Climate change and the stages of grief

Today as I watched footage of the tsunami sweeping away cars, houses, lives and entire towns, a wave of sadness washed over me. Japan was well prepared as any country to minimize damage from such a disaster, but generally people are not good at addressing certain kinds of risk. We would rather not think about it. Such avoidance leads to the widespread denial of climate change. As I sat feeling miserable about the loss of hundreds of lives in Japan, I realized denial of environmental disaster may be likened to the first of the five stages of grief.

Andrew C. Revkin at Dot Earth points out this denial falls into a common pattern of behaviour. Japan has the wealth and technology to ameliorate the affects of earthquakes, but also enough temblor frequency to provoke action and preparation. By comparison, the American Pacific Northwest also faces an earthquake of devastating proportions, but public buildings have not been brought up to safety standards necessary to withstand it. Revkin compares this to our refusal to take adequate action to address climate change.

This reminds me of the K├╝bler-Ross model, also know as the five states of grief. Denial of environmental degradation is to be expected. Nobody wants to think about the worst case scenarios: our planet turning increasingly to desert, or at least we lose a quality of life we have come to expect. We have received a grave diagnosis, and not everyone handles it very well. Here is what we might expect to see across the population:

1. Denial: “These prophets of climate change are hysterical. The scientists are lying. Their research is politically motivated. There is nothing wrong here. We don’t have to change anything. This severe winter weather proves they are wrong.”
2. Anger: “This isn’t fair. Other countries pollute and devastate the environment worse than we do. Let them pay for it.”
3. Bargaining: “It’s not as bad as they say it is. Nothing is going to happen for a long time. I recycle my newspapers, so I’m already doing my part. Maybe if I buy a nice hybrid vehicle, that will help.”
4. Depression: “Okay, so the world is turning to hell. It’s too late to do anything. Anyway, I am just one person. What difference does it make?”
5. Acceptance: “We may lose some of our luxuries, but this doesn’t have to be the end. Maybe the world is going to become a lot different. I might as well do what I can to secure a better future for the next generation. I am part of this global community so it’s time I took some responsibility.”

As may be the case with a terminal illness or other personal loss, not everyone goes through all five stages. People with a strong sense of life purpose may have an easier time approaching acceptance. Unfortunately, some never move beyond denial, and fight death to the bitter end. Nobody can force anyone to see the way through. We will have to find what this means for our collective future, but the more people who take responsibility for the problem, the better chance we have of finding solutions.

Personally I tend to get stuck on depression. Where do you stand in the process?

I am saddened by the suffering of people in Japan, and encouraged by their example in preparing as best they could for such a disaster. Maybe we can learn from them.


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