Thanatologist Kriss Kevorkian defines environmental grief as "the grief reaction stemming from the environmental loss of ecosystems by natural and man-made events.” Cunsolo and Ellis define it as "the grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change."
Scientists witnessing the decline of Australia's Great Barrier Reef report experiences of anxiety, hopelessness, and despair. In a 2014 Guardian article, Jo Confino asked, "Why aren’t we on the floor doubled up in pain at our capacity for industrial scale genocide of the world’s species?"
Research by the psychological profession on ecological and climate grief is in its initial stages.
The emerging model of climate grief suggests that people may process climate despair, or climate anxiety, through the stages of grief, and that forming social support networks is a part of this process.
Cunsolo and Ellis suggest that "grief is a natural and legitimate response to ecological loss, and one that may become more common as climate impacts worsen."
Climate communicators may focus initially on communicating climate impacts and adaptation rather than the aspects of grief. Communicators such as the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication have often addressed the question of grief by stressing the importance of describing solutions. Attempting to channel climate anxiety into action for solutions is consistent with the approach described by Sherman H. Dryer, Director of Radio Productions at The University of Chicago, in his manual for World War II propaganda, in which radio communications about the war always end with a message on how the listener can support the war effort.
However, it is not clear that encouragement to channel anxiety and despair into action is an adequate response for people who have experienced concrete personal losses, such as Greenlanders who have had to euthanize sled dogs. Cunsolo, an ecologist active in Nunatsiavut, in Canada's Far North, described grappling with this question in an article titled, "To Grieve or Not to Grieve?"
Some discussions in the media have focused on the question of whether presenting the negative aspects of climate change is making people despair and give up. A 2016 Scientific American article posed the question, "Is a traumatic sense of loss freezing action against climate change?" In 2019, journalist Mike Pearl asserted that "people are suffering from what could be called "climate despair," a sense that climate change is an unstoppable force that will render humanity extinct and renders life in the meantime futile."
In young people
In an open letter to the Swedish government, a group of psychologists and psychotherapists said, “A continued ecological crisis without an active solution focus from the adult world and decision makers poses a great risk that an increasing number of young people are affected by anxiety and depression.”
A tough love approach of rejecting sufferers of climate grief is advocated by climate denial website "Watts Up With That," which asserts that "Nouveau grief is also characterized by the elimination of bargaining and acceptance – and their replacement by two new stages: intolerance for other views and defiance or even riots." The article expresses disappointment that too few of the "liberal-progressive snowflakes" who "are wallowing in denial, anger and depression" are leaving the US.
By contrast, a Boston University publication, The Brink, quotes a graduate student who "studied the collapse of Amazonian rain forests" and recommends a supportive approach, of time in nature and community, self care, and appreciation for small daily efforts on climate. One advocacy group manager says, “Those of us who work in the climate change world see young people mourning the losses that are coming ... These reactions are real and valid.”
Renee Lertzman, a social scientist who "studies the mental health and emotional components of environmental degradation ... likens the climate-related stress now plaguing teenagers and 20-somethings to the oppressive Cold War fears that gripped young baby boomers, many of whom came of age under the threat of nuclear annihilation.”
Scientists who study climate change and biodiversity loss have formed support groups online and at institutions to help with dealing with ecological grief. Many scientists have seen the impact of climate change and biodiversity loss first hand often over very short periods of time.
"I’d just recruited a PhD student to study fish behaviour, and between the time of recruiting him and getting out for the first field season, the Great Barrier Reef died – 80% of the corals where we work were gone, and most of the fish that lived there also moved on. I told him in the interview that his visit was going to be this most wonderful experience, and it was just a tragic graveyard of historic coral reef life" Steve Simpson Professor of marine biology and global change at the University of Exeter.
Scientists internalise their emotions, move to other fields of work, work on protecting parts of the environment they study or shift to finding ways to help the environment adapt. Some scientists see the need for new rituals to celebrate their love for the environment.
In indigenous communities
Indigenous communities may have grief over loss of identity because it is so closely connected to the environment and the knowledge that that the environment will degrade further. Also the sadness of watching others experience environment related trauma which they have also experienced.
“We are people of the sea ice. And if there’s no more sea ice, how do we be people of the sea ice?” Inuit elder.
As a secondary impact of climate adaptation on women
Grief may be directly associated with the secondary impacts of climate adaptation.
These secondary impacts have been observed in women according to the IPCC.
The IPCC AR5 WG2 TS notes that "Women often experience additional duties as laborers and caregivers as a result of extreme weather events and climate change, as well as responses (e.g., male outmigration), while facing more psychological and emotional distress, reduced food intake, adverse mental health outcomes due to displacement, and in some cases increasing incidences of domestic violence. [9.3, 9.4, 12.4, 13.2, Box CC-GC]" (see section numbers in full report for more in depth coverage).
- Five Years (David Bowie song)
- Anticipatory grief
- Nuclear anxiety
- Effects of global warming on human health
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