, author, TV presenter and director best known for her two decades on ABC TV’s popular weekly science program, Catalyst. She has twice won the Eureka Award, Australia’s most prestigious science journalism prize, and is a recipient of a World TV Award. Beyond Climate Grief: A journey of love, fire, snow and an enchanted beer can is her first book.

At home with Jonica Newby


ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret, Jonica.

JONICA: Thank you. I'm really honoured.

ASTRID: Now I have been asking writers who I admire for several years now about how we write about climate change. I've asked Jess Hill and Sophie Cunningham and James Bradley, Chloe Hooper, Jennifer Mills, Richard Flanagan, Patty Manning, so many people about how we capture what is the, well, one of the largest concepts we have, essentially. It is so multifaceted in words on the page. That is what I would love to talk to you about today, Jonica.

ASTRID: Now you are not a stranger to the audience of The Garret. You are of course, a science reporter and a TV presenter and I think that listeners of The Garret will best know you from your two decades on the science program, Catalyst, but you have recently published Beyond Climate Grief: A journey of love, snow, fire and an enchanted beer can. Tell me, why did you move from TV to the written word?

JONICA: I sort of had to. I had no desire to write a book. I saw myself as a filmmaker and writer for television, as well as a presenter, but in the last three years, something happened to me that I obviously write about in the book because it is a memoir. I just had this moment. It was actually a Saturday night in May 2019. I know exactly when it was because I'd been in the car driving at night and I ended up having this conversation with a man who I was calling about something else, and he started talking about his grief for the forests. He was a forest scientist. I'd had about three other conversations in the previous month, and I mean, while I was struggling with my own particular grief for my heart place. I just remember lying there in bed on a Saturday night going, ‘Oh shit, I need to write a book’. When I say, ‘Oh shit’, it's only because I had not intended to, but nothing else was big enough, like a movie or something like that wasn't big enough to try and go through the journey and inverted commas that I needed to go through.

ASTRID: Oh, look, this is a podcast for people who love the written word. You are in the right place now. I think that the audience will be very sympathetic to that desire to capture it in physical form, I guess. Let's start with a hard question. What is climate grief? Can you share your own with listeners of The Garret?

JONICA: Yeah, so I hadn't even heard the term, really, when I sort of fell into it. For me, it's the point where the abstract of climate change becomes real and emotional. So here I was, a science reporter who'd been reporting on climate change for 20 years and I thought I understood it, but I only understood it intellectually. It hadn't hit me. It hadn't gut punched me personally. So, to me, that process that you go through is, well, I later discovered is analogous to what happens when someone you love gets a cancer diagnosis or something like that. It's the point where it gets emotional.

Now for me, I have to tell you about my heart place. We all fall in love with places, just like we fall in love with people. Like if I ask you, where do you go in your head when you need to escape? Is it a beach? Is it a farm? Is it somewhere you love? That will be one of your heart places. Mine, one of mine is the snow.

I fell in love with snow before I ever met snow because snow just pervades our fantasy life. You know, it's in all our fairy tales, it's in Lord of the Rings, which of course was so influential on me as a teenager, a preteen. It just blew my mind. You know, imagine Frodo in the tropics, it just doesn't quite work. Then I got to fall in love with a real place when I moved east from Perth to the eastern states and became a Catalyst reporter, and I got to fall in love with the snow mountains. I learnt the skills so I could actually go up into the enchanted places that no one else could go. I've come to just, just love that place. It is the place I literally fantasise about it when I'm not there as if it were an absent lover.

Then three years ago, I had this moment where I was in Japan, my first ever time. I'm hanging out with Swiss ski instructor on holiday, having a great time. And I think to ask, what's a Swiss ski instructor doing on holidays here in January, it's his busiest time of year? He says, ‘I came to find good snow’. It turned out that Switzerland had had a green Christmas that year, no snow. Later that week, half the Great Barrier Reef died. As a science reporter, I knew that coral wasn't going to come back. I looked around and I suddenly thought, ‘God, it's like Lord of the Rings’. You know, there's literally, this threat is going to kill my magic. It's going to kill my snow.

