Let’s Talk About Climate Grief and Anxiety

Plenty of people grapple with what the climate crisis means for them, their loved ones, and a whole bunch of people they’ll never meet.

Credit: Juanita Constible

Discussing mental health and well-being is critical to reducing stigma and improving care for the people who need it most. So this Mental Illness Awareness Week, I want to talk about climate anxiety and grief. Bringing climate anxiety and grief into the light can help spur and improve public health and health care interventions for our climate-disrupted world.

These two concepts have increasingly entered the news and popular culture. There have been stories about scientists mourning the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, and a somber funeral service for a dead glacier. Fictional characters in shows such as “Big Little Lies” have struggled to cope with the enormity of the climate crisis.

Despite official recognition of climate anxiety (or more broadly, eco-anxiety) and climate grief by the American Psychological Association, neither term has a clinical definition. The two forms of distress also can look quite different from person to person.

So, allow me to illustrate what they mean for me.

Loss of a Meaningful Landscape = Grief

I was just in the Canadian Rockies as part of a trip to see my mom. The slopes in Jasper National Park were covered by reddish pines.

If I didn’t know better, I’d think the mountains were putting on a lovely show of fall colors.

But I do know better. Tiny beetles, driven in part by warming winters and more severe droughts, have devastated nearly 403,000 acres of trees in Jasper. The transformation of such vast swaths of habitat will have major implications for a wide array of species—including people who have an economic, cultural, or personal connection to the forest.

My reaction to the dead and dying trees is an example of climate grief: deep sadness “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.”

Mismatch Between Need and Action = Anxiety

My husband and I then drove south to Banff National Park on the Icefields Parkway, a stretch of highway named for its string of massive glaciers. (Will the highway eventually bear a different name after the ice melts? Cue more climate grief!)

The Athabasca Glacier, one of the Parkway’s major landmarks, is retreating by about 16 feet per year. Parks Canada has commemorated that retreat with a series of blue markers that say “The glacier was here in…”

Credit: Juanita Constible

Most of the area is a moonscape—piles of barren rock, roped off to keep hikers from falling into deep crevasses left in the glacier’s wake. The only movement was streams of glacial meltwater on their journey to the sea, where eventually they’ll contribute to sea level rise in coastal states like my current home of Virginia.   

Credit: Juanita Constible

It’s hard not to feel climate anxiety when faced with such reality, “overwhelmed by the sheer scale, complexity and ‘wickedness’ of the problems we are facing.” That sense was intensified by thinking about the Trump administration’s all-out assault on our health and the lack of swift and ambitious climate action from Congress.

Publicly Naming Our Climate Grief and Anxiety

It’s important to note that my climate angst is nothing compared to the serious mental health challenges of people who have lost their jobs, homes, or friends and families in climate-fueled disasters. For example, psychiatric experts recently warned that “more people are affected psychologically than medically after any given hurricane.”

I’ve noticed, however, that talking openly about my fears and hopes for the future can kickstart new and different kinds of conversations. And in fact, research shows that having conversations about climate change at all can increase acceptance of climate science among families and friends.

Unfortunately, just 36 percent of Americans discuss climate change “at least occasionally.” We need to break the climate silence that makes it easier to ignore the peril we’re in—and ultimately, to do nothing about it.

Owning Our Climate Grief and Anxiety

There’s a famous slogan from the labor movement: “Don’t mourn, organize!” I’d suggest taking the time you need to mourn. Just don’t stop there.

Plenty of people in the United States and around the world are grappling with what the climate crisis means for them, their loved ones, and a whole bunch of people they’ll never meet and species they’ll never see. We’ll be much more powerful if we connect with each other to create the future we want.

Let’s talk about how climate change is affecting our mental health and well-being. And let’s demand urgent action from our lawmakers to slash carbon pollution and protect our communities from the present and future harms of climate change.

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or 911 immediately.

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