This article shares perspectives on healing climate grief, including the importance of feeling and releasing feelings and accessing peer support.
Climate change has caused grievous damage to the Earth and all living beings. As we become more and more aware of this damage, and the inadequate human response to it, we are left with a range of feelings. We may feel discouraged by our national governments’ limited response in the face of the magnitude of climate change. We may feel powerless and exhausted because the vast majority of people appear uninformed or even unconcerned about the climate crisis. We may feel overwhelmed by bleak scientific reports—for example, about rapidly melting ice—and by news of catastrophic weather events. Many young people are losing hope for their future, wondering if it makes sense to start families and bring babies into a world on the brink of disaster. So many of us feel rage, despair, and deep grief.
Noticing the feelings
Experts are noticing how the increasing visibility of climate change affects mental health. It is being called “climate grief”—depression, anxiety, and mourning over climate change. The American Psychological Association issued a 2017 report on emotional trauma from climate change. The report said that more people are feeling “a number of different emotions, including fear, anger, feelings of powerlessness, or exhaustion.” Joëlle Gergis, award winning Australian scientist, describes the “volcanic rage” that she experiences in the face of climate change. She says that “I catch myself unexpectedly weeping . . . what surfaces is pure grief.” Gergis acknowledges that she needs to “thaw the emotionally frozen parts” of herself to effectively address climate change.
Consequences of failure to heal the emotional damage
Unreleased, pent up feelings can damage humans in many ways. Unhealed grief, fear, and frustration tend to interrupt our initiative and dim our hope for the future. Unreleased painful feelings can drain our energy and interfere with our ability to bring our full intelligence to bear on the world around us. Emotional damage interferes with thinking well about what is to be done and acting appropriately and effectively—in this case, to end environmental degradation.
Many of us attempt to ignore such feelings—as unimportant and something to push aside, and we act as though they don’t matter. But doing this can leave us discouraged and despairing. Unless we heal the emotional damage, it can be hard to stay motivated. It can be hard to stay focused on mitigating the climate crisis.
Some people attempt to use their grief and rage to fuel their climate change work. This is akin to using jet fuel in a petrol car. There will be misfiring, a smoking engine, and eventually the engine will burn. Major repair will be needed to get it going again.
We need opportunities to openly grieve about the damage being done to the Earth. Doing this can release enormous energy and free our thinking. Healing climate grief can give us the energy and ambition we need to respond appropriately to the climate crisis.
Healing the Climate Grief
It is still possible to limit the effects of human-caused catastrophic climate change and restore the environment. Most of us want to make a bigger difference. We want to stem the tide of devastation caused by climate change. We want to prevent additional damage and reverse as many already existing impacts as we can. Scientists want to galvanize the scientific community and inform the public. Activists want to engage growing numbers of people in the movement to address climate change. Young people want to regain hope and confidence in their future. Educators want to develop better strategies for teaching about the climate crisis. All of us want to increase our capacity to effectively address climate change.
At the same time, feelings of rage, fear, and grief have interfered with our thinking well about what can be done. We would like to organize ourselves and the people around us to make the necessary changes—but doing this is more difficult in the face of unhealed climate grief. Scientists, lay people, people from all walks of life and all strata of society—we all need to “un- numb” as we face the devastating news about damage from climate change. We need to “thaw out” the feelings that come up, and release them. Only then can we most appropriately and effectively respond to the climate crisis.
We have some tools that have been effective in healing from climate grief, that have increased people’s courage, and energy for doing climate change work. The healing work occurs best in a network of people who support each other to notice, share, and release feelings of climate grief. The easily accessible healing process takes place in a safely structured setting.
People become skillful at using it. The tools can be shared with our home communities and organizations. Our tools include information about how to create networks that can support ongoing work to heal climate grief.
About Sustaining All Life and United to End Racism
Sustaining All Life (SAL) is an international grassroots organization working to end the climate emergency within the context of ending all divisions among people. United to End Racism (UER) is a group of people of all ages and backgrounds, in many different countries, who are dedicated to eliminating racism in the world and supporting the efforts of all other groups with this goal. UER and SAL are projects of and use the tools of Re-evaluation Counseling. Re-evaluation Counseling (RC) is a well-defined theory and practice that helps people of all ages and backgrounds ex- change effective help with each other in order to free themselves from the emotional scars of oppression and other hurts. By taking turns listening to each other and encouraging emotional release, people can heal old hurts and become better able to think, to speak out, and to organize and lead others in building a world in which human beings and other life forms are valued and the environment is restored and preserved. Re-evaluation Counseling currently exists in 95 countries.
It is possible to limit the effects of human-caused climate change and restore the environment—and some very large changes in our economy and the lives we live are needed for this to happen. Sustaining All Life and United to End Racism believe the environmental crisis cannot be resolved without ending racism, genocide toward Indigenous peoples, classism, sexism, and other oppressions. The impact of environmental destruction and climate change falls most heavily on people targeted by these particular oppressions. Making the changes needed will require a massive movement, spanning the globe, of people of every background fighting the effects of both climate change and racism.
In Sustaining All Life and United to End Racism we believe that the barriers to building a sufficiently large and powerful movement include (1) longstanding divisions (usually caused by oppression, and especially racism and classism) between nations and between groups of people, (2) widespread feelings of discouragement and powerlessness, (3) denial of or failure to engage with the escalating damage to the earth’s climate, and (4) difficulties in effectively addressing the connections between the environmental crisis and the failures of our economic system.
Sustaining All Life and United to End Racism work to address these and other issues.
The role of oppression
The economic and political forms of our societies demand growth and profit with little regard for people, other life forms, or the earth. This results in exploitation and oppression. Oppressions (such as racism, classism, sexism, and the oppression of young people) target everyone, inflicting tremendous injustices, limiting access to resources, and damaging the lives of billions of people. Once targeted by oppression, we tend to act toward others in ways that repeat the hurts that we have experienced. Much of the mental and emotional damage done to humans is the result of this passing on of hurt. Though humans are vulnerable to acting in oppressive ways, oppressive behavior is not inherent, but arises only when a human has been hurt emotionally. Oppressive societies manipulate this vulnerability to establish and maintain economic exploitation.
The importance of healing personal damage
The mental and emotional harm done to us by oppression and other hurtful experiences interferes with our ability to think clearly and sets groups of people against each other. This makes it difficult for us to think about and respond effectively to the climate emergency. People would not cooperate with a society that exploits people and damages the environment if they had not first been hurt.
Healing from the hurts that help to hold oppression in place and lead to other damaging behavior is not quick or easy work. Many of us resist this work. We may have survived by numbing ourselves to the damage done to us by oppression. Some of us assume that we will never be free of this damage.
In Sustaining All Life and United to End Racism we have learned that it is possible to free ourselves from these hurts and address barriers to effective organizing. We can heal from hurtful experiences if someone listens to us attentively and allows and encourages us to release the grief, fear, and other painful emotions. This happens by means of our natural healing processes—talking, crying, trembling, expressing anger, and laughing. By releasing distressed feelings in a supportive network, we can stay united, hopeful, thoughtful, joyful, and committed. This in turn strengthens us in building our movements to stop the effects of climate change and racism.
Download a full printer friendly version of this article from the box at the bottom of the page. This handout was distributed at the UN Climate Summit in New York City in 2019.