It’s May 2015, and I’m snorkeling off an uninhabited island in the South Pacific. A massive sloping reef stretches as far as I can see, forming a continuous rainbow blanket. The coral grows extraordinarily well here, covering over 90% of the reef. Neon-colored guppies dart in and out of the coral, and a school of silver trumpet fish surrounds my body, catching the sun’s rays through the ocean’s surface. As I descend, my ears are blasted by a deafening roar. It’s the sound of thousands of snapping shrimp, making the underwater world sound like a 4th of July firework show. I’ve been to many reefs before, but I’ve never heard anything like this. Everywhere I look, there is life. When I return to the surface, someone grabs my shoulder. It’s our ship’s Chief Scientist, who points out a small patch of coral that doesn’t look like the others. Instead of eye-popping color, it’s white. Bleached white. I didn’t notice it before, but now I start seeing little patches of white popping into view across the entire reef. My stomach instantly does a sickening somersault.
It’s September 2016, and I’m on a daytime flight from Reykjavik to Newark. It’s a gorgeous day in the North Atlantic, and I’m lucky enough to get a window seat. The deep blue ocean stretches out below me, unobstructed, until I see a coastline in the distance – a fortress of rocky cliffs and ice that stretches as far the eye can see. I realize almost immediately that it’s the east coast of Greenland. As we approach, the southern fjords stretch below us, with gorgeous snow-capped mountains that cascade right down to the sea. But as I look closer, I notice something disturbing. A huge glacier weaves amongst the peaks, but then it suddenly stops – meeting the deep blue water abruptly as if it’s been sawed in half. In the ocean, the ice is spread out in very thin chunks, like pieces of floating debris. Our pilot comes on the loudspeaker and says, “If you don’t believe in climate change, look out the window.” I’ve known about the melting ice caps for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never seen it with my own eyes. My nose pressed against the glass, I try to keep myself from crying. My whole body hurts.
It’s June 1st, 2017 – which begins like any other sunny California day – but ends with the news that I’ve been both dreading and expecting for several weeks. President Trump decides that the U.S. should no longer participate in the Paris Agreement. I call my mom and simply burst into tears, my frustration making my words almost incomprehensible. I feel fed up with the world. I print out a picture of myself one-and-a-half years earlier at COP 21 and put it in my pocket. Taking a deep breath, I head to my next appointment.
It’s November 13th, 2017, and my alarm goes off at 7:30am like it does every weekday. I force my eyes open and reach for my phone. The bright little screen shows the top news story of the day: “CO2 Emissions Were Flat for Three Years. Now They’re Rising Again.” Groaning, I lie in bed for ten more minutes before forcing myself up and into the brisk Chicago morning.
By the time I turn 25, global greenhouse gas emissions need to be on a significant downward trend in order for us to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. But if we’re being honest, we should have turned the corner on global emissions before I was even born. I recently graduated from college, where I conducted climate science research, learned about energy policy, studied climate change communication, and participated in environmental advocacy. My current job and my most recent summer internship have both been exclusively focused on climate change. I know that I am currently living through the most crucial years for us to make decisions that will impact our species for centuries to come. And yet, I know that I am only one very young person trying to figure out how to be an adult and shape my early career during those exact same years.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m even capable of contributing anything meaningful when it comes to slowing climate change. What if this is all too little, too late? What if we are already past the point of no return when it comes to our climate? Should I even bother trying to do anything about it?
Because there is no other global problem that gives me the same feeling of purpose and drive, or the same feeling of utter paralysis. Yes, I’ve spent countless hours researching and discussing why people aren’t taking more personal action to combat climate change, but I also fall into those same psychological traps. Climate change is such a big and scary problem, and I am constantly aware of how small and seemingly insignificant my work is in comparison. It’s like watching a giant falling off a cliff – you can see what’s going to happen, but you also feel that it’s inevitable, and the giant is going to hit the rocks below regardless of what you do.
