The 4 Stages of Climate Grief
How do we deal with the prospect of losing the places we love?
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The sky was dark in the distance, a blue curtain of virga predicting an oncoming storm. Desert rocks glowed even redder in contrast. I was passing through—not enough time to wait or really do the moment justice—but I wanted to be in the canyons, so I jammed my feet into sneakers and set off running.
The trail was a figure eight, and once I made it past the most popular loop, no one else was out. When I gained the ridge, a rainbow cracked the dark sky, and I got that rare elated feeling of witnessing something beautiful alone. But when I stopped—telling myself I was taking a picture when I was really just catching my breath—I got walloped by an ache of loss in a place that I’d held in my mind as untouchable.
I was on the edge of the Escalante Canyons, a landscape threatened by both large-scale climate change and aridification and land-use changes that have opened it up to more drilling and mining. It’s destabilizing when the places that have always healed you start to hurt.
I’m aware that we don’t live in a wilderness. And I’m not naive enough to think we don’t need to use natural resources. I try to believe that we can do that while keeping some places as pristine as possible, but sometimes that feels hard.
There are times when I can handle the creep of warming—though it feels insurmountable—by getting angry at specific injustices: the dark knowledge that oil companies had back in the 1980s about their impact on the climate, the financially inconvenient truths about who is funding climate deniers even today. But I have a harder time with the selfishness of my own life, my desire to be in the wild, the hypocrisy of the gas I burn to get there, and the way all those forces could change this place. Here, in the deceptively fragile desert, these ossified rocks seem stable. But once you drill a landscape and riddle it with roads, water runs off differently, the soil cracks, and animal-migration patterns change. It should be less complicated to love a place than, say, a person, but it’s not. Anger feels less scary than the ache.
There’s no clear-cut way to grieve for a place. It’s a specific kind of heartache, because it’s grief in anticipation, grief without end. How do you know when a place is really gone? What could you have done? What can you do? Iceland now has funerals for lost glaciers; fires decimate forests and they come back different. Racing the edge of a storm might be too obvious of a metaphor, but it feels about right.
I am someone who is already anxious enough without the rapidly approaching end of the world as we know it. So the full-body dread I felt in Escalante, the inability to breathe or think clearly about risk, is a familiar feeling. I call that the spiral: it builds on itself, getting tighter and faster. The feeling I got on the ridge, when blue storms hung on the horizon, is similar, but I have meds to help me sort through the unreasonable insides of my brain. Here I’m not sure how to deal with that panic. This dread is based in something very real—we have lost three billion birds in North America, landscape protection has been stripped from an area as big as California and Washington State combined—and there’s so little I can do about it.
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds,” Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac. But it’s coming at us faster now and from so many angles. Identifying ecological loss as its own kind of grief is a relatively new concept, but in the last decade, the research on the subject has tripled, reflecting its urgency.
“I’m concerned about the people who aren’t feeling climate grief right now, because I think they’re not paying attention,” says Laura Schmidt, a former environmental organizer who founded the Good Grief Network, which provides a framework for working through overwhelming climate loss. “The word overcome comes up a lot, but you don’t overcome it, you work with it.”
Schmidt says part of the hard part of dealing with climate grief is that it’s not a disorder to be pathologized. It’s a rational response to the world, which makes it hard to work into the standard medical guidelines for depression and anxiety. In an impactful 2018 article on ecological grief in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Climate Change, researchers Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville R. Ellis explained that it’s hard to come up with concrete treatments for such a moving emotional target. “How to grieve ecological losses well—particularly when they are ambiguous, cumulative, and ongoing—is a question currently without answer,” they wrote in summary about their findings. “However, it is a question that we expect will become more pressing as further impacts from climate change, including loss, are experienced.”
Jennifer Atkinson, a professor who teaches a class called Eco-Grief and Climate Anxiety at the University of Washington, says that recognizing your grief is the first step of a survival strategy, especially if the places that you go to escape from the world’s roughness are the very ones that feel threatened. Her students often have clinical levels of anxiety about climate change and related landscape loss, she says, and that anxiety is becoming more prevalent, because there’s nowhere to escape it and no way to fully resolve it. “Acknowledging hard emotions is not the same as giving in to despair,” she says. “If you’re afraid they’re going to plunge you into hopelessness, I think the opposite is true.”
After acknowledging your anxiety, says Atkinson, the next step is to take action, whether that’s political work or personal change. Civic engagement is the best answer to grief. “I love this Rebecca Solnit quote,” she says. “‘It’s not hope that drives us into action, it’s action that drives us into hope.’”
Schmidt adds that community is another big piece of fighting the feelings of uselessness and isolation. It’s important to talk about climate change and loss of landscape and biodiversity, she says, and to make those conversations normal and constant. Accept the severity and predicament, but don’t do it alone.
Then, Atkinson says, go outside. “It’s not just that it’s therapeutic to be connected to those places, even though there are physical benefits to being outside,” she says. “Connection reminds us why they’re worth fighting for. We’re dealing with tremendous loss, but there is so much left to save.”
We damage places, and we muck them up. Even the ones we try to protect, we screw up a lot. A certain amount of climate change is already locked in, but that doesn’t mean we need to be hopeless. The heart of coming to grips with that, and the hardest part, is not looking away. You’re allowed to think about your own mortality and the mortality of the planet. Then go out there and find ways to fight. Take breaks if you need them. Then do it again.
In the canyons, the rain started for real just as I made it back to the trailhead. I ran the last few steps through fat, urgent drops in the dust and the electric violence of an afternoon storm. I peeled off my layers, soggy and salty with tears and sweat, feeling lucky to be there.