Climate Grief and Climate Optimism

“Progress is measured by the speed at which we destroy the conditions that sustain life.”
George Monbiot

“Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.”
Carl Sagan

I first learned about global warming in depth in the party room at the Round Table Pizza restaurant in the Sunset Shopping Center in May of 2004. There were about 30 of us that evening for our monthly Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG) meeting. While we munched on our hot slices of pizza, a tall, slender, dark-haired speaker, a good-looking guy in his late 30s with intense, blue eyes, kept us riveted as he unspooled reams of scientific facts that painted a particularly bleak picture for all of us, our children and future generations.

It wasn’t all new information. Most of us had been hearing about the issue since June of 1988 when Jim Hansen informed Congress “the greenhouse effect” had arrived and was here to stay. But thanks to a systematic and successful media campaign by the fossil fuel lobby to deny, distract and delay action, few of us were aware of the sobering and depressing details now flowing into our minds like a spring flood after a drenching downpour.

I was especially depressed for my daughters who were then 14 and 12 and are now 29 and 27. I felt like their future was dying before my eyes, melting like one of those Greenland glaciers, and there was nothing I could do.

The science was clear, our speaker said in a steady, serious tone. For the first time, I learned there was an organization called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), comprised of thousands of scientists who volunteer their time to study the peer-reviewed science related to what we now call the climate crisis. And once they all agree, they submit their reports to representatives from most of the nations on earth who then come to a consensus or agreement on every single paragraph, sentence and word.

The IPCC submitted reports in 1990, 1995 and 2001, and the information we received that evening was from that third report. The fourth and fifth reports would be published in 2007 and 2014, painting an ever darker picture of what is to come. The sixth report is expected in 2022.

That evening we learned that the previous decade was the warmest in the history of recorded temperature thanks to our emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. We also were informed that scientists expected the 21st century to rapidly heat up at a rate exceeding anything humans have experienced for thousands of years. Irreversible damage to ecosystems would occur, including, but not limited to, significant species extinctions. We learned that the world’s glaciers were rapidly melting, our seas were rising and that island and coastal communities would be swamped and lost in the decades to come.

And all of this was inevitable, we were told. There was still time to lessen the severity of these effects, but significant and devastating changes were already “baked in the cake.”

Like a lot of others that evening and since, I split apart. I became two people. The part I came in with remained and is with me now. That is the part that carries on as if none of this were true. We all have that part. If we are still working, we are looking forward to retirement and we imagine we know what that looks like. If we have children and grandchildren, we imagine them older, living their lives, having opportunities like we did to live their full, wonderful and amazing lives. We Americans drive our cars and fly in airplanes and ignore the fact our personal, heat-trapping carbon emissions will outlive us for centuries as each of us adds about 22 tons of CO2 emissions every year. We picture a stable planet, like a solid, permanent stage that will hold our kids and their kids and future kids forever in love, security and peace. We all pretend that is true and will be true. Many of us could not carry on without that fantasy. We need to pretend.

And then there is this other part, that some of us carry on our backs like a heavy weight, that nagging ghost or shadow that lurks in the background but is always near. The part that clears its throat and reminds us of what we try to push away. The part that wakes up from the sweet dream of delightful denial and knows the dark truth of what lies ahead for all of us. The part that understands what it means when we say, “Today is better than tomorrow.”

In her brilliant Facing Extinction essay, Catherine Ingram writes about numerous “feedback loops (that) are now on an exponential trajectory and becoming self-amplifying, potentially leading to a ‘hothouse earth’ independent of the carbon emissions that have triggered them.  Each day, the extra heat that is trapped near our planet is equivalent to four hundred thousand Hiroshima bombs. There are no known technologies that can be deployed at world scale to reverse the warming, and many climate scientists feel that the window for doing so is already closed, that we have passed the tipping point and the heat is on ‘runaway’ no matter what we do.”

Back in 2006, when I fully embraced my role as “Climate Cassandra,” as my friend Marc once called me, and I began giving PowerPoint presentations to the community, Mauro, another friend, introduced me to the idea of climate grief. He asked me if I had cried – grieved with real tears – about the future. I nodded slowly without words; acknowledging with him a shared sadness and regret for what we both knew humanity could stop but likely wouldn’t. There wasn’t much to say. We knew even then we would dedicate ourselves to this cause, possibly in vain. We didn’t have a choice. We still don’t. Love requires it, insists upon it. Denial and despair are simply not options. When the doctor tells us we or our loved one has cancer, do we give up? Don’t we want to do everything possible to beat it?

