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Climate Change

Climate Grief: Now It’s Personal

Grieving for our planet is necessary and healthy. But afterward, we need to move forward to keep the problem from getting worse.

Polar bears clinging to tiny icebergs in the Arctic, reports of clearcutting in the Amazon rainforest, and news stories about Greek islands being destroyed by forest fires — we are surrounded by information that suggests climate change is happening and the pace of change is accelerating. But all those examples are far away. It is so easy to be smug and say, “Oh, those poor people. Thank heavens it’s not happening to me.”

We are all so provincial. News reports about the heat dome over Oregon and Washington last month featured maps that omitted the western provinces of Canada, which were bludgeoned by the extreme heat as well. The message? We don’t care about Canada. Only things that happen in America are newsworthy. At a time when humans must work together to solve the climate crisis, deepening the divisions between us is not helpful.

Dan Allard is a farmer in New Hampshire and a regular CleanTechnica reader. He sent me an email recently about the struggles dairy farmers in Manitoba are having. They are getting walloped by two factors. First, the long-running drought in their area means there may not be enough water for their cows within a few weeks. Second, torrential rains, flooding, and baking heat have conspired to devastate the local grain harvest. Many of those farmers fear they will not have enough feed to keep their cows alive through the winter.

Farming is a brutal business. The loss of your herd or your crops doesn’t make your utility bills and mortgage payments end. If there are no cows and no crops, farmers go bankrupt, wiping out years or even decades of hard work. Not only are farmers affected but so are the local tradespeople who rely on the farming community for their own livelihood. Bankrupt farmers don’t buy new tractors or trucks or milking machines. They don’t buy groceries or household goods either. The whole community is affected.

According to the CBC, the Dairy Farmers of Canada surveyed Manitoba producers this week and 60% said they are worried about having enough feed to get their animals through winter. “Some of the comments that were being made, you could sense the desperation,” says David Wiens, vice president of DFC and a dairy farmer with 200 cows near Grunthal, Manitoba.

More and more dairy farmers are sending their animals to be slaughtered before they die of thirst of malnutrition. “That’s also a very difficult and a last choice option because once the cows are sold they’re not coming back,” says Wiens. “Farmers are like everyone else, we have our mortgage payments to make.”

Angry farmers are bombarding the provincial and federal governments, demanding financial help to get them through the crisis. “It has to happen in days … not try to get something in place for next month,” said Wiens. “[That’s] too late for many farmers.”

Oddly enough, those same angry farmers are not demanding action to rein in their neighbors next door in Alberta, where the dirtiest crude oil on Earth is produced. Producing and burning that crud crude leads to the very downpours, drought, and heat that endanger their herds.  After the IPCC 6 climate report of last week, there can be no further doubt about where the fault lies for their impoverishment.

Climate Grief

A new term has entered the modern lexicon — climate grief. Writing for the BBC, Panu Pihkala, a professor at the University of Helsinki, says “enormous transformations to our planet from climate change can have powerful effects on our emotions, making us grieve for what is lost.”

“Climate grief comes in many forms,” he says.

“There is the bereavement-like grief and trauma when a climate change-enhanced “natural disaster” hits you or your close ones. Then there is transitional grief — a growing awareness that things are changing and feelings of grief and sadness because of the many losses involved. The range of things (and creatures) that people mourn for is wide — loss of human, animal and plant life, but also loss of identities, beliefs, and lifestyles.”

His essay for the BBC continues,

“If grief is not recognized, it can manifest itself as anxiety. There are many kinds of anxiety, but a key factor in practically all of them is a feeling of uncertainty. When we experience anxiety, we know something of a threat or a problem, but not everything. Anxiety is borne of encountering problematic uncertainty.”

“With the climate crisis, there is lots of uncertainty. There is the often-exaggerated scientific uncertainty. Nowadays most people know that things are indeed changing rapidly, but it is difficult to know the exact changes in the ecosystems around us and how quickly they are taking place. Then there is all the social uncertainty, related both to disputes and to practical choices. Uncertainty about which social norms to follow brings anxiety.”