Then I didn't stop there. I actually started to fall into an obsession. I spent a year researching what was going to happen to snow. I was actually developing a film because that's my natural way. By the end of that, I was just in tears all the time. That story that I've just told you becomes the first chapter in the book. I thought it would stop there but then I had this moment where I just had to go, ‘I can't stop here. I can't live with this’. I need to find out how to get through this emotionally. Not how to fix the problem, but how to get through this emotionally.

ASTRID: Your book is all about emotions. Now, as you briefly mentioned before, you are a science reporter, you understand, intellectually, climate change and all of the different ways it manifests, but this is a book about emotions and personal reactions.

Now I have climate grief. I have dealt with it at various times well and at various times not well and I don't think I've ... I haven't gotten through it all the way. I'm not even going to pretend.

JONICA: It's grief. It's grief, you don't. I think just naming it grief is so important. Then you know that ... grief comes back, it doesn't leave you. You just learn to live with it.

ASTRID: I struggle with that even, just learning to live with it because just learning to live with it really implies that it's not going anywhere, and it will continue to get worse. Now, this is not a science podcast. This is very much a podcast about words, but I'm really interested in how you took this concept that I struggled to deal with in my life and I struggle to talk to you about now because I find it beyond words, but you have taken climate grief and all of your knowledge of science and brought it to the page and you were looking at emotions. You just spoke to us about your heart place, the place that you love, the snow, and how climate change is an existential threat to the snow world around us. I'd like to ask you to talk about courage. Courage, it's not quite an emotion, but it's close enough to an emotion and you spend a lot of time in the book talking about courage. I think that was one of the chapters that stayed with me.

JONICA: Oh, good. Because one of the premises for the book was a bit like Leigh Sales’ Any Ordinary Day, that if I went out and asked all different people about their own approaches, emotionally, then as the reader might not relate to what say, Missy Higgins said, but might relate to Anna Rose in the courage chapter or the active hope concept that comes from Joanna Macy, all of which is embedded within the narrative so it doesn't feel like it's preaching, I hope.

I was having a real problem with the word hope and I realised how writing can help you find out what you're actually struggling with. I realised early on in that first couple of chapter that I was feeling horribly guilty because hope felt like an enemy. It felt like I would say hope that a change of government in this country might actually, or in America, might actually mean that we get concerted action. Then the hope would be dashed, and I would be pulverised. I was thinking hope is actually bad for me and yet people tell me that I have to have hope or I'm a bad person.

Then I was listening to this podcast by Anna Rose, who's this amazing inspirational figure who I've known about for years. She started the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and then when she was older, she started, helped start Farmers for Climate Action and a whole lot of groups, including Veterinarians for Climate Action, which I've as a former vet, I'm a member of.

Anyway, she started talking about courage. It was like this light bulb moment. She described that the derivation of it, even, you know, it's French and it's coeur, which is heart, which means love. And rage, which is anger, but anger harnessed to the fight. So courage, it's to me, it's fight and love. It's all anger and love. It's the moment where you just do what you have to do. You use that anger to fuel what you need to do to save what you love.

So when hope fails you, you can fall back on this word, courage. I started thinking about how in World War Two, it would have looked bleaker than it does to us now. Remembering my own grandparents' war, which was quite extraordinary, but I think many people's war story from that time feels like an epic fiction. My grandparents certainly did and I've put some of those stories in the book. There are plenty of times where all was lost. What do you fall back on? Hope? No. Courage. You can whisper it to yourself.

Then because the book took this dramatic turn... well, when I say the book took a dramatic turn, life took a dramatic turn while I was writing it. The book was never meant to be as much a personal, scary memoir, scary because being personal is kind of scary, but it became this memoir of trying to write a book like this during the summer that the world changed. And the reality of climate change came and friggin’ smacked us in the guts and the face. Just when I think I've got a measure on it and yeah, I mean, we've all fallen into a fiction, along comes New Year's Eve, the cusp of 2020, and my mom's town of Mallacoota gets attacked by a 20,000-foot fire monster. I mean, this is like out of Lord of the Rings.

