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” (

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, 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

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:


Consensus about climate change

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

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 for preventing or avoiding change 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.  This is why gas companies, for example, might be interested in expressing doubts about climate change.

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:


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


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.”


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 within my field’s small pocket of 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 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.  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.

Could sponges affect mean global sea level?

by Amanda Kahn

In case you don’t know about it, has a fabulous blog section called What-If.  In it, the author responds to readers’ questions, and one from a few weeks ago caught my eye because the last paragraph talked about sponges.  The question was, “How much would the sea level fall if every ship were removed all at once from the Earth’s waters?”  The answer to that was six micrometers, but at the end, the author brought up another sea-level question (often used as a joke): how much deeper would the ocean be if it didn’t have sponges in it?

Image credit:

Imagining that a single group of animals can affect sea level that much seems preposterous at first.  After all, I imagine that even though there are very few blue whales left in the ocean, in terms of biomass there is surely more displacement caused by whales, sharks, and fish than by sponges, which appear lower on the food pyramid.  In the ocean, food pyramids are inverted, meaning there is more biomass at higher food levels (called “trophic levels”) than at lower ones.  This is opposite than what we often see in ecosystems on land.  By some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations, blue whales don’t even occupy 0.000000001% of the volume of the ocean (it’s somewhere around 10e11%, if you really wanted to know).

Inverted trophic pyramid of the open ocean

In terms of biomass, there is WAY more displacement occurring from fish, whales, and sharks than from sponges, which feed at a lower trophic level (closer to the bottom in this pyramid). Image credit:

Sponges do, however, cover large portions of the ocean and can dramatically affect the water they live in.  Sponges and other filter feeders can process vast volumes of water during the filtering process, resulting in major changes in water clarity and plankton concentrations.  So while these animals do not take up a lot of space in the ocean, they are still very important and have a strong impact in some regions.  In case you don’t have time to watch the whole video below (it’s super interesting!  I highly recommend watching it from the beginning, if you’ve got time), skip to 4:22 to see the filtering ability of oysters.

I didn’t think a single species could have a large impact on sea level until I remembered the elephant in the room: Homo sapiens.  With mounting evidence that global temperature is rising and local climates are changing around the world, humans are already causing a much greater change in sea level than removing any one particular species, all the ships in the ocean, or even removing some islands.

As written in the What-If post, since sea level is already rising from human activities, the sea level drop incurred by removing all ships from the ocean at once would disappear after only 16 hours. Credit: