Climate change and the 5 stages of grief

by Amanda Kahn

In 1969, Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross outlined 5 stages of grief in her book On Death and Dying to help people cope with grief from the loss of a loved one or news of their own terminal illness.  Psychologists later noted “that this emotional cycle was not exclusive just to the terminally ill, but also other people who were affected by bad news, such as losing their jobs or otherwise being negatively affected by change” (changingminds.org).

So how does this tie in to climate change or other new, major ideas and why might it be helpful to keep these 5 stages in mind?  Well, when I thought about my own thought progression, the changing perspectives of the scientific community at the Currents Symposium, and then how the media and public see climate change, I realized that we’ve been walking through the 5 stages of grief, also called the Kübler-Ross Grief cycle.  Quotations below all come from a great summary of the Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle from changingminds.org.

There are 5 major stages that vary between being active or passive (with a few extras sometimes thrown in, as seen in the diagram below).  During active stages, a person is likely to do something/be pushed into action (whether correct or misdirected).  During passive stages, a person usually is stuck/unable to act as needed.  The five stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Kubler-Ross grief cycle

The Kubler-Ross extended grief cycle. Credit: ChangingMinds.org

Denial

Consensus about climate change

Public perception versus actual consensus in the scientific community regarding climate change. Credit: SkepticalScience.com

The first stage is a transitional stage of shock followed quickly by denial, where people pretend that no news has been given.  “They effectively close their eyes to any evidence and pretend that nothing has happened.”  When I first read about climate change, I thought the projections must be overestimates, and that we wouldn’t allow ourselves to stay on a dangerous trajectory.  Some of the general public and news media seem stuck in this denial phase, preferring to stir up controversy or conflict where there is none in the scientific community.  Take note: this is a brilliant strategy since denial is one of the passive phases–no one acts if they can find a nugget of doubt that says that they do not have to.

Contributions to climate change

Bar graph showing % contribution of humans versus natural sources to climate change over the past 50-65 years. Different colors of bars indicate different climate models run. Credit: SkepticalScience.com

Anger

Denial eventually transitions to anger and frustration.  A person might try to blame anyone or anything for the change, except for him/herself.  I was frustrated and blamed everything that emitted greenhouse gases–industries, cows, cars, volcanoes–but couldn’t think clearly about how I fit into things.  Interestingly, the anger and denial stages can cycle back and forth, getting stuck in a loop.

Human contributions to climate change

Predicted human contributions to climate change in 2020 and 2100. Credit: NASA/GISS

Bargaining

After getting over anger, a person begins to realize that the inevitable is happening.  They begin “seeking ways to avoid having the bad thing happen. Bargaining is thus a vain expression of hope that the bad news is reversible.”

Depression

This phase is easy to get stuck into.  “The inevitability of the news eventually…sinks in and the person reluctantly accepts that it is going to happen…In this deep depression, they see only a horrible end with nothing beyond it. In turning in towards themselves, they turn away from any solution and any help that others can give them.”  “In this phase, the person may now be blaming themselves as they take responsibility for their action where something has gone wrong.”  In 2008, I attended the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Currents Symposium.  At that time, climate change was just coalescing into a well accepted theory in the scientific community, and the conference was filled with depressing reports and projections of what was to come.  Looking back, I felt that the scientific community was in that state of depression.

Acceptance

“Acceptance is typically visible by people taking ownership both for themselves and their actions. They start to do things and take note of the results, and then changing their actions in response. They will appear increasingly happier and more content as they find their way forward.”  By 2010, the research presented at the same symposium was different.  The focus of the research changed, even though the projections and ideas about climate change had not. Instead of doom-and-gloom predictions, there were people presenting research on carbon-neutral energy, technology to sequester carbon into building materials, and adaptive ways to lessen our contributions to, and the impacts of, climate change.  It was a call to action–research was being done to figure out how to live on our changing planet and to temper human impacts.  This is the most effective, active phase of the grief cycle and is where everyone needs to be: willing to change, find creative ways to lessen our impact, and accept responsibility in a human role in the situation.

My acceptance phase was similar to the views at the symposium.  I was depressed about it until I accepted that it’s inevitable given what we’ve already emitted, but it doesn’t have to be something I can do nothing about.  The climate is changing and carbon emissions from humans are responsible, but it’s possible to change what emissions are being put out. the way we emit, and the research and technological energy we put into dealing with it.  When media and the general public move from the passive phases of denial and depression into the active phase of acceptance, we’ll become the responsive, adaptable, innovative problem-solvers we need to be to live in a changing world.

Where do you fall in this cycle?  Have you experienced this same progression of thoughts, either relating to climate change or some other concept or idea?  Write them in the comments below.

Please remember that this was a thought exercise based on my personal observations and experiences.  As stated at the beginning of the post, this isn’t the post or the place to argue the validity of climate science–it is about the thought progression of people accepting a new idea that was at one time controversial.

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3 thoughts on “Climate change and the 5 stages of grief

  1. Well-written Amanda, what an interesting comparison. I believe my own thought process is following this same trajectory (somewhere between depression and acceptance), but I sure hope more of us reach acceptance soon!

    • Thank you for the kind words! I’ve been thinking about this for a while and it’s a way I respond to a lot of new information. Regarding climate change, I’m like you–also wavering between depression and acceptance (and so a passive and active stage).

  2. Spot on – and well illustrated. Thanks

    I’ve read the Great Disruption by Paul Gilding about two years ago and recognize all of the above as stages I went through at some point during and after. Decided I needed to do something, went crazy, got stuck and then ignored the problem for a while. Now reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything – same message, same inevitability but apparently I can now stomach the depressing outlook a little better. Have started to act again – this time smaller, more consistent and more positive. I’m confident it will have an impact – with some patience.

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