Climate depression, also known as climate grief, is that feeling of paralysis. For me, it’s always playing in the background, and it bubbles up to the surface in certain moments – on a crazy warm winter day, or when reading news about the latest onslaught of hurricanes and forest fires. I’ve been able to see the impacts of climate change firsthand in many different parts of the world, but the truth is I don’t have to be flying over the Arctic or swimming over a coral reef to understand what’s happening. Even if all global emissions ceased tomorrow, and we never released another molecule of CO2, the planet would continue to warm for decades and wreak havoc on our coastlines, cultures, and co-inhabitants of our world. The truth is that no matter what we do, Earth – and especially humanity – has some really tough times ahead.
Maybe I would be happier if I just came to terms with what our future climate will look like.
Mourning is a crucial part of the healing process in any form of grief – and when it comes to climate grief, we mourn what we have already lost, but we also mourn the species, landscapes, and traditions that we likely will lose. My favorite landscapes may not exist long enough for me to show them to my grandchildren. Sea level rise will dramatically change the layouts of the world’s coastal cities. And millions of people that are actually on the frontlines of climate change will be impacted so much more than I will. I’m not sure if I will ever be able to get over the profound sense of loss in knowing what is yet to come. But there’s a way to continue to grieve while finding the strength and motivation to keep moving forward. If we truly love all these aspects of life on Earth that are at risk from climate change, we can and we must do what we can to create a better future for ourselves, for the rest of humanity, and for the entire planet.
While changing our global emissions trajectory seems like a huge, daunting task, and it is, it means that no one person, or even a small group of people, can do it alone. That means we all have a part to play in mitigating catastrophic climate change – and all of our actions add up. This is not to say that we can prevent catastrophic climate change just by riding our bikes – and the traditional list of “green” actions is neither scientifically sufficient nor socially inclusive. Turning the corner on global emissions will require a combination of technological development, policy implementation, and cultural change. Not only are we are all capable of participating – it will take all of us contributing in our own ways. Every small decrease in emissions is a step in the right direction.
Because every ton of greenhouse gas emissions that we prevent from entering our atmosphere represents better outcomes for people and nature. There’s some scary science about tipping points and runaway global warming, that of course we need to pay attention to, and it is important that we do turn that corner on global emissions as soon as possible. But that can’t be our do-or-die goal. If we reach 2020 and we have turned the corner, we can’t simply pat ourselves on the back and forget about climate change. And if in 2020 global emissions are still increasing, we can’t throw up our hands and give up hope. There is too much at stake to forget the bigger picture – that we must all keep reducing emissions to the best of our individual ability, because it will always represent positive change for us and for future generations.
So yes, it’s normal and it’s very much ok to feel depressed about the state of our climate and unsure of your individual role in slowing climate change. But we can’t stop there. Climate depression does not have to end in paralysis – and whenever I feel that way, I remember that everything I can do to lower greenhouse gas emissions is making a positive impact. And rather than being satisfied with small actions, I challenge myself to continually seek new ways to do my part. We owe it to ourselves – and to future generations and co-inhabitants of our beautiful planet – to never become complacent in addressing climate change.
If you’re not sure where to start, or need more support in moving beyond climate depression, consider finding a local group of other individuals who care about climate change, perhaps through the Sunrise Movement or Citizens’ Climate Lobby. There are also some great documentaries out there that can help you reframe the climate problem – try “How to Let Go of the World and Accept All the Things Climate Can’t Change“. Something that has helped me quite a bit is finding communities of other people that are concerned about climate change – for a ton of different reasons – and are looking for ways to mobilize for positive action.
The thing about climate change is that it’s such a big, scary problem that touches almost every aspect of our lives. This makes it impossible for a small group of people to take care of it – it truly does take every one of us doing our part to reduce emissions, in an ambitious and personalized way. It also makes it easy to feel overwhelmed or powerless, and to wonder what you as an individual can possibly do to make a difference in this global race against the clock. And while it’s important to mourn the current and future loss of things that we love, we can’t let climate depression become paralysis. We can acknowledge our grief and move beyond it when we realize that our individual actions do matter, do create positive outcomes, and do add up to big changes. Every small reduction in greenhouse gas emissions represents a better future. If you are a resident of planet Earth, you are part of the race to slow climate change. There is too much at stake to be hopeless, complacent, or simply absent.
Don’t take yourself out of the race.
This post was inspired by my pastor Pete Terpenning’s recent piece on “Climate Grief”, and I have been intending to write about this topic for a very long time. Thank you Pete for jumpstarting my writing process.