I'd sort of written at that stage, because I was writing while this was all happening, which is why the book's so sort of visceral and raw and immediate. I'd written already about this word, courage, that you could whisper to yourself. Then I found myself literally doing that over those six weeks. And then again with the pandemic, just whispering to myself, ‘Courage, Jonica, courage’. I think it's a really comforting thing that we can all use and also whisper or say loudly to each other. Courage, yeah.

ASTRID: I wanted to ask you when you wrote this book. You've just explained how you wrote during the bush fires of 2019, 2020. But of course, there was also a global pandemic. Did those events influence where you went with the writing?

JONICA: Yeah, it made it very hard to write the end of the book. I've sort of pivoted already because like I said, my plan originally was to write something like Any Ordinary Day, where the only personal story really would be the first one and then I'd go and ask all these other people. But I had to ditch that plan within writing the first two chapters.

I literally started keeping a diary from about early November because I thought this, oh, I'll write about this one event this one fire up in Nymboida. But it just kept escalating and this sense of, as I said, living the epic fantasies that I'd love as a kid just kept becoming more and more real. I know that that's a theme that kind of suffuses the book, as is the notion of everyday heroes.

So yeah, I mean the book ended up having this literally epic narrative structure, while being a memoir, while also be asking psychologists and other experts about what to think about our emotional responses to this. I added all these extra chapters after the events of New Year's Eve 2020. So there's now chapters that were never meant to be. The one called Horror, which is actually very beautiful, about Mallacoota and, and is full of joy and people doing amazing things.

But the next one, probably the most relevant to your question, Disaster Brain. I ended up writing a chapter about disaster brain and I swear, half the book was actually written while I was in disaster brain. It occurred to me that that change in brain state that happens when you suddenly realise the reality of this climate threat and actually you're living in it is equally applicable to COVID and any other threats that are coming ahead.

The last few chapters, I won't say accidentally because obviously I was trying to make sense of everything that was around me and I already had access to these amazing teacher characters, particularly Sandy McFarland who's a professor of psychiatry and expert in PTSD, and Dr. Rob Gordon. They were talking about how we never think disaster's going to happen to us, which is obviously analogous to climate change in general. But when it does, our brain has to actually flip into a more anxious state and we have to change plans.

The very back end of the book ended up being about that, but also all these incredibly positive things that come out of that because the penultimate chapter is called Pride. Honestly what made me cry a lot — I'm sure you were the same, I'm sure my sisters were the same — wasn't always the bad news at all. It was when people did beautiful things. I'd see an RFS worker and I'd burst into tears and I'd try and thank them and I couldn't get it out. Likewise, my mum in Mallacoota was talking about when someone sent her a gift that would just make her cry.

The positive meaning out of all of this, and that also gives me a lot of hope for a future under global warming, is that when the shit hits the fan, the vast majority of us, 80 per cent of the population, are overwhelmed by these pro-social emotions and these urges to do something to help others. We saw that even when the fires were at their worst and everyone was on the road kind of trying to steal petrol because the electricity wasn't working. But nobody turned into the cannibals of the road, right? They all kind of just helped each other and baked cakes and made jokes. I just saw that again and again, and then I found research to back that up. But in crisis, humanity actually, our natural urge for most of us is to pull together.

So when I had to write the ... and so pride is one of the emotions that we feel when we see those around us doing amazing, beautiful things. Pride is this unbelievable emotion that we evolved to reward us for doing the hard stuff and doing good by our community, so I really wanted to finish with that as the final emotion.

Then of course, I ended up stuck on the last chapter, in ‘the search for meaning’. It feels like such a cliche that I actually confess in the book in embarrassment, like I'm not the kind of person who goes on the search for meaning. It's just doesn't fit my self-image. And then here I was at the end of the book going, this woman who warned me of this was right. If I start on this path about climate grief, I'll end up on the search for meaning. It's true, when these shocks like the reality of the fires or the reality of COVID come and hit us, many of us — not the sociopaths, obviously, those who us who are not sociopaths — we're not looking at our lives and going, ‘What's the most meaningful?’ and really appreciating what's here in the now, but I think also harnessing our love for our friends and our heart places to do what we need to do for our future.

