In the face of losses caused by global warming, scientists, activists, and the public at large may be working through “climate change grief.”
The pastel Art Deco buildings of Miami Beach face a waterlogged future, as rising seas and saltwater intrusion threaten to reclaim the low-lying city. Hundreds of square miles of forest lay torn asunder in Alberta, Canada, as tar sand companies squeeze viscous fuel out of the earth below. And California’s lands lay baking and parched, as a historic drought continues to suck the Golden State dry.
It’s enough to provoke some strong feelings. Perhaps you’d prefer to ignore the growing signs of climate change, denying that the Earth’s shifting weather patterns will have a material effect on your life. Maybe you’re angry—or even depressed—about the problem’s size and our insufficient response to it. Or perhaps you’ve accepted climate change as the great challenge of our time and are ready to get to work.
In other words, you may be progressing through the five stages of a particular kind of grief: climate grief. And you’re not alone. Bill Nye the Science Guy is right there with you.
In the upcoming TV special “Explorer: Bill Nye’s Global Meltdown,” which premieres Sunday, November 1, on the National Geographic Channel, Nye guides viewers through the “five stages of climate grief”—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—as a means of grappling with his own feelings about climate change.
With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Nye’s on-screen grief counseling—administered by a sage Arnold Schwarzenegger—serves to categorize the varied ways that different businesses, governments, and citizens are responding to climate change. In Nye’s telling, for instance, the oil company Shell “bargains” with climate change when it builds a massive carbon sequestration plant in Alberta, Canada, that will capture less than two percent of the area’s CO2 output.
“It’s a little bit forced, but it’s charming,” Nye says.
Yet make no mistake: Climate change will cause individual and societal loss, and how people will process that loss through grieving increasingly preoccupies scientists and policymakers.
Nye takes his cues from Steve Running, a University of Montana ecologist and lead chapter author on the lauded 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won a Nobel Peace Prize that same year. When traveling the U.S. on a post-Nobel lecture tour, he noticed that his audiences’ responses varied wildly: Some proved utterly resistant to his discussion of a changing climate; others, he felt, were “very sad and demoralized” about the pending future.
Running soon realized that the “five stages of grief,” popularized in the 1970s by psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross to explain people’s methods for dealing with loss, mapped surprisingly well onto his observations.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this fits pretty well, this lays out the logic,’” he says, and worked “climate grief” into a widely circulated essay and presentation that has only grown in popularity.
“It’s a clever way to think about [climate change],” says Janet Swim, a psychologist at Penn State University who studies personal and social responses to climate change.
Though Swim emphasizes that research into climate change and mental health has barely begun, it’s clear that one faction in particular is struggling with a staggering sense of loss: climate scientists. As numerous media reports indicate, climate scientists’ existentially numbing work has mired many in what could be considered climate depression.
Running knows the feeling, especially after the failed Copenhagen climate summit of 2009. “After 2009 I had fits of depression.” Running says. “It was kinda hard not to slide back.”
The repercussions may well spread far and wide. The American Psychological Association, for instance, has forecast that climate change will likely have a profound impact on human mental health and well-being, whether from the shock of an extreme weather event such as Hurricane Katrina, or the sense of helplessness that climate change’s magnitude may provoke.
According to the National Wildlife Federation, more than 200 million Americans likely will bear some mental health hiccup because of climate change and related events.
“If there’s anything universal about climate change, it’s loss,” says Katharine Preston, an ecumenical lay preacher who focuses on social justice and the environment. And with loss, invariably, comes some form of grief.
For Preston, who counts Running as one of her inspirations, it’s a “matter of the head and the heart,” as laid out in a 2013 article she wrote on climate grief:
Have we ignored our emotional and spiritual connections to the planet? Could the noise swirling around climate change—science, politics, media blitzes, as well as the weather disasters themselves—drown out the voice of a loss so profound that it rests unnamed in our souls? Could our breaking hearts be part of the reason we are immobilized?
But Preston, along with climate scientists and figures including Nye, underscores the importance of working through the loss in an effort to keep up motivation. Swim’s research, for example, shows that discussing climate change with supportive communities and taking group-level action, such as advocating for bike paths and other green options, can make a positive difference.
“It’s not like it’s ever done,” says Swim. “But it helps.”
As for Nye, he remains eager to get to work on climate change. He has to.
“You have to be optimistic, but you don’t have to look at the world through rose-colored glasses,” he says. “You can be discouraged. But you have to believe the problem is solvable, or you won’t do anything.”
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