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Star Jet roller coaster at Casino Pier in Seaside Heights in the Atlantic Ocean after Hurricane Sandy. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Are We Feeling Collective Grief Over Climate Change?

The idea is highly controversial, but at least one psychiatrist is convinced that we are, whether we know it or not

Margaret Hetherman

In 1977, I was in middle school in Michigan, and a science teacher shared a tidbit off-curriculum. Some scientists had postulated that as a result of "pollution," heat-trapping gasses might one day lead to a warming planet. Dubbed "the greenhouse effect," the image was clear in my 12-year old mind: people enclosed in a glass structure, heating up like tomatoes coaxed to ripen. It was an interesting concept, but something in the very, very distant future.

Fast-forward ~ 30 years later. The year was 2006, my daughter was three, and my dreams of a White Christmas were going to hell in a hand basket. There wasn't a snowflake to be seen in Brooklyn and it was DECEMBER—a far cry from childhood memories of jumping off the roof into fluffy mounds after a blizzard. Something was awry. An Inconvenient Truth had just been released, and those graphs and slides were suspiciously coinciding with what we were beginning to see in the form of extreme weather, à la Hurricane Katrina. Any number of idioms might well have marked the juncture: "canaries in the coal mine" comes to mind.

"The disconnect is almost understandable: we are hitting tipping points of no return, etching our fate in glacial ice while the full consequence of our inaction remains hidden from view."

So why weren't we coming together to nip this in the bud? Why were we failing to embrace what appeared to be so obvious?

The deterioration of our planet—the only home we have ever known and an assurance we used to take for granted—is bound to elicit a wide range of emotions in different individuals. Mourning is personal, but as a species, could it be that we are making our way through the stages of grief as outlined by the late Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross?

Psychiatrist and climate activist Lise Van Susteren, M.D. doesn't necessarily think so. She points out that the Kübler-Ross framework was a response to people who hear devastating news and feel personally very involved, extremely vulnerable and know that the diagnosis is essentially inescapable.

"That's not where most people are with climate," Dr. Van Susteren states. "It takes a long time for some people to lay down the sense within that something is true."

Yet she speaks of a collective anxiety that is insidious, even if we haven't managed to connect all the dots.

"There isn't the slightest shred of doubt in my mind, that everyone on some level is anxious, deeply anxious, about climate change," the forensic psychiatrist says. She attributes her belief to decades of experience with people who have difficulty knowing what they are feeling on a deeper level, and she understands that anxiety comes from many headwaters.

"We can be anxious about ISIS, we can be anxious about our kids . . . our health, our finances and all the rest. The confluence is such that it becomes amorphous and we walk around with a great deal of indescribable unease. And it can be either very difficult, or people will outright deny—depending on how deep or great their walls are—that it is coming from an overwhelming sense that the world is turned upside down from climate."


Denial has been rampant since the earliest years of climate change awareness. Virtually every day brings reports of a new catastrophe. Bolivia's second-largest lake recently dried up and we won't soon forget the melting of tennis shoes at the Australian Open. Sure, there are cycles of nature to consider. But when you find yourself crossing Main Street in a rowboat on a regular basis? Or happening upon femur bones off the bank of Virginia's Tangier Island because the cemetery is underwater?

The disconnect is almost understandable: we are hitting tipping points of no return, etching our fate in glacial ice while the full consequence of our inaction remains hidden from view.

Dr. James E. Hansen, renowned climatologist and former Director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan speaks to the matter of timescale.

"The problem is that the inertia of the system is not our friend," states the founder of and Adjunct Professor in Columbia University's Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program Earth Institute. It has caused the effects to appear only slowly. "That has been the fundamental difficulty. It looks like something in the far future."

Sitting across the table from the 75-year old scientist, it becomes rapidly clear that his greatest concern is for future generations. That, he says, was the point in writing his book, Storms of my Grandchildren. It also inspires his participation as guardian for future generations in a current landmark federal climate change lawsuit against the government for failing to protect children's constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property—a case that Dr. Van Susteren has collaborated on as well.

"These children are going to be around late in this century, so even though the large effects are not so soon, we can now see that they are going to occur if we don't rapidly phase down emissions," states Dr. Hansen. "And I think some of them—mainly the sea level issue—is [coming] sooner than has been assumed by many."

Hansen believes people are moving in the direction of accepting that climate is changing and that humans are at least a factor if not the dominant factor.

But there is also the matter of our wiring.

"Denial is something that allows us sometimes to get through the day," says Dr. Van Susteren. "And in some cases that's really good, that's adaptive, but in other cases it's going to kill you . . . and this one's going to kill you."