A year after my wife’s breast cancer diagnosis in August of 2007 and long after the surgeries, the chemo that almost killed her and the months of radiation, Nancy, indefatigable as ever, asked her oncologist if she could get her implantable port removed. This was a tube with a rubber disc at the end that was inserted into her vein to simplify the chemo administration process. Her doctor looked at her for a moment in silence before she admitted she had never thought about it because she assumed she would not survive and there would be no need to remove it. And we held the opposite view. In the midst of worry and grief, something rises up to refuse defeat. This is our best self.

Climate grief and climate optimism are not in opposition. When we grieve, we face the truth, however terrible. We look it in the eye and refuse to look away. The only way out of such pain is to move into it. And believe we will come out the other side, stronger and more resilient. We won’t solve the climate crisis by denying it or giving up in despair.

According to the Climate Reality Project, Climate Optimism starts where Climate Grief ends, with Acceptance. “There is great power in acknowledging and talking about the feelings we have about the climate crisis. And of course, accepting our own feelings is important if we’re to turn acceptance into powerful action.”

From a place of acceptance, we can move toward Community. We join together. “The best antidote to feelings of despair is community – the friends, family, coworkers, and more you can talk with, learn from, and work alongside to make a difference.”

Dr. Simon Donner

I met Dr. Simon Donner, an energetic, upbeat and optimistic climate scientist, at a five-day Chapman Conference sponsored by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in June of 2013 at Snow Mountain Ranch in Granby, Colorado. The title of the conference was Communicating Climate Science: A Historic Look to the Future.

The goal of the conference was “to bring together scholars, social scientists, and journalists to discuss both the history and recent advances in the understanding of climate science and how to communicate that science to policymakers, the media, and society.”

If you check out this YouTube summary of the event, you will see me, looking a little awestruck, sitting among my heroes. Dr. Donner was one of the conference speakers, along with other revered climate scientists like Michael Mann, Gavin Schmidt, Richard Alley, John Cook, Spencer Weart and Natalia Andronova.

Dr. Donner is an Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow, a Google Science Communication Fellow and a Professor of Climatology in the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia where he studies “why the climate matters to society as well as to ecosystems like coral reefs.”

His “group’s work provides insight into the causes and effects of climate change, public attitudes, policy options at home and abroad, and what can be done to adapt.” Dr. Donner is also an associate in UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues, The Biodiversity Research Centre, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES), the Atmospheric Sciences Program, and the Director of UBC’s Ocean Leaders program.

Before joining the faculty at UBC, Dr. Donner spent a few years in the Science, Technology and Environment Program in the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He obtained a master’s degree in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University and a PhD in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment.

Donner writes, “Climate change is about legacy. The decisions we make today will help determine the future for people and for the planet. My core objective, as a scientist and a citizen, is to translate scientific information and present different perspectives in order to help society make those decisions.

“I bridge the gap between academia and real-world by regularly participating in community events, popular writing and blogging, providing policy briefings, responding to media questions on air and in print, and providing behind-the-scenes support to reporters and documentary filmmakers. Often, I learn more from the experience than the journalist or the audience.”

Since 2005, Donner has been traveling to and studying a string of islands in the central Pacific Ocean called The Republic of Kiribati, (pronounced ‘Kiribas’) that is existentially threatened by climate change. Since 2005, he has been “working with Kiribati colleagues to understand the effects of climate change and to build local research and adaptive capacity.”

He writes, “In addition to assisting Kiribati in its own struggle against climate change, our interdisciplinary work aims to learn lessons from the experience of its people and its environment that can be applied in other developing nations. Due to Kiribati’s unique climate and history, the country is an ideal natural laboratory both for evaluating how coral reefs will respond to rising ocean temperatures and how developing nations will manage the difficult process of adapting to climate change.”

You can listen to my interview with Dr. Donner on Tuesday, August 20 at 4:00 pm on my Wake-Up Call show on KKRN, 88.5 FM. If you miss the radio broadcast, you can find the show in the archives at kkrn.org.

Douglas Craig
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 30 years. He believes in magic and is a Dawes fan.
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36 Responses

  1. Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

    I look at here in Phoenix we are on a race which we will win/lose of breaking the record for most days over 110. But more disturbing, and I saw this in Cheyenne and Denver, was the graph they showed going back decades. The red column representing hot days for the year was barely ahead of the blue column representing cold days for the year, until the last decade. The red column was still high but the blue column barely showed at all. It is hot but not as cold anymore.

    • Avatar Doug Cook says:

      .. and in Redding, Bruce, we are experiencing a very mild summer. We had very few days over a hundred degrees. Weather shifts year to year is not an indication of anything. Long term trends show a very slight warming period. Not surprising that it followed a short cooling period.

      • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

        Doug, I will rely on my own personal experience over the last decade and a half in four states than your one brief summer in Redding.

        • Avatar Doug Cook says:

          Even a decade is not indicative of climate change. You have to look at a 20-40 year trend. And that trend shows a minimal increase in temperature. Going back a hundred years shows an increase of about a degree. I don’t think that is a catastrophic change.

          • Avatar Randy says:

            NASA

            “According to an ongoing temperature analysis conducted by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), the average global temperature on Earth has increased by about 0.8° Celsius (1.4° Fahrenheit) since 1880. Two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975, at a rate of roughly 0.15-0.20°C per decade.”

            “A one-degree global change is significant because it takes a vast amount of heat to warm all the oceans, atmosphere, and land by that much. In the past, a one- to two-degree drop was all it took to plunge the Earth into the Little Ice Age. A five-degree drop was enough to bury a large part of North America under a towering mass of ice 20,000 years ago.”

            https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/DecadalTemp

          • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

            Randy, most people understand that a one degree rise in global temp is drastic. And that is global average. Different areas have different rises and lows but they affect other parts of the globe. 40 million people depend on the Colorado River and what happens in Wyoming affects southern California.
            Trolls just try to argue with opinions that they try to pass off as facts just because they are bored. Don’t fall into their trap.

          • Avatar Doug Cook says:

            “…most people understand that a one degree rise in global temp is drastic.” Where do you get that premise from? The bottom line is, warming is good for humans, cooling is catastrophic for humans. It always has been, it always will be. unfortunately, cooling is coming. It is only a matter of when .. it could already be starting now.

            The climate alarmists always refuse to consider the benefits of warming, they focus only on the miniscule negative effects of warming that only impact a handful of tiny segments of the biosphere.

            Repeat after me: Warming is GOOD, cooling is BAD.

          • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

            Doug, I do not need to google anything, I have seen personally how AGW is affecting the upper Rockies. You say only a decade, let me tell you, verified by major news sources, what has happened in a decade.
            Despite the Polar Vortex and Snow Bomb the winters are not as cold as they used to be and this has lead to the devastating beetle kill. Six years ago I had to cut down fourteen trees on our Cheyenne property, as many other Cheyenne residents, had to. Every Spring the trees have to be sprayed to prevent more beetle kill. Parks had to be clear cut because of dead trees. The winters do not get cold enough to kill the beetles and man has had to step in to prevent more tree deaths. Warming is not good.
            This has happened in just a decade, what will it look like in another decade. You can spout your unfounded opinions out of your climate controlled cubicle but for those of us who actually get out in the real world AGW is a real threat.

          • Avatar Doug Cook says:

            According to the IPCC…of the 750 gigatons of Co2 which travels through the carbon cycle every year, only 29 gigatons or less than 4% are produced by man. Is that enough to drive drastic climate change. My never-to-be-humbled opinion is no. The climate will continue to change, with or without man.

          • Avatar Doug Cook says:

            Bruce says, “… I have seen personally how AGW is affecting the upper Rockies. ” First of all, how do you know that whatever changes you see is because of AGW? According to NOAA’s U.S. Climate Reference Network (USCRN) There has been no warming in the US going back to 2005. That is actual data and measurements, not guessing.

          • Avatar Bruce Vojtecky says:

            Doug, you say Randy can’t point to any lie you said. I can. You say data doesn’t support the rising temp in the Rockies. Not only are the temps higher in summer but more devastating are the winters are not as cold. Stick to something you know which I doubt is much.

          • Avatar Doug Cook says:

            Bruce, perhaps you should go back and reread my comment. I never said that “data doesn’t support the rising temp in the Rockies”. What I said is whatever changes are occurring, you have no empirical evidence it is man made. It can just as likely be a natural warming cycle. I also said that data shows the temperature in the US has not increased since 2005. That is the average of the entire US. That doesn’t mean that certain areas are warmer, and some are cooler. The east coast has not experienced a warming trend, as a matter of fact, they have been experiencing much colder than normal winters. I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at and analyzing temperature records to support my claims. Probably more accurate that your anecdotal observations. “…Stick to something you know which I doubt is much.” Again, how often do you go into NOAA websites and look at the actual data and measurements? When was the last time you read an IPCC report? Or studied sea level rise data? You doubt I know much? I have been studying this subject carefully for about 10 years now, and have built up a pretty decent knowledge of the science of climate change. What do you know about the subject other than reading scary headlines and your anecdotal observations?

