Read it and (please don’t) weep: How to cope with climate grief

When the fate of our planet feels uncertain, it’s hard not to feel a little blue (Author’s photo)

I think about, learn about, and talk about the impacts of climate change day in and day out. When I flip on the TV or read the news at the end of a long day of climate-focused class and work, there it is again. The inescapable dark cloud of our climate reality is ever-present, and it’s time to admit: some days it weighs me down.

Turns out, I’m not alone. “Climate anxiety,” “climate grief” or solastalgia is being felt all over the world by people directly and indirectly experiencing the impacts of climate change. American climate anxiety is rising, with the number individuals who say they are “very worried” (one in five) about global warming doubling from March 2015 to March 2018. The same report finds one in six say they are at least “somewhat worried.”

Devastation from Hurricane Katrina

Research has found that individuals experiencing loss from climate-related events (prolonged drought, flooding, extreme weather events) often have elevated levels of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. There is an immediate need to support these individuals whose homes have washed away from hurricanes or burned down from wildfires; whose water is threatened by saltwater intrusion from sea level rise; those who are face-to-face with the devastating impacts of climate change.

But there is also a need for support that allows those of us who work in the field to survive in it long enough to make change (otherwise we’ll flee to other fields that aren’t so dang depressing). The American Psychological Association (APA) and ecoAmerica released a report in 2017 with an opening letter that read,

“the psychological responses to climate change, such as conflict avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness, and resignation are growing. These responses are keeping us, and our nation, from properly addressing the core causes of and solutions for our changing climate, and from building and supporting psychological resiliency.”

How do we not fall into this trap of avoidance and helplessness? How can we stay committed to the work that needs to be done without shutting down from its emotional toll? How do we find a productive balance between grief and optimism?

Every report on the psychological impacts of climate change I have read suggest Joan Baez may have been onto something when she said that “action is the antidote to despair.” For many, the best remedy for climate grief is action, often in the form of group activism. Indeed, our best defense against climate grief seems to be to actively participate in climate adaptation and mitigation instead of passively waiting for someone else to take action. Authors Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone call this “active hope” and quite literally wrote the book on it.

The Fridays for Future movement, catalyzed by activist Greta Thunberg, sees kids on strike from school in a call for political action on climate change.

But there is also a good chunk of introverts amongst us, who may not be so keen on group activism or building social networks for support. Perhaps we need to take a cue from ecology and find our niche. Transitioning from climate grief to active hope involves three pivotal steps: acknowledging the problem, setting intentions for action, and taking action. If we consider a societal, rather than individual, transition, it becomes clear that

It will take researchers, communicators, policy makers, activists, and many others to move us through these steps. In my deepest moments of climate grief, when I’m mourning the loss of the planet we deserve and the future losses we will experience, when I’m kicking myself for not doing enough, and resisting the temptation to flee to a “happier” field of work, it is this reminder that lifts me up: I am not expected to solve this problem alone.

To stay afloat in this field, first take a deep breath to shake off any anxiety-induced paralysis. Then lean into the strengths of your personality and of your work to find the places where you can contribute to climate solutions. Most importantly, work with others to build on your piece of the puzzle. Again, we cannot go it alone.

Everything may not be rainbows and butterflies, but it’s also not all skinny polar bears and wastelands. As leaders and change makers, we must find a way to channel our climate grief into active hope. Reality doesn’t have to be so grim if we lean into our role in the transition and build upon each other’s strengths to make meaningful change.

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