The Best Medicine For My Climate Grief

A climate scientist talks to a psychologist about coping with the crushing stress related to climate change. Here’s what he learned.


Published:

© Owen Woodhouse, Unsplash

Sometimes a wave of climate grief breaks over me. It happens unexpectedly, perhaps during a book talk, or while on the phone with a congressional representative. In a millisecond, without warning, I’ll feel my throat clench, my eyes sting, and my stomach drop as though the Earth below me is falling away. During these moments, I feel with excruciating clarity everything that we’re losing—but also connection and love for those things.

Usually I don’t mind the grief. It’s clarifying. It makes sense to me, and inspires me to work harder than ever. Occasionally, however, I feel something quite different, a paralyzing sense of anxiety. This climate dread can last for days, even weeks. It can come with nightmares, for example, my favorite shady oak grove baking in the full sun of a heat wave, the oaks all dead and gone. During these periods, writing about climate change becomes all but impossible, as if hundreds of thoughts are jostling to squeeze through a narrow doorway onto the page. My scientific output slows to a trickle, as well; it feels like it just doesn’t matter.

I sense a social barrier to talking about these emotions. If I bring up climate change in casual conversation, the topic is often met with awkward pauses and the polite introduction of new subjects. Aside from increasingly frequent articles in the news about the typically incremental and sometimes disastrous progression of climate breakdown, we seldom talk about it, face to face. It’s as though the topic is impolite, even taboo.

With so much at stake—our security and normalcy; the futures we’d envisioned for our children; our sense of progress and where we fit in the universe; beloved places, species, and ecosystems—the psychology is going to be complex. So I reached out to Renee Lertzman to gain insight into how we’re coping with such huge impending losses. Lertzman is a psychologist studying the effects of environmental loss on mental health and the author of Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic Dimensions of Engagement.

“There is overwhelming research that distress and anxiety relating to climate is on the rise,” she told me. “Many people, I’d argue, are experiencing what I’d call a ‘latent’ form of climate anxiety or dread, in that they may not be talking about it much but they are feeling it.”

If we’re feeling these emotions or if we know others who are, it would be helpful to talk about them. “The main thing is that we find ways to talk about what we are experiencing in a safe and nonjudgmental context, and to be open to listening. All too often, when anxiety or fear comes up, we all want to push it away and move into ‘solutions.’”

A 2017 report by the American Psychological Association found that climate change is causing stress, anxiety, depression, and relationship strain. The psychological weight of climate change can lead to feelings of helplessness and fear, and to climate disengagement. Not surprisingly, those directly impacted by climate-augmented disasters fare even worse: For example, after Hurricane Katrina, suicide in affected areas more than doubled; the situation in post-Maria Puerto Rico is similarly dire. In general, suicide is projected to rise dramatically due to climate change; in addition to the psychological toll, our brains don’t respond well physically to excessive heat.

To think daily about climate change and any of its dire implications can be a crushing psychological burden. Each of us is just one mammal, with all our mammalian limitations—we get tired, sad, irritated, sick, overwhelmed—and the climate crisis wields the force of 8 billion humans with infrastructure, corporations, capital, politics, and imaginations heavily invested in burning fossil fuel.

“It’s important to remember that inaction is rarely about a lack of concern or care, but is so much more complex,” Lertzman said. “Namely, that we westerners are living in a society that is still deeply entrenched in the very practices we now know are damaging and destructive. This creates a very specific kind of situation—what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Unless we know how to work with this dissonance, we will continue to come up against resistance, inaction, and reactivity.”

I’ve been working through my own climate dissonance since 2006, back when the atmospheric carbon concentration was just 380 parts per million. That year I reached a tipping point in my own awareness of what was happening and what it meant. It was challenging to carry that knowledge when no one close to me seemed to care. But, said Lertzman, “we need to be careful not to make assumptions about other people’s relationships with these issues. Even if people may not be showing it, research shows again and again that it’s still on their minds and a source of discomfort or distress.” If she’s right, maybe the sea change in public action we desperately need is closer than it seems. It would certainly be helpful if we could talk openly about how climate change is making us feel.

