Updated: Jul 9, 2020
Growing up in a remote area of the Colorado mountains in the 1960s, I spent my days wandering alone in the peaceful quiet of the wilderness, developing a keen awareness of the flora and fauna around me. In my childhood innocence, it never entered my mind that the timelessness of the natural world could ever be threatened. All the power seemed to reside in the immensity of nature. As my school bus (with me as the only passenger) passed the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant on the way to town every day, the power of humanity to impact the environment slowly began to sink in. As I approached adulthood, I realized the bulldozers, smokestacks, and highways of civilization were threatening my beloved home. Now many years later when I visit my childhood valley, the once plentiful horned toad and leopard frog are nowhere to be found, victims of human encroachment and environmental destruction. The thought of the disappearance of my little childhood friends still brings tears to my eyes.
In 1969, after interviewing hundreds of terminally ill patients, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying, a milestone text on how humans process permanent loss. Kübler-Ross’ description of those reactions includes five stages; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages of grief provide a very good analogy for how I and many people are now reacting to the climate crisis. Particularly for those with a connection to nature, the irreversible damage happening to our planet can feel like a slow-motion death in the family.
A description of these five grief stages from the perspective of the climate crisis is provided below. One difference in applying this model to climate change is that our planet is not “dead” -- yet. We still have an opportunity to minimize the impacts of climate change. Therefore, I have added a sixth “Action” stage for those who want to contribute to the healing of our planet.
Note: There was never meant to be an orderly progression through the stages. There is no “correct” linear way to grieve. Our reactions are complicated because people are complicated. As you read through these stages, consider where you may be in the process.
STAGE ONE - DENIAL
Most of us start in the denial stage. People in this stage may be uninformed of the climate change facts, or simply do not believe the science proving the earth is warming or humans are the cause. Despite seeing global atmospheric CO2 rise every year since 1957 in correlation with industrial emissions, and global air temperatures of the last twenty years being the warmest in a millennium, they dismiss these trends as natural variability. The fact that 99% of climate scientists agree that man-made climate change is a real threat is ignored.
Unfortunately, the fossil fuel (coal, oil, and gas) industry, led by companies such as Exxon and Koch Industries, have been funding climate change disinformation efforts for decades. They have also made huge campaign contributions to politicians in order to obtain their support in the climate change denial effort. These efforts have worked in misinforming the public to a large extent.
Denial is also a natural human reaction to knowledge that creates such stress and anxiety that our nervous system simply cannot process it. Denial is a way to unconsciously mitigate this anxiety. Coupled with the fact that the impacts of climate change have a natural time delay following increased CO2 levels, denial is a way to reduce stress by putting off dealing with climate change in our mental and personal lives. People in this stage often see no reason to disturb the status quo.
Others are struggling to just survive day to day, and are not afforded the privilege of worrying about longer term problems. Denial is largely based on emotion rather than logic. Confronted with convincing scientific evidence, people in the denial stage may or may not change their minds, depending on their level of emotional attachment to denial and to the climate disinformation readily available in the media.
STAGE TWO - ANGER
Many people jump directly from Denial to Stage Four, but for others the next stage is Anger. Once the reality of climate change and its myriad impacts begins to sink in, anger about several aspects of the climate crisis is a natural reaction. Anger is often the easiest response when we are scared of something. Particularly for younger people, anger is directed at older generations who knew the facts about climate change but did not take appropriate action to mitigate the impacts before it turned into a crisis. Older generations are incensed at the thought of substantially altering their lifestyle. The American lifestyle of conspicuous consumption is seen to be a God-given right, and any challenge to that is seen as a threat. Anger can manifest toward “tree-huggers” who are demanding action on climate change.
Other populations are already experiencing the negative impacts of climate change, resulting in the loss of life and property. They may direct anger toward developed countries such as the USA and China that are the main source of greenhouse gases. Often these populations have the least to do with causing the problem, but are most vulnerable to the impacts. Both anger and denial can also be a cover for underlying guilt for how we have left the planet for future generations.
STAGE 3 - BARGAINING
When we reach this stage, many people (such as self-righteous radio talk show hosts) who used to be very public deniers of global warming begin making statements that warming “won’t be all that bad.” It might make a place like Montana more comfortable. We will save on heating bills. All that CO2 and longer growing seasons will make crops grow better. Now we can grow crops in Canada and drill for oil in the melting Arctic. Partial denial is still part of the thought process in the bargaining stage. Accepting that climate change is happening, but denying the obvious human impact on the climate is another form of bargaining.
At this stage people grasp for the positive news about climate change and scrupulously ignore the negative news, such as more intense floods, droughts and wildfires, and the disappearance of glaciers in Glacier National Park by 2030. Others may make small changes in lifestyle, such as recycling, and dismiss the issue because they are “doing their part.” Most importantly, at this stage people are still not willing to make major lifestyle changes, embrace energy solutions that are less carbon intensive, or take action on the political front. They seem willing to ride out this grand global experiment and cope with whatever happens.
