This column is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration cofounded by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Over the past few years, as the climate crisis has become increasingly apparent, our conversation around it has matured. Perhaps no word illustrates that coming of age better than “hope.” It’s gone from a main ingredient in climate conversations to something of a condiment.
People used to ask me: “What gives you hope?” I, like many other climate folks, found that question obnoxious. It assumes that climate advocates have hope, and it demands that we perform it for the audience. Last semester, one of my students at Columbia likened it to Black activists in the 1960s being asked if they were angry—not because of any concern about their well-being but in an effort to reassure the (white) audience that all was well. Upon examination, the climate query similarly falls away to reveal a plea behind it: Give me hope. Tell me it will be OK. I can’t do that. For a lot of people, it’s not OK.
Now, though, enough of us have pointed out the flaws in that question—including Kate Marvel, in the phenomenal essay “We Need Courage, Not Hope, to Face Climate Change”—that I rarely hear it anymore. Instead, it has been replaced with: “How do you keep from getting so depressed that you don’t get out of bed?” It’s a better question, because it acknowledges the sadness of the climate crisis and what it takes to face it. I’ve met plenty of climate activists who have never felt hope for the future, but I’ve never met one who hasn’t struggled with despair.
The world is, to put it mildly, a trash fire. From the acceleration of the climate crisis to the decline of democracy to the raging pandemic layered atop all the other suffering, it can sometimes be hard for me to imagine anything getting better any time soon. And the thing we have the least of right now is time.
Yet I still hear that myth about climate stories: If you talk about it, you have to leave the audience on a hopeful note. Otherwise, the story goes, people will shut down. They’ll turn away from the subject. They won’t get out of bed. You might break the spirit of their humanity.
But as fragile as editors think readers are, they ain’t stupid either. They know what’s happening outside of their windows to their own communities, to their loved ones around the world, to the rain forest. They’re smart enough to understand that the problem is complex and that there will be no “one fell swoop” of a solution.
I’ve written before about the importance of grief in the face of an existential crisis. People can’t fix the problems if they don’t confront them. We have to let people mourn so they can come out on the other side. Perhaps it’s time to stop worrying about giving people hope and to start letting people grieve.
And therein lies another problem. Around 2018, the concept of “climate grief” jumped out of academic circles and into the mainstream, and we’ve gotten better at talking about it as a separate and special kind of grief. But Americans, especially, have not gotten better at processing it. In a society in which mental and emotional health are treated as a trifle and a luxury, that should come as no surprise. As my co-columnist Amy Westervelt said in New York magazine last month, “We don’t even have a mental-health-care system in this country. We’re not good at grief.”
I don’t remember the last time I was actually “OK.” After I evacuated my home in New Orleans for Hurricane Ida this August, I went into a brain fog that I’m just starting to come out of. Just the other night, I read through two news articles in a row and realized it was the first time I’d been able to do that since the storm. Every time I’d tried reading before, the words would run together on the page.
So when folks ask me how I avoid getting crushed by the immensity of the problem, I tell them that I don’t. I still fall under waves of existential dread—the ones where it feels like you’re on fire and drowning at the same time. My only trick is that I’ve come to expect it.
The last stage of the grieving cycle is supposed to be “acceptance.” But the thing about climate grief is that we never want to reach it, because, well, we can’t just accept the end of everything. We’re still here; the planet is still here.
So we cycle in and out. Personally, I try to stay in the “anger” phase and to milk it for all it’s worth, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t spiral back into guilt or bargaining. More often than I’d like, I wallow in despair.
As uncomfortable as those emotions are, I take comfort in the fact that I still experience them. I never want to be the person who can look at so much suffering in this world and feel fine. It hurts because it’s supposed to. Turning off the pain would mean turning off my humanity, and I just can’t do that.
Climate grief is not an illness to cure. It is a condition we will have to live with. But then again, isn’t all grief?