Pihkala writes, “The world around us has changed, and is changing still. We need to adjust to a new kind of social and ecological environment, with ongoing social disputes around climate politics and the ongoing physical effects of climate change. We need to relearn the world: it is not like it was, or like we thought it was. (emphasis added.)

What Can Be Done?

Mental health professionals know there are 7 stages to the grieving process:

  • Shock and denial
  • Pain and guilt
  • Anger and bargaining
  • Depression
  • The upward turn
  • Reconstruction and working through
  • Acceptance and hope

“At its best, a grief process leads to the revitalization of a person’s energies, to an ability to reinvest meaning in those practices of life that seem elementary. The world is now different and I am different, but there can still be meaning in life,” Pihkala writes. “There are people who have gone through this kind of process of climate grief or a process of post-traumatic growth, usually over several years, and their experiences provide much-needed encouragement. The way forward leads not through a by-pass lane of grief, but instead through a grieving process, hopefully with the support of understanding peers.”

I know I have been suffering from climate grief this summer, which has been marked by heavy rains and many weeks when the sun has been blotted out by a constant pall of smoke from forest fires in the west. This is most definitely not normal and I yearn for the crystalline summer days that have been part of summer in New England since my earliest memories. How could we have allowed things to get so horribly out of sync with Nature?


The IPCC 6 report paints a dire picture — fire, floods, famines. Corporate leaders get rewarded with billion dollar tax breaks for producing more oil, while concerned citizens are subject to arrest and imprisonment for protesting things like the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota that carries that filthy tar sands crude oil from Alberta.

But there is still time to turn things around, according to the report’s authors. The Guardian interviewed 5 climate scientists about the IPCC report, all of whom sounded an optimistic note in the face of dire news.

Rob Law, CEO of the Central Victorian Greenhouse Alliance, says “We can all lift our ambition on what we can do, some of us in small ways, some of us in big ways. We are continually seeing the ripple effect of small actions. This can be the decade that these ripples combine into a tidal wave of change — before the real tidal waves claim us all. Let’s ramp it up.”

Joëlle Gergis of Australian National University writes,

“Being part of a group of scientists, from every corner of the world, working together to trying to avert disaster at this critical moment in human history, changed my life. It taught me that when we align behind a collective vision guided by strong leadership — no matter how unsurmountable the challenges feel — anything is possible.

“Ultimately, we only really have one choice to make — to stay connected with people that restore our faith in the goodness of humanity, or fall into an abyss of cynicism and despair. It really is as simple as that. You can choose to be a person that restores someone else’s faith in humanity, and do what you can where you can, even when all feels lost. Because once the despair has passed, we need to remember that there is still so much worth saving. How bad we let things get is still up to us – the apocalypse is not a done deal.”

Rebecca Huntley is a social researcher and consultant who tells The Guardian, “To keep going I have to wake up every day making a conscious choice to be hopeful. I got to bed every day with more than a few reasons to be hopeful. Hope is other people. Read the IPCC report, put it down, and connect with others like you in communities of common interest and concern. That’s how to stay hopeful and know we can do this.”

Joseph Moeono-Kolio is the head of Greenpeace Pacific and a Samoan. His remarks are particularly trenchant.

“Pacific peoples won’t give in to despair, not with so much at stake. We resolve with hope to fight on. We are already bearing the impacts of climate change so we have no choice but to hope and to fight. Otherwise, it’s our children and grandchildren who will pay and our islands and cultures lost. But we don’t have the luxury of giving up, tired and fatigued as we already are.

“Our leaders [have never] backed down, despite the, at times, patronizing disregard that their counterparts from high emitting, wealthy countries like Australia have shown towards the climate crisis we face. Pacific leaders are a powerful voice, and we will continue to pressure the world to lift its ambition, using every diplomatic, financial and legal avenue at our disposal.

“We come from a legacy of fighting against the odds: against empire, colonialism, plague, slavery, nuclear testing and now climate injustice. We’re not about to back down and lose hope, not now. And so it must be now, that our fight becomes the world’s fight. Against all odds, we convinced world leaders to strive to limit heating to 1.5C under the Paris agreement – and now the world has seen the wisdom of this. They will continue to see the wisdom in our struggle and the hope that fuels it.”

