The Six Stages Of Climate Grief

by Daphne Wysham, via Other Words

Now that the hottest summer on record is drawing to a close, are we any closer to admitting that climate change is upon us? If not, why not?

It might have something to do with the five stages of grief. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified these stages as denial, then anger, followed by bargaining, depression, and acceptance. With record drought killing our cattle and our corn, West Nile virus sweeping the country, and Arctic ice sheets melting away, it’s no surprise that millions of people are responding to these frightening signs of environmental decline in stages.

Nobel Laureate Steve W. Running first proposed this frame for understanding the popular response to climate change in 2007. I’d like to go one step further and suggest a sixth stage: The Work.

Denial, the first stage of grief, can be quite comfortable. The U.S. media is in many ways co-dependent with the denialist camp. It rarely connects the dots between extreme weather events and climate change, making it easy to remain blissfully ignorant. Our politicians are also prolonging this denial stage by rarely uttering the term “climate change,” as though the words themselves were obscene.

The second stage — anger — sums up the likes of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. These talk show hosts are at their most vitriolic when they attack climate scientists or advocates of fossil fuel alternatives. Their ferocity gives license to the crazies who issue death threats against climate scientists: they would rather shoot the messenger than listen to the message.

The next stage, bargaining, comes when the deniers begin to acknowledge that global temperatures are indeed rising, but claim it’s due to natural causes. Or they take a stance like ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s — admitting climate change is a major, man-made problem, but claiming that the answer is to “adapt” to it instead of changing our behavior.

Depression is a familiar state to me and my fellow climate change activists. If the truth will set you free, the truth about climate change may set you free to take anti-depressants for the rest of your life. Every weather abnormality comes with a sense of dread. It’s at this point that we lose people. Denial starts to look attractive.

Acceptance is the hardest stage, because what experts tell us lies ahead is so damn scary, it will make you want to hop into Rush Limbaugh’s lap and stay there: We are surpassing all of scientists’ worst-case scenarios by a long shot — we are now on track to an 11-degree Fahrenheit rise by the end of the century, according to the International Energy Agency. We’ve broken over 4,000 temperature records in the United States just this year, and scientists tell us record droughts, floods, storms, and forest fires all may become “the new normal.”

We must accept this dreadful prognosis if we are to act appropriately.

But acceptance does not mean that all is lost.

After years of working through these stages, I’ve discovered a new sixth stage: doing The Work. This means taking courage from each other as we look this monster in the eye and fight side-by-side in the battle of a lifetime. Systemic change — not just light-bulb change — is what’s required now. This must include everything from replacing the GDP as an outdated measure of progress to getting schools to teach climate science and arm the next generation with the facts.

Together, we can get a glimpse, beyond despair, of a world of transformation and rebirth that is possible if we’re courageous enough to fight for it. After all, our planet will eventually restore itself to a state of equilibrium — we just have to make sure humankind is around to witness it.

Daphne Wysham is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and is the founder and co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network (SEEN). This piece was originally published at IPS’ Other Words blog.

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25 Responses to The Six Stages Of Climate Grief

  1. Mark E says:

    And after The Work comes The Storytelling…. reworking the religious and cultural mythos for the next millenium to reflect whatever wisdom we gain

  2. barb K says:

    One small correction… there’s a first stage before stage 1… Realization. Those of us who have since “The Silent Spring” been measuring and noting and talking about and being shushed, had the initial Realization decades ago. Just like when you’ve been given that prognosis of terminal disease, Realization comes before denial, anger, bargaining. Now that others have come to Realization; denial, anger and the rest are evident in the general populace. Will they be ready for the work?

  3. joyce says:

    This is an important post for those of us “boots on the ground” folk trying to make impacts/inroads into our communities–and points the the importance to support each other in our efforts. We all have different approaches, styles and gifts, but we can all be supportive.

  4. Edith says:

    Looking at Romney-Ryan and their priorities and their followers last week leads me into despair…maybe this week will be better…??

  5. Work, yes. But the really scary and depressing part is that it might be too late to prevent runaway global warming. How close are we to releasing all that Arctic methane? And if it starts bubbling out and feeding the feedback mechanisms of global warming, does it really matter if we impose a carbon tax or make a heroic attempt to change our consumption habits, economy and energy rigime?

    Knowing what we now know, the question becomes “What should we be working on?” Fighting the establishment, or digging tunnels to live in.

    ‘”Never say die,” I guess. But are we just entering a new stage of denial about a new reality?

  6. Step 6 seem to be right back at denial.

  7. The way there is no idea what goes on with my father Herbert Otto Altar who was revived, first “Interviews before Execution” which is on YouTube in that state and age (with possibly only his DNA on emotion and intellect) due to modern processes and then even some possible friend of his age or younger from the German cultural circle it may be suddenly no longer answering his mobile phone in Santarém, spoke excellent cultured English, 351 967 607 654

  8. SecularAnimist says:

    Daphne Wysham wrote: “It might have something to do with the five stages of grief. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified these stages as denial, then anger, followed by bargaining, depression, and acceptance.”

    Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief have nothing to do with the deliberate lies of bought-and-paid-for propagandists like Hannity and Limbaugh, or their corporate paymasters like Rex Tillerson.