Things do feel somewhat different now, both because more people are calling for action than in 2006 and also because I’m now part of communities with people who are as concerned as I am (for example, my local chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby). There are more people in my life talking openly about climate change. And that helps.

Another way I cope is by simply burning less fossil fuel. This eliminates internal cognitive dissonance by aligning my actions with my knowledge. It also brings some great fringe benefits, such as more exercise from biking, healthier eating through vegetarianism, more connection to the land through gardening, and more connection to my community through activism and public outreach.

Finally, I actively work to be hope-oriented. In the film Melancholia, about a mysterious planet on a collision course with Earth, the protagonist passively accepts, even embraces, apocalypse. Nothing can stop it; ecological annihilation is inevitable.

Modern climate change is completely different: It’s 100 percent human-caused, so it’s 100 percent human-solvable. If humans pulled together as if our lives depended on it, we could leave fossil fuel in a matter of years. This would require radical change across global society, and I’m not suggesting it will happen. But it could, and this possibility leaves open a middle path, something between sweeping climate action and an unavoidable planetary collision—a rapid cultural shift, one that we all can contribute to through our conversations and our daily actions. And that’s a very hopeful thing.

If you’re having suicidal thoughts, or know someone who is, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

Peter Kalmus wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Peter is a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the award-winning author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution. He speaks here on his own behalf. Follow him on Twitter @ClimateHuman.

This article was republished from YES! Magazine.

See also:
Is Climate Change Driving You To Despair? Read This.
Melting The Ice In The Human Heart

Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Daily Astrology

June 18, 2019

An early morning sextile between Saturn and Neptune suggests there is timeless wisdom to be had in dreams. Some folks wake up feeling as though they have been schooled in ancient wisdom while sleeping. Others feel empowered to go after a cherished goal…
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Alternative Health Directory

Browse all listings »

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

June 2019

Sunday Reiki treatments with Reiki master and practitioner Linda Simons in Brookline, MA. Start your week off on a more balanced note with a Reiki treatment on a Sunday afternoon. Please join me...

Cost: Sliding Scale $25-45

Where:
233 Harvard Street
Suite 36
Brookline, MA  02446
View map »


Telephone: 617-304-2205
Contact Name: Linda Simons
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

In celebration of the summer freshness, vitality and joyfulness, this is a spring pamper yourself DIY strawberry body care flower project that you will go home with. Time permitting you may go...

Cost: Pre-reg $35, $40 at the door, materials included

Where:
The Healing Power of Flowers—Heaven and Earth
68 Stiles Rd
Sute #A
Salem, NH  03079
View map »


Sponsor: The Healing Power of Flowers—Heaven and Earth
Telephone: 603-275-7688
Contact Name: Stacey Smith
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Join us for an exclusive workshop and wine tasting. This event is free! Attorney Lisa Cukier, partner at Burns & Levinson, will lead an informative workshop on divorce impacted by...

Cost: Free

Where:
Total Wine & More
321 Speen Street
Apt 802
Natick, MA  01760
View map »


Sponsor: Vesta: Redefining Divorce
Telephone: 508-744-6014
Contact Name: Deanna Coyle
Website »

More information

Part 1 - Animal Communication Tue 6/18 (10-6pm) and Wed, 6/19 (10-1 pm)  Fri, 6/21 *Optional morning off-site visit w/live animals  Learn how to communicate with your...

Cost: $540

Where:
Circles of Wisdom
386 Merrimack Street
Suite 1A
Methuen, MA  01844
View map »


Sponsor: Circles of Wisdom
Telephone: 978-474-8010
Contact Name: Cathy Kneeland
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
No Events

Are you going through a divorce, contemplating divorce, or recovering from divorce? Come to our Divorce Boot Camp, and we’ll help you get into shape! Join us and learn about the finer...

