For Climate Hawks, The Five Stages Of Grief Are Reversed

The five stages of grief describes “a process by which people allegedly deal with grief and tragedy, especially when diagnosed with a terminal illness or catastrophic loss.” As Wikipedia puts it:

1. Denial2. Anger3. Bargaining4. Depression5. Acceptance

A few years ago, I heard a very brilliant physicist, Saul Griffiths, use this piece of pop psychology to describe climate science activists (a.k.a. climate hawks), and I realized that he had it backwards. This is an updated post.


Climate hawks begin with accepting the science. What else can one do? Science is the reason so many of us survived childbirth and childhood, science has fed the world, science is the reason computers and the blogosphere exist at all. And yes, science gave us our fossil-fueled wealth. I’m a scientist by training, but I just don’t see how anyone can pick and choose what science you’re going to believe and what not. The scientific method may not be always be perfect in single studies — since it is used by imperfect humans — but it is the best thing we have for objectively determining what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. It is testable and self-correcting, unlike all other approaches.


Once climate hawks accept the science, many quite naturally get depressed. See “Dealing with climate trauma and global warming burnout.” The situation is beyond dire, and we aren’t doing bloody much about it, in large part because of the successful efforts of the deniers and delayers. Climate science offers a very grim prognosis if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path.

After depression comes a serious effort at bargaining. Climate hawks try to figure out what they can do to stop the catastrophe. Taking actions and making bargains at a personal level and a political level — depending on their level of activism.

Then comes anger. Once you’ve been at this for a while, you get very very frustrated by how little is happening — by the status quo media, the many anti-science politicians, and especially the deniers, the professional disinformers.

Finally, you end up in a kind of denial. It just becomes impossible to believe that the human race is going to be so stupid. Indeed, my rational side finds it hard to believe that we’re going to avoid catastrophic global warming, as any regular CP reader knows. But my heart, in denial, is certain that we will — see “How the world can (and will) stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm: The full global warming solution (updated).”

The great New Yorker write Elizabeth Kolbert perhaps best summed up this form of denial. Her three-part series, “The Climate of Man,” which became the terrific book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, famously ends:

It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.

It is impossible to believe. I myself can’t believe it.