ASTRID: As I said before, you understand the science and now you, as you say, have gone on this quest for meaning... from all of your personal and professional experience, what do you think is missing in our public conversations about climate change?

JONICA: Heart, love. Look, one of the original ideas, because I had this background as a veterinarian originally, but then in my science reporting, I gravitated toward neuroscience and psychology and how the brains work, probably just trying to work out how I am, as always. Self-diagnosis in there. That's why when I was going to write this book about climate grief, which ended up being a far more epic book than I could have imagined, I wanted to write about emotions and I wanted ... and the original premise and I still believe this totally... was to look at the way our discourse on climate is. Mostly, it's told through fear as an emotion. Fear is super important and it's super important that we feel it. It's designed to actually make us do what we need to do to survive. But neurochemically, fear is problematic because it spikes and drops, spikes and drops, and it's very focused. It's only focused on the next problem and the next problem.

If you look at politicians, for example, and I don't really go too much into this in the book, but they're not looking forward. They're in that fear cycle. ‘Am I going to lose the next election?’ That's literally all they care about, literally, a lot of them. You sort of think, ‘Why are you even in service if that's what you think?’ So fear spikes and drops and then we go, when we're not in fear, we go, ‘Oh, everything's fine now’. Love is a very different chemical. It's designed to last and evolved to make us protect what we love. It evolved for the long-term actions.

So, for me, if you can find, if a listener can find, as I have, a place they love or kids, and think about that future, it's like having a partner with a cancer diagnosis, as happened to me as well. You don't look away, you don't give up, you don't go into denial. You do enjoy every minute that you have with that person so you absolutely live in the now, but you also do whatever you can to try and preserve that person's future. Whether it works or not, you know in yourself because of love, you have to try. That's what I think is missing in the public discourse. It's that knowledge that if we want to preserve the world, or let's just get more specific, the parts of Australia, the parts of our lifestyle that we love deeply, then you just do whatever you can to save the one you love.

ASTRID: That is so well said. In addition to speaking to experts, you also spoke to well-known Australians creatives. I guess the two that come to mind are Missy Higgins, the singer-songwriter, and of course, Charlie Pickering, the comedian and reporter. Both of those spoke about their own emotions and climate grief. I was particularly struck by Charlie Pickering's sharing his thoughts on how he is trying to process his own climate grief in relation to his children. The conversation that he feels he will one day have when his son says, ‘All of my favourite animals are extinct’. How do you reflect on those kinds of conversations that you were able to put in the book?

JONICA: Oh God. I went to see Charlie and hoping he'd make me laugh because he's in the chapter called ‘Humour’, and of course he was choking back tears so I was as well. Look, those conversations in the book were all so moving, but also they did really move forward my own strategies, if you like, the tips for how to actually deal with this emotionally.

I guess the first thing was that I wasn't expecting these outpourings of emotion when I went to see a lot of these people, but it turned out that many people are feeling like I am, overwhelmed by this emotional process. Just sharing that is actually really important and, cliche, empowering. If you think about a grief journey, what do we have? We all get together and we share our emotions when we've got a grief, so that, all the experts subsequently were telling me is really important.

So acknowledging that these people in this intimate conversational space that I had with them, that were struggling with the same things as me, that in itself helps you process. It really does. But then with Charlie, we went on to talk about the role of humour. There was a real reason why I really wanted a chapter called humour in there because from an evolutionary point of view, laughter is a weird one. But look at how many jokes people were making when COVID came, for example. What was that instinctive response? Not just to bake cakes, but to send each other memes left right and centre to make each other laugh. We have that instinctive desire to make each other laugh even when things are really crap. I mean, we saw this famously in Auschwitz and other places.

Humour evolved, really, to make us bond. You see, what it does when we laugh is we release oxytocin. That's the bonding, the love chemical, the friendship chemical. It also defrags us physiology. It gets rid of all the cortisol and replaces it with endorphins and so on. So you find that even people who've just fought a fire or lost their house, I asked everyone, everyone, a question I didn't expect, ‘Did you make jokes about it? I know your house just burnt down’. You know, Cheyenne who was 18, and she laughed and said, ‘Yeah, and she told me the jokes’. All those little jokes that people told each other, and a number of them are in the book.

Then when it came to Missy Higgins, God, she was just so soulful and beautiful and had this really... a lot of people have told me that's the most affecting chapter for them, one of the most affecting chapters, but also really sustaining. We were talking partly obviously about her own climate grief, which turned into art. She wrote this absolutely beautiful album about her climate grief, where she looked at the worst possible future. She just looked straight at it. She wrote that, she's sang it in this really emotional way, and it opened up an idea that later got supported from psychologists of radical acceptance. That if you actually, instead of trying to deny what could happen, you actually let yourself kind of imagine that, even though that's not a definite future by any means, but just let yourself imagine it. Then look back on what you actually would have to sustain yourself in that place and hen bring that back into the present with you as sort of courage and fortitude and love, then that actually... the psychologists call it radical acceptance. It does run through a lot of the strategies that, for example, even Joanna Macy, who's the philosopher who writes about active hope, which became a very important sort of idea for me.

And yeah, I call climate change staring at the beast. You know, trying to sort of personify this threat. So yeah, I got that from Missy. Then the other thing I got, really practical, she talked about how we just get drowned in news, which ... and news by definition is bad. That's what makes the newspapers, that's what makes the cycle, is bad news. What that does is drowns us in cortisol and it just makes us feel hopeless and it puts it in overwhelm. So it's really important for all of us to actually limit how much time we spend each day looking at bad news. I try to more or less glance at it and then balance that out with looking for heroes, for example. There are heaps of people doing fabulous things that you can take courage from.

ASTRID: I have a question that you may feel not able to answer. You obviously come at your professional life from the kind of nonfiction background. You are science and fact. But having spoken to these creatives, having spoken to Missy Higgins about the creation of art as a response to her climate grief, do you see a role for climate fiction? You know, stories about what may come?

JONICA: Actually, although I grew up reading them. You say that I'm ... you've actually, you've found my facade. I grew up reading nothing but dystopic fiction and science fiction and novels and fantasies. To be honest, even as an adult, I very rarely read non-fiction. I mostly read fiction. And so of course, yes. Although as I said, it feels like some of the things I read in the past really resonate with our realities now, then I think that that sense of being a fiction lover came through, I hope, in my writing too. The book was, I didn't want it to read like a nonfiction book, really. I mean, there's advice in it, but I didn't want it to read like a nonfiction book because that would not be a book that I necessarily would want to read, so wholeheartedly, yes. I have a thriller writer friend who's doing some. I know of Kate Holden, she's about to release a true crime novel about it. Yeah, all the genres, all the creativity, they're all things that they're an outlet of transforming our trauma into beautiful art, which again, I talk about in that in the chapter called creativity.

But they're also, they give us courage, they give us sustenance, and I think they can help us cast ourselves — as I sort of thought about quite a bit in the book — as, well what would Frodo do about climate change? It's like, you just keep going and you find other people to help you, and the beauty is in the attempt whether it works or not. But of course, my book is also full of cases where it did work where people didn't expect it to. So yes, I'm a huge believer in storytelling and maybe if I have the courage one day, I will delve into fiction myself.

ASTRID: I think that is one of the best questions ever raised on The Garret. What would Frodo do? Now, I'm going to take that with me, Jonica, and use it as my personal little mantra when I get a little bit overwhelmed by my own personal climate grief. Jonica, thank you for writing this book. It is a book that I will be sharing with some members of my family who aren't going to read climate nonfiction, but I think this might be the one for them. Thank you so much.

JONICA: Thank you. It was a pleasure.