Cost: Free

Where:
Leading Edge Real Estate
2 Mount Vernon Street
Winchester, MA  01890
View map »


Sponsor: Vesta: Redefining Divorce
Telephone: 508-744-6014
Contact Name: Deanna Coyle
Website »

More information

Are you separated, divorced, or in the process of divorce? Whatever stage you are in…just considering divorce or many years post divorce… our Divorce Resource Nights have...

Cost: Free

Where:
Skylark Law & Mediation, PC
9 Main Street
Southborough, MA  01772
View map »


Sponsor: Vesta: Redefining Divorce
Telephone: 508-744-6014
Contact Name: Deanna Coyle
Website »

More information

June 20–23 For more info, please contact us at 336.574.1121 or aptaoffices@polaritytherapy.org www.polaritytherapy.org Keynote Speaker: Christina L. Ross, PhD, BCPP Wake Forest...

Where:
Hilton Long Island/Huntington
Melville, NY


Sponsor: American Polarity Therapy Association
Website »

More information

This development group is for students of mediumship looking to enhance, expand and practice their mediumship abilities. Traditional and progressive mediumship development techniques, topics and...

Cost: $25 per person

Where:
Moth and Moon Studio
173 South River Road
Suite #4
Bedford, NH  03110
View map »


Sponsor: Moth and Moon Studio
Telephone: 603-782-3674
Contact Name: Danielle Dionne
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

June 21–23 Medical Qi Gong for Health Care Practitioners and Tuina Treatment Strategies for Cervical Spine and Lumbar Spine with Bill Helm Join us Friday–Sunday, June...

Cost: See details

Where:
Roots and Wings Yoga and Healing Arts
317 North Main Street
Natick, MA  01760
View map »


Sponsor: Eastern Medicinal Therapies Education Center
Telephone: (617) 435-3586
Contact Name: Lauren Paap
Website »

More information

Networking / Supervision / Support  We are a varied group of holistic practitioners in metro-west Boston and we welcome new practitioner-members. We invite any local practitioner,...

Where:
Lincoln, MA


Telephone: 781-738-1920
Contact Name: Jai Kaur Annamaria

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Saturday and Sunday, June 22nd & 23rd plus Saturday, July 27th A path to reconnecting with your true self and expressing your full human potential. Summer 2019 Reiki...

Cost: $450

Where:
Northeast Reiki Center
61 Nicholas Road, Suite B2
Framingham, MA  01701
View map »


Sponsor: Northeast Reiki Center
Telephone: 508-808-5696
Contact Name: Lou Orsan
Website »

More information

At Elemental Energies with Chris Ann and Jeff Come see a wide collection of psychics, artists, healers, etc. from all over New England. Come buy tickets at the large raffle table. 100% of the...

Cost: ​Free admission

Where:
27 N. Berwick Road
Wells, ME
View map »


Telephone: (207) 641-5070
Website »

More information

Explore Your Psychic Awareness In This Fun And Informative Workshop Designed specifically for people who are awakening to their own psychic senses, this class will provide you with personalized,...

Cost: $125

Where:
The Mills at Salmon Falls
3 Front Street
Lower Mill
Rollinsford, NH  03869
View map »


Sponsor: Raylene Sousa Medium LLC
Telephone: 207-956-0220
Contact Name: Raylene Sousa
Website »

More information

Celebrate the longest day of daylight and the summer season with us! Come detox, relax and renew yourself for the summer celebration in our sanctuary! A great way to really dig in a get fully...

Cost: Special 3-15 min services $60 or 1-15 min service $25

Where:
The Healing Power of Flowers - Heaven and Earth
68 Stiles Rd
Sute #A
Salem, NH  03079
View map »


Sponsor: The Healing Power of Flowers—Heaven and Earth
Telephone: 603-275-7688
Contact Name: Stacey Smith
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags