A climate scientist talks to a psychologist about coping with the crushing stress related to climate change. Here’s what he learned.
Sometimes a wave of climate grief breaks over me. It happens unexpectedly, perhaps during a book talk, or while on the phone with a congressional representative. In a millisecond, without warning, I’ll feel my throat clench, my eyes sting, and my stomach drop as though the Earth below me is falling away. During these moments, I feel with excruciating clarity everything that we’re losing—but also connection and love for those things.
Usually I don’t mind the grief. It’s clarifying. It makes sense to me, and inspires me to work harder than ever. Occasionally, however, I feel something quite different, a paralyzing sense of anxiety. This climate dread can last for days, even weeks. It can come with nightmares, for example, my favorite shady oak grove baking in the full sun of a heat wave, the oaks all dead and gone. During these periods, writing about climate change becomes all but impossible, as if hundreds of thoughts are jostling to squeeze through a narrow doorway onto the page. My scientific output slows to a trickle, as well; it feels like it just doesn’t matter.
I sense a social barrier to talking about these emotions. If I bring up climate change in casual conversation, the topic is often met with awkward pauses and the polite introduction of new subjects. Aside from increasingly frequent articles in the news about the typically incremental and sometimes disastrous progression of climate breakdown, we seldom talk about it, face to face. It’s as though the topic is impolite, even taboo. Read More