Climate scientist Bill Hare is the managing director of Climate Analytics. He tells The Guardian that the IPCC report has “no change to the time frame at which the global average warming is likely to cross the 1.5C threshold that was set out in the special report on 1.5C published in 2018. So we still have a chance.”

“If we act fast, from today, we can avoid the worst of it. The report confirms that every single ton of carbon dioxide we send into the atmosphere will increase the impacts we’re already seeing — wildfires, heatwaves, drought, heavy rainfall and cyclones. Yet the report also shows that strong mitigation would have discernible effects on air quality within years and discernibly slow warming compared to a world with high greenhouse gases over the next 20 years.”

Every Little Bit Counts

Elie Wiesel, who did much to document the horrors of the Holocaust, once said, “There will be times when it is impossible to prevent injustice, but we must never fail to resist.” He was talking about tyranny, but his wisdom applies equally to the social injustice brought about by climate change

Writing for the Washington Post, Sarah Kaplan tries to sound an optimistic note. She says the IPCC 6 report “does not find evidence for a single temperature threshold beyond which climate change will spiral out of control. It suggests that the feedback loops that come with high levels of warming —  such as melting permafrost that releases more carbon into the atmosphere — are dwarfed by the current human emissions. The scale of increasing temperatures and escalating extremes is directly related to the amount of greenhouse gases people choose to unleash.

“In other words, climate change is not a pass/fail course. There is no chance that the world will avoid the effects of warming — we’re already experiencing them — but neither is there any point at which we are doomed.”

IPCC 6 lead author Claudia Tebaldi, a climate scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, adds, “The general conclusion is that every bit of warming matters in terms of creating outcomes that are different. We shouldn’t throw up our hands and give up and let everything burn to the ground,” she says. In the best-case scenario, people rapidly switch from fossil-fuel-powered energy sources to renewable ones. We change the way we travel, construct homes and grow food. We restore ecosystems so they can more effectively soak up carbon dioxide.”

Tebaldi draws an analogy to people dealing with health problems as they get older. “You have the choice of spending your time feeling the doom and gloom of getting old … fearing the future. Or you can get up every day and remind yourself that that day is likely going to be the best you have … and you better make the best of it.”

Yes, the planet will get hotter. Sea levels will rise further. Extreme weather will worsen, and more people will suffer. But any reduction in emissions means that the world is better off than it otherwise would be. Warming of 1.6 degrees Celsius is still preferable to warming of 1.7 degrees, which is better than 2 degrees.

And all of those options are better than the scenario in which we do nothing. In that case, global average temperatures are likely to exceed 2º C by the middle of the century. By the time today’s toddlers are collecting social security, average warming could be on its way to 4º C.

Don’t Panic. Do Something!

Instead of panicking at uncertainty, we should let it motivate us, University of Oxford researcher Fredi Otto, another lead author of the IPCC report, tells the Washington Post. That includes anything that reduces the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and helps the world adapt to the changes that are already underway.

You can back efforts that will shift the economy away from fossil fuels — by far the biggest source of planet-warming emissions. You could give testimony at a zoning board meeting in favor of renewable energy infrastructure or lobby your local school board to make its school bus fleet electric.

You can support companies that are taking meaningful steps to curb emissions and stop buying from ones that resist climate action. You can move your retirement account to an investment fund that supports green industries. You can make changes in your own life: eating less meat, switching your gas appliances to electric, using public transit or riding a bike.

And you can do it all knowing that your actions are helping to make the world a little bit cooler and the future a little bit safer. “Something is always better than nothing,” Tebaldi says. “Every little bit counts.”

Politics Counts

Don’t overlook the value of voting for candidates who are taking climate change seriously, not like that jumping jackass Ron Johnson, an alleged senator from Wisconsin, who told a conference of adoring fellow reactionaries recently, “I don’t know about you guys, but I think climate change is bullshit.”

Nor should you support candidates who choose to build walls to divide us rather than bridges to bring us together. Not all wisdom is new. Socrates taught us, “The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new.” What we need most today is a new consensus on how to keep the Earth habitable for humans. Everything else is an unwelcome distraction that will make it less likely that humans will survive the global heating ahead.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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