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Climate change and the 5 stages of grief

There is an extreme psychological burden to climate change. Much as the grievance of a loved one is a multi stepped, and often defensive process, so is the process of grieving the earth. While the traumatizing effects of climate change ring so loudly, that they sting the ears of the scientific community, there seems to be a general apathy of the masses. It seems, now more than ever, the physical sciences have come scrambling to the social sciences, asking how to zap the masses into productive behavior. The words that make sense in the scientific communities’ own heads seem to ripple past the cheeks of the  masses, barely causing a flinch or bat of the gaze away from their focus.
Why is it that such a dichotomy of tone and character exists between the scientific community and the masses on the issue of climate change? This essay seeks to address the practical and psychological burdens and defenses that inhibit mass acceptance and productive behavior of climate change. This essay will start with a general overview of climate change risk, noting the most prominent future threats. Then I will enter a brief discussion of ethics and inequality of risk, followed by a discussion of possible barriers to mass acceptance and motivation of climate change. Finally I will end with different solutions of scope: the personal, national, and global.
Assessing the threats of climate change is inherently localized and subjective. However, there are ominous threats that are ubiquitously impactful. While the particular types of storms, are somewhat localized, the increase in intensity of storms and storm damage is a global problem. Whether the issues are storm surge flooding in Bangladesh or flash flood precipitation in the midwest United States, increased intensity of storms and damage will deal major blows to human life and economies across the globe. Coastal countries face the economic burden of citizen relocation. Agriculture and food production are by nature ubiquitous, and some of the largest threats from climate change severely limit countries’ capacities to grow enough food. Increased flooding events, drought, and decreased water tables will likely dampen our ability to produce equivalent harvest as past decades. At a time when agricultural production is already tirelessly fighting to feed the current population, feeding an exponentially growing (though hopefully tapering) population will prove, at best, difficult. Finally, the sheer impacts of increased heat waves will likely be a human health hazard worldwide. These new societal stresses are largely being managed by organizations that do not have the capacity to expand their operations. Thus, while the globe is still wounded from an all too recent recession, increased government spending will be necessary to cope and adapt to climate change impacts.
Nobody likes to admit guilt, but the ethics of climate change demand that current generations (particularly affluent ones) understand and reconcile their privilege. The United States in particular, taking top rank of to-date emissions, should have a severe amount of cognitive dissonance to chew on. As a country that whined with pointed finger to China as excuse to be the only non-ratifier of the original Kyoto Agreement, America has shamelessly trampling their privilege onto the health and well-being of other countries.
America’s argument against signing the Kyoto Protocol; An argument of the inequity of non-annex I countries not having to make the same contributions as developed ones, is poorly justified. Sadly, genocidal language and rhetoric has been used at the ‘developing world’, particularly from the mouths of staunch environmentalists. Critiques of developing world population booms, has in some ways lead to malthusian logic; paralyzing American aid in terribly unhumanitarian ways. Likewise the developed countries’ gaze towards the developing world as a means of greenhouse gas mitigation  is particularly ethically alarming. Of course no one wants the rest of the world to increase emissions, but as Hans Rosling (2011) hits home, who are we to say they can’t have a washing machine? Moreover, there has been scientific blinders on climate change understanding up to about 2100; about the lifespan of most currently living citizens. What of generations to come? The sea may only rise less than a meter in our generation, but what of the children of 2150? These are the questions that bombard the brains of climate change devotists.  
So then, why is there so much apathy? In wake of such terrible consequences, why does the public seem to do nothing? Norgaard (2011) writes a compelling but solution ambiguous essay on the seemingly schizophrenic nature of climate change knowledge. Residents understood the impacts, and could see them play out in tangible localized ways, but seemed to want to devote little time thinking nor doing anything about it.  I want to bring up my personal experience to explain a phenomena I think has a lot to do with the psychological struggle of global warming. Kubler-Ross (n.d.) describes the five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While climate change doesn’t necessarily involve the grieving of a human, it absolutely involves grieving. For me, my journey with climate change involved me grieving over the world I thought I was granted as a birthright. The world my great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents had. It involved be me grieving over having to make decisions of the ethics of having children. In many ways, I felt jaded, and jipped. How come they could live the typical suburban family life and not me? How come I’m the one that has to deal with a crumbling world? My deepest fear, still to this day, is that when I leave the world, it will look apocalyptic. And the hardest part of that, is that I will have known what it used to look like. That, is the hardest part.