  9. Leif says:

    “Tunnels” present just another unlivable climatic environment. A non starter IMO. Better to fight and lose than not fight at all. The courageous die but once, the coward dies a 1000 times! (If memory/resurrection? serves me correct.)

  10. Jim Baird says:

    “What should we be working on?”

    Philip start from the beginning.

    Over 95 percent of global warming heat is accumulating in the oceans. Due to their thermal inertia this will prolong climate effects for a millennium unless we first stop trapping the heat and then start converting it to non carbon electricity and liquid fuel replacements.

    OTEC is the only energy source that accomplishes this.

    It has many drawbacks that can be overcome.

  11. Mike Roddy says:

    Keeping up with climate science does not have to result in depression. Researching the hazards, and the people who are responsible, is liberating.

    I went to a dinner with some fellow activists in Seattle a few years ago. There was plenty of laughter and joy. Part of it was because we have learned by now to live in the moment, but there is also strength to be gained from finding allies, and working in such a noble cause.

    There are plenty of blessings left in this world. Getting dark and depressed is a choice.

  12. Tami Kennedy says:

    I can only hope that step five rains down on more of the population currently accepting the rosy future still being offered by those with the most short term fiscal risk. Just maybe step six will commence with the effort needed to be successful. Both parties standing on the 100 year natural gas supply argument is not a good sign.

  13. Tami Kennedy says:

    This is a great statement.

    “Acceptance is the hardest stage, because what experts tell us lies ahead is so damn scary”

  14. David Heintz says:

    Excellent post. I’d add and clarify. The anger also operates in another direction, in us who understand the severity of the crisis, toward those who retreat into willful ignorance in the face of it. And I’d say The Work must be engaged at every stage; i.e. we have to first fight the denial that is so nearly omnipresent before we can go much further.

  15. Controlling one’s emotions about such an overwhelming issue is extremely difficult, so I cut a lot of slack. Not worrying about one’s own death–appropriating others’ attention for your personal fear–is the adult thing to do. But watching a lethal catastrophe unfold for your spouse and children, not to mention the entire human race, is something different. It is not only depressing, it is maddening. Keeping these emotions in check while the deniers indulge their emotions to impose a no-solutions approach on us is very hard to take. It is the essence of injustice.

    Mike, I get your point. I may be quibbling to say I think we’re allowed a little depression. I agree, never give up. But it’s not simply a choice. It’s a brave effort that earns a lot of respect in my book.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Before Work must come the Accounting, where those that caused the catastrophe are held to account. Not just the denialist industry heavyweights, but the acolytes of the insane religion of unlimited economic growth to feed the insatiable greed of the few.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Well said, Big Julie.

  18. Merrelyn Emery says:

    The stages of grief are a bad analogy in two ways – 1. see Secular above at #8.
    2. Grieving is a highly individualized experience, heavily dependent on culture. Kubler-Ross’ theory was rejected in many parts of the world and she was finally forced to admit that even in the USA, many experienced only two stages and when they were experienced, they could occur in any order. Forcing a totally different phenomenon into an inadequate theoretical framework could have some maladaptive consequences when what we need is cooperative action and lots of it, ME
    could have some

  19. Mark E says:

    OTEC would take BTUs from the surface, where those BTUs are messing up various ocean currents, and transfer those BTUs to the deep, where those BTUs will…… do what, exactly? Just disappear?

  20. Mark E says:

    That’s an easy criticism to bandy about when you live in Seattle, as I have, and its easy to kibbutz with folks that “get it”. Its a very different picture in a lot of the rest of the country.

  21. perceptiventity says:

    Here is an excellent podcast from the guys who got it and are doing the work of educating the public.

    “Kathy McMahon of Peak Oil Blues has been helping many deal with the psychological issues one faces when grasping the reality and severity of peak oil. In Extraenvironmentalist #6, we interview Kathy to talk about the psychological dimensions of peak oil and how those of us just starting our adult lives can prepare for life after the peak.”

    It only doubles up as
    “climate change blues”.

    Personally I find it difficult to engage my friends who have families and little kids. They all prefer some kind of green but techno-utopian vision to a drastic transformation of expectations for the future of their offsprings. The other issue is the firewall of getting to know the basic facts on climate. It takes time and effort to realise the severity of the situation. A lot of data has to be digested and agreed upon before a conversation can even start in earnest about how to prepare for the future.
    And it has to be a volantary research deep down into one of those most exciting/scary rabbit holes.

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    When a rabble of vicious, happily ignorant, imbeciles threaten your life and that of the precious natural world that is our only home, it is a matter for extreme anger. One keeps it in check for fear of playing to these thuggees strong point-their propensity for violence. But when the threat is to others, all human others, and the very existence of our species, then restraint will, inescapably, cease to be possible at some stage. Then there will be, I fear, a real ecstasy of rage comparable to communal horrors like the Indian Partition. How can it be otherwise? Will we go to universal death like sheep?

  23. Jim Adcock says:

    We must be clear that an 11 degree increase in temperature is not sustainable for most of the human population. One way or another temperatures will stabilize — even if it is only due to a partial (or total) extinction of the human race. Thus we should compare climate change denial in a fair manner, namely: it is comparable morally to those who deny the Holocaust.

  24. David Lewis says:

    When I first read your line “replacing the GDP as an outdated measure of progress”, for an instant, I thought you had written “replacing the GOP as an outdated mindless…”