Understanding Climate Grief

Posted December 04, 2019

By Sierra Rhodes

Have you ever read the news and felt like curling up in a ball because of the climate emergency? You’re not alone. As our planet changes and crises erupt around us, emotional reactions to climate disruption are becoming more frequent. At a time when our news is inundated with stories of disaster and impending doom, people can become consumed with feelings of anxiety, grief, and helplessness. Many people are already dealing with the emotional toll of adapting to a rapidly changing planet. Some have lost their homes, jobs, and food sources to early warning signs of environmental catastrophe: rising temperatures, unusual precipitation patterns, fires, hurricanes of unprecedented magnitude, rising sea levels, and mass extinction. Addressing climate change will require that we find ways to address our emotional responses to the climate crisis at hand and find ways to channel our emotions into solutions.

The effects of climate change impact not just ecosystems worldwide but also the mental and physical health of humans. Reactions to the looming climate crisis vary from person to person depending on each individual’s experiences and perspectives; manifestations of grief, anxiety, and depression over the planet’s fate have become increasingly common.

"It’s like a dystopian novel. To grow up seeing the world fall apart around you and knowing it’s going to be the fight of your lives to make people stop it." Gabe Lopez, 16-year-old

A recent paper from the American Psychological Association (APA) examines the growing impact of climate change on mental health. The study identified children, Indigenous communities, impoverished communities, communities of color, individuals with disabilities, outdoor workers, seniors, and women as some of the groups most vulnerable to the psychological effects of the climate crisis. A variety of factors—independence, mobility, economic status, pollution, access to aid, medical complications, and mental health—contribute to an increased vulnerability to the effects of climate change, including a stage now known as “climate grief.”

While grief is a response to loss that elicits emotions like sadness and loneliness, climate grief is an emotional response to climate change-related loss, from the disappearance of food sources and ways of life to the world’s biodiversity. Another emotion that arises from the climate crisis is climate anxiety. Collectively, humans need to do more to address climate change. The discordance between what we should be doing and what we are doing is a common cause of climate anxiety—an uncertainty or paranoia about the future of the environment and our human population.

According to the APA’s study, people directly affected by climate disasters often experience acute psychological responses to those disasters, including trauma, grief, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The study also found that many people, both directly and indirectly affected by climate change, experience chronic psychological responses like stress, anxiety, and depression. People who already struggle with depression are likely to experience worsening depressive episodes, and people who have not previously had depression are more likely to experience depression as a result of the climate crisis. Chronic and acute psychological responses have been found to result in strains on social relationships, increased aggression, loss of control, and identity crisis. Finding strategies to cope with climate grief will be increasingly necessary to encourage action instead of hopelessness and preserve social relationships as we continue to face the effects of the climate emergency.

Growing up is hard enough already, but in a world plagued by climate grief, it’s becoming much harder. Children and young adults, as the people most burdened with an unstable future, are catapulting climate grief into the national and international dialogues. Media warnings of worsening environmental disaster in the upcoming decades have encouraged young people to become more active in these conversations in an attempt to protect their future.

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg is working to draw attention to climate issues and has inspired many young people to get involved with raising awareness and generating change around climate policy. Young people realize that their future is at stake, and that if they avoid tackling climate now, they are putting that future at risk.

Gabe Lopez, a 16-year-old from Washington state, put into words the feelings many young people are experiencing, saying in an interview with the Washington Post, “It’s like a dystopian novel. To grow up seeing the world fall apart around you and knowing it’s going to be the fight of your lives to make people stop it.”

Young people who realize the planet cannot sustain life as we know it are changing the way they live, and some may even choose not to create new life at all. Many young people who are currently dealing with grief and anxiety about living in a climate crisis do not want to have children who will experience the same grief and anxiety they feel. "When I see my life plans, they [are] really unclear because I don't know what climate change will mean or look like,” said Manjot Kaur, an eighteen-year-old from Australia, to The Sydney Morning Herald. “But the idea of having a child and making them deal with the climate crisis in the future seems so unfair.”

Youth striking for climate in Santa Cruz, Sept. 27, 2019.

No matter how hopeless it may, at times, seem, we can still do much to curb the rising tides. Despite mounting evidence of the dangerous impact fossil fuels have on the climate, the fossil fuel industry continues to thrive thanks to oligarchic economic structures that seep into governments around the world. Protecting the planet for future generations will require humanity to immediately move away from fossil fuels. For decades, scientists have identified fossil fuels as a great threat to life on our planet as we know it. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s science advisory committee warned of carbon dioxide having significant effects on the atmosphere and climate, ultimately concluding that fossil fuels were the only known source of carbon dioxide being added to the atmosphere. In the nearly five and a half decades since this warning, the fossil fuel industry has continued to grow — and knowingly damage the environment.

Our continued inaction on the climate emergency is creating the largest public health crisis humanity has ever faced. In 2015, nearly 1,000 health professionals called for divestment from fossil fuels because of their role in carbon emissions, saying, “We believe a complete transformation of the energy sector is needed, driven by strong environmental policies, and that divestment has greater potential to bring this about. The ethical and financial case for fossil fuel divestment is well founded and has been supported by the President of the World Bank and the director-general of the World Health Organization, both public health physicians.”

Health professionals and scientists agree that reliance on fossil fuels is detrimental to life on Earth, but the fossil fuel industries are still extracting. While gas and oil may be convenient, continued reliance on fossil fuels will ensure that the planet can no longer sustain human—or many other types of—life.

As our environment changes, we must work to avoid hopelessness and inaction, preserve human relationships, and promote connections between people and the planet. By making changes in consumption patterns, we can adapt and create solutions. By changing the patterns that contribute to climate change, we can inspire hope for the future.

It is important to note that even if we successfully start to make the necessary changes today, our climate will continue to change. Climate grief will continue to be an issue as our world recovers and climate disasters persist. We can support each other through climate grief by having open discussions about climate change and working toward solutions.

Next time you’re feeling hopeless about the future we’re collectively facing, reach out to others to discuss your feelings, support people and organizations that are finding solutions, advocate for change, make environmentally-conscious changes in your lifestyle, and get out in nature so you can get in touch with what is at stake. William Shakespeare once wrote, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” By truly appreciating nature and encouraging others to do the same, we can move toward a society that understands why we must address the climate emergency before it’s too late. When we discuss the climate crisis and the resulting psychological effects, we can fortify our social connections and find ways to build a better tomorrow.

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