When I first started learning about climate change, I denied its existence. I mitigated the science with confounding science. I took comfort that we would ‘find a way’. I thought  maybe the earth was particularly more resilient than we thought. That’s it, I stopped thinking. I stopped thinking because in a lot of ways, I think I knew the immensity of what I was dealing with. I didn’t want to think more about it. I didn’t want to know. When the evidence became too overwhelming, when I realized the earth wasn’t special, and consequences were inevitable, I got angry and felt jipped. Why me? Why my generation? I used to wish the world were not going through climate change. I couldn’t quite come to terms with the world as it was going to be. With my new life, as it was going to be. For over a year I became quite depressed about it. Having to deal with the immensity of my new life decisions put a weight on me. Was it even ethical to have children anymore? What right did I have to study sociology, when there may not even be a comfortable earth in my lifetime to live on? I felt like giving up. Nothing I could do would turn back the clocks on climate change. I became more and more energy efficient, even obsessive about it, but I was still entirely pessimistic. The earth was ending in my eyes. Eventually, I started coming to terms with the fact that when I am old, the earth likely won’t look the same as it does today. I started to come to terms that I probably would not have my own children. I started to realize that, while I didn’t have a lot of autonomy in the path of climate mitigation, I could at least have a voice. In accepting what the future might hold, I was able to move beyond my paralysis.
It is this process of grievance that I think causes many people to dismiss climate change. It simply hurts too much to admit the world you live in today, won’t be the world you’ll live in in fifty years. It’s not to say that people won’t grow out of the denial phase of grievance, but rather that the slow process of climate change acceptance may not be so indicative of a malicious nature, but rather a struggle with the immensity of depression and disturbance of a changing world. I think this is perhaps one of the largest, but undefined psychological barriers to climate change in the developed world.
This psychological denial stage is aided by the economic situation that climate change is situated within. With economic costs of climate change mitigation impacting some of the wealthiest national corporations, considerable amounts of money have been stockpiled into conservative ‘think tanks’ for climate change denial. Thus, the practical implications of climate change (financial burden) often converge themselves into the matrix of psychological burdens in ways that are inextricable.
So what are the solutions to such a menacing problem? Climate change is an issue that expands from the extremely local, to the extremely global, and the solutions for climate change need to carry the same breadth. Thus, solutions outlined will involve the personal, national, and global.
Personal (individual) solutions for climate change involve the innodation of knowledge and scientific consensus to force people past the defensive stages of climate change grief. Perhaps the most influential of such knowledge dispersion is through simulation style video games. Video games are particularly good at promoting systems thinking. Moreover give the player full autonomy over learning rather than feeling like learning is something they must be subjected to. This gives a feeling of ownership of the learned material in a way that lecture style learning misses (disallowing for defensive dismissal of learned material).
Nationally, legislatures in the United States need to push harder for policy that promotes green technology, and reduce policy that allows for corporate influence. Citizens united, a ruling that allowed corporations to donate exceptional amounts of funds to political campaigns, needs to be overturned. Corporate threats (such as the threat of layoff) to employees for their political decisions needs to be more harshly scrutinized and punished. Finally, many bills are in place that promote green technology, and those need to be fought for. Particularly the high speed American rail system.
Globally, developed countries need to lend financial resources to developing nations to sustainably develop, while severely reducing their own emissions. More firm international negotiations and treaties need to be considered if climate change is to be taken seriously. Finally, international development of geoengineering research should be considered and even pioneered.


Kubler-Ross E, Kessler D. The Five Stages of Grief. [cited 2013 Apr 24] . Available from:

Norgaard K. 2011. Living In Denial. MIT Press 279pp.

Rosling, H,. 2011 March. The Magic Washing Machine. TED Talk. [cited 2013 Apr 24]. Available from:


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