Crew Commentary

Climate Change and the Stages of Grief

Tim Rumage - Planetary Ethicist


I have had enough colleagues, friends and family members die – of age, aids, alcohol, cancer, heart failure, disease, accident, suicide, violence, at sea, on land, quickly, slowly, unexpectedly, horribly, from heredity, doing what they loved, willfully, unwittingly, too soon and just because – that I am cognizant and intimately familiar with denial and its followers. 


And so it is with Climate Change. 


I understand not wanting to believe that it is happening, or that the collective human population and our actions are the driving cause. I comprehend wanting to disavow that all the negatives of climate change resulted from the aggregated impacts of what we believed were the good, right, and proper things to do. And not infrequently we seek out those in the same state of denial and bond together, isolating ourselves from those who cannot appreciate our state of mind or emotion.  Perhaps it gives us protection from others who can’t see how jarring the new reality can be to our perspective of how the world should work… to what is acceptable and unacceptable in our wished for world order.


As we focus on how such an event can happen, there can be a feeling of righteous anger. After all, climate change challenges our basic belief structure. Do we have dominion over the earth and creation, or is our role one of stewardship? 


Climate change challenges our fundamental economic construct. What should we include in our accounting and annual reports? Do we just measure the cash transactions or do we include the loss of natural capital, the cost of unintended consequences, human capital, and/or future resource needs? 


Trying to reconcile the disconnect between one’s belief structure and personal history with the increasing amount of material supporting this alternative perspective can lead to frustration and a need to regain control of the dialogue.  How can they be so wrong in their thinking? How can the projections of what will happen with climate change be correct?


The projections show a rate of change that I have never seen or experienced in my life before; it doesn’t seem possible for that information to be correct. And thus begins the bargaining from the post-factual framework; a mindset in which one’s beliefs and references are seen as more valid and correct than are data, research and the factual analysis of experts in the field.


Perhaps Mark Twain put it best when he said “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”  And then there is the “backfire effect” which indicates that when one’s closely held and fundamental beliefs are challenged, the response is more likely to cause a reaffirmation of the beliefs than an acceptance of the new information.


The fourth stage of grief is depression which can include dealing with the practical issues of loss and an overwhelming feeling of, ”What do I do now?”  With climate change, perhaps ‘rationalizing’ is a more appropriate word to describe grieving over the implications of climate change. How do you physically prepare a community for sea level rise?  Can you afford to elevate roads and other critical infrastructure to be above the coming waterline; and do it in time and in a way that doesn’t bankrupt the community?  How do you prepare a place for what is now an extreme weather event, but that in the next decade or so will become just the weather? How do you adapt for the change to the local economy? With sea level rise, many low-lying beach communities will lose their tourist beaches and coastal areas will flood. In the mountains, increasing temperatures will generate a shorter ski/winter season, and the loss of snow pack and its faster melt can generate a water supply problem.


The implications of climate change can be quite shocking to individuals, companies and governments at all levels. Even those that accept the reality of climate change do not want it to happen. I doubt there is anybody or any culture or any sentient species that wants to see the downside/dark-side of climate change play out.


The fifth stage of grief is acceptance, but not everybody gets to stage five. For some the first four stages become a self-perpetuating loop, for others their grief may be so great that they stay at a particular level. I don’t think my father ever made it past stage 2 when he grieved the deaths of my mother and older sister.


But for many, acceptance is achieved and provides a way forward. The passing on of those who once were is accepted, noted, honored and relinquished to the custom of their culture. And so it is with ideas and concepts whose times have passed.  The old gives way to the new and the past yields to the future. The transition is not always smooth, nor is it painless, but it is irrevocable.


Climate change challenges our primary paradigm of measuring advancement. Do we build from our history or towards our future?  If history is our guide, then the mechanisms of our past experience – fossil fuels; displacement of nature; pollution as an acceptable cost of doing business; actions in isolation; and ‘bigger, cheaper, faster’ remain as our indicators of better. If the future is our horizon, then capture and storage of energy; restoring and collaborating with nature’s services; seeing waste as a resource; holistic design; true-cost/full-cost economics; and elegant simplicity must become our guides.


Resolving climate change requires a change in consciousness – a consciousness that makes us aware of and actively responsible for the consequences of our actions. As Stewart Brand wrote, we need to “make long term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare.” 


Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The earth belongs to each generation, and no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.” 


Frederick Law Olmsted wrote, The rights of posterity are more important than the desires of the present.”


Climate change has resulted because we have broken those generational promises – we have spread and passed on our environmental (and social) debt, and have invested in our desires rather than protecting the prosperity of our grandchildren. 


I always thought we were supposed to leave a place better than we found it.


Reference Material


Stages of Grief

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1969) On Death and Dying, The Macmillian Company, New York





“Backfire Effect”




http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/10/19/when-in-doubt-shout-why-shaking-someones-beliefs-turns-them-into-stronger-advocates/ – .WDG36XeZOYU




Brand, Stewart. 1999. The Clock of the Long Now. Basic Books, New York, page 2




Olmstead quote:  http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/history/ep1/2/