While many in the denial camp have now set their tents up elsewhere, stragglers remain, buttressed by a heavily financed machine that has deliberately cultivated and preserved that pesky first stage of mourning.

ExxonMobil and The American Petroleum Institute have long sowed doubt about the science behind climate change, taking their lessons from the tobacco industry playbook.

The Koch Brothers estimated by Forbes to be worth $44.2 billion each, have funneled mind-blowing sums through "charitable family trusts" and "think tanks" to influence policy and public opinion, planting seeds of uncertainty among the general public, and blocking attempts to regulate emissions, thereby ensuring that their pockets remain literally coated in oil.

What does it mean when our Senate Majority Leader urges the country's governors to defy regulations to reduce carbon pollution?

Some powerful forces have been messing with our opportunity to process the truth, and move beyond the stage of denial toward a stance of action. From where I sit, the angriest entities at the moment are those whose political and financial fortunes are at stake.

The truth is that our children, and their children, will be the ones to really know the rage. There's no telling how the devastation will play out, as the regions least responsible for the demise become uninhabitable; and the world as we know it, perhaps ungovernable.

"Right now, the path is, as the Buddhists like to say: if we're not careful we're going to end up where we're headed," offers Van Susteren. She believes we are headed to a place where the world will look at our country and recognize that our per capita emissions, the droughts, floods, and searing hot days will be "because we gaily or callously, or with willful ignorance went about our ways, consuming what we wished, emitting what we felt like."


When the Kyoto protocol was signed in 1997, the atmospheric CO2 level was 368 ppm. Today, it stands at 404 ppm and I'm scratching my head because living in the Holocene has been good (think of it as "life with benefits"), and I'll be sad to lose Miami to the rising sea.

The lengths we've gone to with our bargaining, pollution trading, and decades-away targets are staggering. This year brought April in Paris and 175 countries signed a historic climate accord. The deal, which supports the cap-and-trade system, strives to keep global temps from rising more than 3.6°F by 2100.

Hansen, a proponent of an alternative Carbon Fee-and-Dividend model, argues that the UNFCC and IPCC scenarios assume negative emissions in the second half of the century, and that this will saddle young people with the task of having to phase out fossil fuels.

"They're going to have to somehow achieve negative emissions, which means you're going to have to suck that CO2 out of the atmosphere," says the scientist. "We have to make clear what the burden is, that we're leaving for young people."

The bottom line is that we best make haste. If a heat wave in Phoenix sounds brutal, consider Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which are slated for a heat index of 177°F during this century if we don't mitigate the magnitude of warming.


In 2010, the NIH issued "A Human Health Perspective On Climate Change." The report portends dark consequences ranging from sexual dysfunction to the migration of large communities, hostile political environments, conflict, and war.

"Climate change has the potential to create sustained natural and humanitarian disasters beyond the scale of those we are experiencing today," reads the NIH report. "Extreme weather events, sea-level rise, destruction of local economies, resource scarcity, and associated conflict due to climate change are predicted to displace millions of people worldwide over the coming century."

But the future grief on our planet will not be like that of a natural disaster, according to Dr. Van Susteren, when there is a low point and then the worst is over— when people grieve, work together and then pick up.

"The fingerprints of humans are all over the frequency and intensity of climate disasters . . . What will happen when future generations look back and know that we could have taken action—that we knew—and we didn't?"

Dr. Van Susteren can't shake off a sense of shame when she speaks about how future generations will feel:

"That we abandoned them willfully, negligently, intentionally, and out of dereliction of duty."


Hansen, who first brought global warming to the attention of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee 28 years ago, seemed initially taken aback by the proposition that humanity might be working through a framework typically associated with death and dying.

"That model sort of assumes that . . . the consequences are all inevitable," expressed the man who is arguably the planet's most reliable champion of climate health. "So I'm not yet willing to accept that, and here’s the real story—that this is tragedy. Because it's avoidable."

Hindsight may prove the only true vantage by which to see how we've worked through the scaffold of bereavement, and it will be left to our progeny to judge whether we conducted business as usual, or reversed course when approaching the most critical thresholds.

Meanwhile, the cauldron simmers with a stew of emotions, actions and inactions. The realities hit closer to home with every Hurricane Sandy, each new Zika hot spot on the map, and with the ever-dwindling array of animals, from the Monarch butterfly, to the pelican and stork and 1300 other types of birds whose collective song, or lack thereof, might well serve as warning: we, too are a threatened species.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Margaret Hetherman

Margaret Hetherman is a writer, editor and essayist. Her opinions have appeared in the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times, and other media work has appeared on CNN, MTV and the BBC

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