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Climate grief: How we mourn a changing planet

Climate grief: How we mourn a changing planet

The enormous transformations to our planet from climate change can have powerful effects on our emotions, making us grieve for what is lost.

Climate grief comes in many forms. There is the bereavement-like grief and trauma when a climate change-enhanced “natural disaster” hits you or your close ones. Think of people in the Amazon basin or Australia after the catastrophic fires. Then there is transitional grief: a growing awareness that things are changing, and feelings of grief and sadness because of the many losses involved. The range of things (and creatures) that people mourn for is wide: loss of human, animal and plant life, but also loss of identities, beliefs, and lifestyles.

Many people use the term “climate grief” to refer to a wider loss and anxiety related to the overall effects of climate change. Often the lines between climate change and other major ecological catastrophes become blurred, which is understandable, since climate change has an effect on so many other problems. Climate grief becomes a description of a general “ecological grief” or “eco-anxiety”.

For the last five years, I have been researching eco-anxiety and thinking about how to frame it constructively. I’ve invited psychologists to lead discussion groups on the matter together with me. I’ve guided workshops and given dozens of public lectures, especially in Finland, my home country. And I’ve met a lot of people with climate grief and eco-anxiety.

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These two phenomenon are profoundly interlinked. If grief is not recognised, it can manifest itself as anxiety. There are many kinds of anxiety, but a key factor in practically all of them is a feeling of uncertainty. When we experience anxiety, we know something of a threat or a problem, but not everything. Anxiety is borne of encountering problematic uncertainty.

With the climate crisis, there is lots of uncertainty. There is the often-exaggerated scientific uncertainty. Nowadays most people know that things are indeed changing rapidly, but it is difficult to know the exact changes in the ecosystems around us and how quickly they are taking place. Then there is all the social uncertainty, related both to disputes and to practical choices. Uncertainty about which social norms to follow brings anxiety. The sense of homesickness over environmental changes has led to the creation of new words like “solastalgia” (Credit: Getty Images/Javier Hirschfeld)

Climate grief is related both to changes that have already happened and to changes that are coming, or are in the process of happening. Thus, climate grief often has elements of what the grief theorists call “anticipatory grief” or “transitional grief”. This complicates things. All kinds of grieving can be difficult in our contemporary societies, where an understanding of private or public grieving has long been neglected. But anticipatory grief is always hard. What is truly lost, or will be? When do we grieve those losses – when they begin, or when they end? […]

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