In 1968 the Stanford Research Institute issued a climate change report– but it gave just an inkling of the threat.
The Stanford Research Institute had extensive ties to the fossil fuel industry. In 1968 it warned the American Petroleum Institute that rising carbon dioxide levels “may be the cause of serious world-wide environmental changes.”
This risk was dubbed “global warming” in 1975, and later called “climate change.” Still, it would take until the 1990s for NASA scientist James Hansen to stand before Congress and testify that “global warming has begun.” We now know that this risk has grown into a catastrophe known as “the climate crisis.” Our language about this issue has changed, yet our responses to it have yielded nothing so much as a shameful sense of lost time and missed opportunities. Since the dawn of time, people have died and we have grieved—but grief takes on a completely different meaning in the context of the climate crisis.
Perhaps the reason for our collective paralysis in the wake of ecological destruction is that our innate survival instincts have failed to kick in. The response set known as “flight or fight” is triggered when we perceive a certain situation as a threat to our lives. Evidence of the threat of climate change is undisputed given the destruction of ecosystems, and the displacement and death of millions of people and animals. It should be a worldwide top priority, but it is not. Most politicians have yet to recognize the benefits of the Green New Deal on a national, or even statewide, level. In protest, many who passionate about environmental justice are sparking a revolution through the Sunrise Movement and advocating for the Green New Deal. Those who continue to deny the climate crisis, along with the politicians who refuse to support the Green New Deal are, like the rest of us, running out of time.
Why isn’t everyone outraged?
Perhaps that is a fatalistic take, but it is borne out of the fear that collective inaction and environmental grief have instilled in climate activists. The UN IPCC report released in 2018 warned that we only have twelve years left to survive (until 2030) if serious action is not taken about the climate “now.” Two of those years have passed. In both of those years, heatwaves have reached record highs in dozens of countries, and sea levels have continued to rise and displace thousands (including Pacific Islanders), creating hundreds of thousands of climate refugees globally. Even within the past few weeks, rain-triggered floods have killed at least 250 East Africans and affected some 3 million others (with minimal media coverage). Apocalyptic bushfires are blazing across Australia, burning nearly 1.5 million acres of land, killing an estimated 1.25 billion animals, and razing more than 3,000 homes to the ground. I have to wonder why isn’t everyone outraged.
Perhaps no one is outraged because the United States has nightmarishly turned into a hyper-capitalist, conservative plutocracy, fueled by tremendously wealthy individuals who are predominantly focused on maximizing their wealth. Jeff Bezos, for instance, could have saved the Amazon Rainforest, his multi-billion dollar company’s namesake, as it was burning—but instead he contributed an amount that is shamefully meager in proportion to his entire fortune. Ordinary people ought not to feel accountable for the climate crisis while those who own sizable percentages of the world’s wealth—and have created the problem in the first place–do not. The powerlessness we feel from this imbalance is part of our grief.
Guilt and grief
Personally, anytime I prioritize my own self-interest over the climate, I grapple with guilt. I feel guilty that I could not personally save the people, flora, and fauna of Australia from burning. I feel guilty that I am not powerful enough to persuade the government to stop subsidizing oil companies. I feel guilty that I am able to seek minimal distraction from this inescapable reality through activities such as knitting (with yarn that was the source of carbon released into the atmosphere because it was shipped from abroad) while indigenous peoples are fighting to save the land they have nurtured—long before anyone tried to take it away from them. I feel guilty and it paralyzes me.
The root of my guilt is grief. Environmental grief, a term coined by thanologist Kriss Kevorkian, is “the grief reaction stemming from the environmental loss of ecosystems by natural and man-made events.” It is a drawn-out, cumulative form of grief with no foreseeable end. Much of it is triggered by the anxiety of anticipatory grief, when one can only fear the effects of, for instance, hurricane and fire seasons, and feel helpless to prevent them. We feel grief when we experience loss, and we feel loss as we grapple with grief. Our environmental grief naturally inhibits us; we can only endure, just as the grief endures. We all have but a small amount of political and social agency. Elected officials and corporations ultimately have the most power so the force of an individual is not enough. This is what makes us grieve.
It is crippling to constantly, helplessly watch landscapes change and hear the news of ecological devastation that grows graver with every iteration. Environmental grief is still a new concept, but the anxiety of gradual, detrimental change can be a catalyst of acute grief. Crop-damaging heatwaves are linked to an unprecedented rise in suicide rates in India. One in six Hurricane Katrina survivors meet the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is now becoming increasingly common for mental health to be a topic of discussion in relation to the climate crisis. This is a good sign.
Pasadena alone may not have created the problem
No one has ever lived at the end of the world before, and that is a terrifying, isolating thought. There still is time. Students like my classmate, Ozzy Simpson, leader of Sequoyah’s Sunrise hub and tireless advocate for Pasadena’s future Green New Deal, give me hope. While I often feel stifled by my own helplessness, Ozzy speaks at City Council meetings, plans climate strikes, writes articles, and leads forums—all in the name of our future. Why are Pasadena’s elected officials complacent in the face of the climate crisis when young people such as Ozzy are so passionate and motivated to create change. That complacency creates anxiety, helplessness, and anticipatory grief about the future if Pasadena does not take responsibility for its own pollution and carbon emissions. Perhaps elected officials have forgotten that even though Pasadena alone may not have created the problem, it can still contribute to the solution.
Pasadena still can contribute to the solution
Promoting a narrative about environmental grief in climate discussions makes it clear to elected officials that there are both internal and external consequences of the climate crisis. Our grief can pull us forward, and it can be another catalyst for concrete change. I believe we can use the fear to propel us into action in the face of the climate crisis. I can only wish that the politicians who represent us will do the same.