STAGE 4 - DEPRESSION
Once the full impact of current and future climate change has sunk in, and the immense global effort required to change the dangerous course we are on becomes apparent, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can lead to depression. People at this stage consider the acceleration of annual greenhouse gas emissions, the unprecedented speed of warming, and the necessity for international cooperation for a solution, and see the task ahead to be impossible. They mourn for the difficult life their children and grandchildren will have. They have trouble enjoying everyday life because of the sense of impending doom. Pervasive negative thoughts and emotions set in. The immensity of the problem can cause a cycling between depression, anger, and bargaining.
Symptoms of clinical depression such as sadness and anxiety, loss of interest in activities, difficulty thinking clearly, weight gain or loss, and withdrawal from loved ones may occur. Denial or misunderstanding of the cause of the depression by those around us can lead to feelings of isolation, further feeding the depression. The sense of wanting to do something about the problem but not knowing what will help leads to feelings of helplessness. These feelings can particularly impact children, who feel overwhelmed by climate information yet feel scared and helpless. Many people may be stuck in depression for months or years.
STAGE FIVE - ACCEPTANCE
In Stage Five, people acknowledge the scientific facts calmly, accept that some impacts of climate change are unavoidable, and realize each of us can have a part in minimizing future impacts. Three factors are important in moving people from Depression to this Acceptance stage.
First is the realization that there are viable alternatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that if implemented, will avoid the end of modern civilization. It is very heartening to see wind turbines, solar power, LED lighting, advanced batteries, and electric cars on the market right now, not some vague future hope. The technology to drastically reduce fossil fuel emissions is available today, in many cases at a cost lower than the current fossil fuel technology. The climate crisis can be addressed with technology available today, and is not dependent on some future research breakthrough. The problem is a lack of political will and a complacent population, not a lack of solutions.
Second is an emerging visionary global leadership, primarily from young people who are willing to fight for their future. At financial, technical, and political forums around the world, young people are challenging the entrenched power of the fossil fuel/ industrial complex. A vision is emerging of a global focus and commitment to solutions, so everyone is contributing, the lifestyle changes needed are broadly shared, and the light of day is shone on the political powers that are indebted to the fossil fuel industry. When a critical mass of our political, business, and intellectual leaders reaches stage five, we can move forward as a nation and as a global citizenry.
Third, for those of us so disposed, we can hold the climate crisis in a spiritual context. Hatred and blame of those who do not agree with our views only serves to create more division and entrenched positions. If we can truly listen to those who do not share our views without judgement and with compassion, divides can be crossed and understanding reached. We can also hold a spiritual context to the pain and suffering the climate crisis will continue to cause and likely expand across the globe. Humans often only change and grow in response to painful circumstances. The climate crisis will force many to confront the fact that the Earth and all of its inhabitants are intertwined in a complex web of life, and the actions of each of us impacts all of us. Facing this truth and acting with love, compassion, and cooperation is likely the only way out of the crisis. In this respect, the climate crisis can be seen as birth pangs before a new level of planetary consciousness is reached.
STAGE 6 – ACTION
The best antidote to the helplessness and hopelessness many feel in response to the climate crisis is to take effective action. It is easy to feel frozen in fear by this immense and complex problem. We all feel so small and powerless in comparison. However, each of us can play a minor role in the solution. If we all heed the call to action, the combined impact of our actions has the power to turn the corner towards healing of the planet and creating a new, more resilient and sustainable civilization.
Each of us has a unique role to play, depending on our talents, abilities and resources. Something as simple as planting a tree, those amazing natural CO2 to Oxygen converters, has a part to play in reducing CO2 levels. We can use our consumer power to buy sustainable products and patronize companies that are taking action to combat climate change. We can minimize beef and other meats in our diet. We can switch to clean energy sources and drive energy efficient or electric vehicles. We can prioritize climate action in our choice of political candidates. Some of us can take a more active role in politics and expose the corrupt political practices that perpetuate the use of old, dirty fuels and technologies. Some of us may be called to fight deforestation and preserve indigenous cultures. Others may take local action to change how our communities consume energy and water, or treat solid and liquid waste. Joining a group that is taking action helps to build community, provide encouragement, and alleviate the feeling of isolation many of experience on this topic. Each of us can be a leader in setting an example for others in earlier stages of climate grief, and move us all toward healing and growth on a personal and planetary level.
The horned toad may never return to my childhood mountain home, some sea level rise is inevitable, and substantial human suffering is already baked-in to our future from the neglect and abuse of our planet to this point. As we grieve these losses, our challenge is to avoid getting stuck and do the hard work of moving through our grief to become part of the solution. The future of civilization hangs in the balance. Are we up to the challenge?
Kelly Beninga holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Colorado State University, and an MA in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology from Naropa University. After a long career working in renewable energy to offset climate change, Kelly now has a private practice providing climate change grief counseling. You can learn more at https://www.therelationshipworks.net/climate-change-grief
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