I first experienced climate grief when I was just 10 years old—although back then, I didn’t have a name for what I was feeling. As I absorbed terrifying details about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 230,000 people in countries including Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, I found myself getting anxiety attacks. It felt like the world was ending, and that the most vulnerable people—people who looked like me—were at risk. As a child, I felt powerless to stop it. As an adult, I still feel powerless.
An Indonesian couple hold hands whilst looking at the destruction of their home village of Banda Aceh caused by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, January 2005.
© Photography Getty Images
If you’ve been paying attention to world events, you’re probably no stranger to climate grief either. Witnessing the Caribbean repeatedly being hit by hurricanes, wildfires burning across California and Australia, and Indigenous land protectors such as Zezico Guajajara murdered around the globe—along with countless other climate-related tragedies—has left scars on many of us.
Dr Derrick Sebree Jr, a specialist in ecopsychology at the Michigan School of Psychology, defines climate grief as “a depth of realisation of that recognised loss of what will never be again.” It’s a feeling many of us will have experienced in the past few months, as devastating wildfires across the west coast of the US and in the Amazon have destroyed millions of acres of centuries-old forests. Those beautiful parts of our world will never exist in the same way again, and the magnitude of this can be overwhelming, especially given the current global political climate.
During these turbulent times—in which the world is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and a global reckoning on racial injustice—climate grief can feel all the more immense. “The entire population is being subjected to an unnamable emptiness,” comments Ruth H Hopkins, a Dakota/Lakota Sioux writer, biologist and tribal attorney. “These fossil-fuel giants who continue to drill and mine our way into oblivion aren’t just destroying the planet’s ability to support life — they’re killing our spirits.”
A firefighter works against flames as they threaten to push towards homes during the Creek fire in Madera County, California, September 2020.
© Photography Getty ImagesWhat is climate grief?
Neelima Vallangi, an independent journalist and storyteller based in Bengaluru, India, says people of colour and those in the global south not only bear the brunt of the climate crisis, but also the grief, rage and anxiety that comes with it. India, for example, is one of the most-affected countries by climate disasters and is home to 22 of the world’s 30 most-polluted cities. “I often feel as if we never had a chance to develop. It was first colonialism and now climate change,” she says.
For Vallangi, climate grief manifests as “a crippling feeling of despair, anxiety and fear that grips from within and paralyses you because of the helplessness [you feel due to] the overwhelming scale of both the problem and solution.” She adds: “Once you learn to comprehend the science of climate change or the symptoms of global warming, it’s inevitable that you start grieving for the world in its current state and its uncertain future.”
Indian volunteers and rescue personal evacuate local residents following floods in the Indian state of Kerala, August 2018.
© Photography Getty Images
Meanwhile, Iman Masmoudi, co-founder and president of TŪNIQ, a North African artisans’ cooperative that produces ethical clothing and textiles, says climate grief is a vivid and daily experience for her. “When I picture floods of chemicals rushing into our water, the exhausts of cargo ships and cars all over the world all at once, the passing of every second fills me with dread,” she says. “Corporations all over the world choose, actively, every second, to destroy our future and kill millions of creatures and trees. Powerlessness, anger, and deep sadness spring up all at once.”Coping with climate grief
Although it’s important to mourn what we have lost, and what we will continue to lose, it’s vital that we don’t let climate grief engulf us and stop us from taking action. For Masmoudi, faith is a crucial part of her healing process. “The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said that if you’re holding a sapling in your hand and see the end of the world begin before your eyes, you should still plant it,” she comments. “It’s hard to imagine a more relevant or staunchly optimistic statement for our times.”
Processing her climate grief also helps her find an even greater sense of purpose in her work. “I let myself feel the grief—I never want to become apathetic or normalise it—but then I move forward,” she explains. “I focus on one ethically made garment at a time, one artisan’s work at a time.”
Filipino students and activists at a climate strike organized by YACAP in the University of the Philippines, Diliman, September 2020.
© Photography Hannah Reyes Morales
Dr Sebree tries to get his clients to connect to nature as a way of addressing their climate grief. “I find part of that is helping people realise their connection to the earthly community. Often it means incorporating nature into therapy, whether outdoor therapy [including forest bathing] or gardening,” he explains, adding that he also makes sure his work addresses the fact that many communities don’t have the same access to the outdoors, or face the threat of racism in these spaces.
Spending more time in nature is essential both in terms of self-care, and realising the importance of protecting our planet. “In the words of [civil rights activist] Audre Lorde [1934 to 1992], ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare’”, says Dr Sebree. “Caring for the environment and one another are how we begin to work through this moment.”Turning your grief into action
While climate grief is on the rise, not everyone experiences it—even those who work in the climate space. Dr Jacquelyn Gill, an associate professor of paleoecology and plant ecology at the University of Maine, says she prefers to focus on solutions, such as “leaning into sustainable ways of living that worked for thousands of years.”
History gives her hope that we will survive this, and keeps her from experiencing existential despair. “The Mayan people didn’t just disappear. They changed how they lived and dispersed out of these big cities with hierarchical structures. And they still persist to this day, even through colonialism and genocide,” Dr Gill says, adding that if we adapt, she is certain we’ll get through.
© Photography Jana Kießer
When Vallangi first began to feel climate grief, she also had to focus on action to escape from the despair she was feeling. “Once I decided to use my skills as a storyteller and communicator, I felt a lot more comfortable with this ever-present emotion and empowered,” she explains. So, after processing our climate grief in healthy ways, how can we channel it into positive action? We can support efforts helping those on the frontline of the climate crisis, such as Amazon Watch and organisations offering aid to wildfire victims in the US. There are also environmental campaigns such as the Global Climate Strike, which is calling for urgent climate action, and Polluters Out, which is targeting fossil fuel companies.
We can let our grief make us more empathetic, and inspire us to do more. As climate psychologist Dr Renée Lertzman says, “This is a human story that we’re now all part of. Our grief is an expression of our connection with life and a signal that we are part of the bigger whole.”