        • Avatar Randy says:

          Bruce, I totally agree that trying to be real with game playing trolls is a waste of time but my interactions with this particular troll go back several years and I am consistent in using his repeat nonsense to post links to the scientific facts. Trolls like DC help me to prep for the nonsense and lies of people lke Doug LaMalfa. I do appreciate your advice though.

          • Avatar Doug Cook says:

            But yet, you STILL can’t point to any lie I have said after all these years. And you still won’t admit you stated false information when you said homes in the Maldives were being flooded by sea level rise. You still can’t produce any facts or data to prove your misstatement.

  2. Avatar Jeff Morrow says:

    Think globally, act locally! Redding’s sustainability policy relates to stable cash flow for Redding Electric Utility, not the environment or how we chose to live. We have a long way to go in our second sunniest city in America. Today is a good day to start doing more, individually and collectively. Thanks, Dr. Doug, for keeping our eyes on the legacy issues.

    • Amen, Jeff. Between Doug, Steve Towers and now you, and so many enlightened others here on ANC, we are lucky to have such educated, informed people offering crucial information about local and global issues.

  3. Avatar Randy says:

    Why AGW is not a dominating topic of conversation I can’t understand. While the determined ignorance of denial seems to be compacting into a tighter and smaller wad of blind, political loyalties and the topic of AGW is more easily accepted in casual conversation, the general population still seems to shy away from any meaningful conversation about our escalating climate crisis. We can definitely credit people like Trump, LaMalfa, Dahle and all those who support the ignorance and lies they spread about AGW for delaying the action needed to address this growing, planetary catastrophe.

    • Avatar Doug Cook says:

      The reason climate change is not dominating the news is because you can only cry wolf so much before people start ignoring your claims of crisis and catastrophe. When you look at the actual data supplied by your sources, you can see that, yes…we are in a warming period, but it is far from being catastrophic. Actually, it is a rather mild warming period. About a degree over the past 100 years. Hottest year ever!!! Since when? Since satellite data that started in the late 70’s? From 1880? From when Al Gore made his movie? From when they changed the method measuring temp in 2012? Its a shame that in order to prove your catastrophic claims…you have to repeat claims that aren’t true. THAT is why this subject isn’t dominating conversation. Climate has and will always change. There is little we can do about it

      • Avatar Randy says:

        Post your sources with direct links. Stories about stories of other stories don’t count in science. https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

        • Avatar Gary Tull says:

          Credit to you Randy for contributing to this urgent need for awareness.
          I foreword this link to anyone I know who may still doubt the science-based evidence.

        • Avatar Doug Cook says:

          Then why Randy, when I show you actual data and measurements from NOAA, you ignore those sources. I have given you multiple points if data from NOAA that shows actual sea level rise measurements that you ignore. Instead you still believe stories where you think homes are being flooded around the world.

          • Avatar Randy says:

            Post links to your sources and let the scientists of NOAA explain their own data.

            NOAA
            “Higher sea levels mean that deadly and destructive storm surges push farther inland than they once did, which also means more frequent nuisance flooding. Disruptive and expensive, nuisance flooding is estimated to be from 300 percent to 900 percent more frequent within U.S. coastal communities than it was just 50 years ago.”

            https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/sealevel.html

        • Avatar Doug Cook says:

          I found it interesting, Randy that the DNC voted against having a debate on climate change. Why do you suppose they did that?

  4. Avatar Annelise Pierce says:

    Thank you for writing this and for continuing to educate us. Reading your writing is often a spiritual experience as your kindness, gentleness and humanity leak through between and among the words, reassuring us even as they sober us. I am grateful.

  5. Tom O'Mara Tom O'Mara says:

    In Jared Diamond’s new book, Upheaval, he offers that, “Average per-capita consumption rates of resources like oil and metals, and average per-capita production rates of wastes like plastics and greenhouse gases, are about 32 times higher in the First World than in the developing world.” It doesn’t have to be this way. For example, I know that 75% of our total household vehicle mileage is powered by solar energy. And it’s not some giant expense or imposition, and includes air conditioning!

    And then this article, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/the-quantum-revolution-is-coming-and-chinese-scientists-are-at-the-forefront/ar-AAG1kWo?li=BBnb7Kz, speaks to the wonders of quantum computing, and in the next breath asks if we will be disadvantaged militarily or strategically by it. Maybe it’s just my naivete/idealism speaking, but isn’t it about time that we start using great advances like this for our overall good, as a planet? We will once again be making a leadership choice in 2020 – I’d like the opportunity to be represented by someone who is responding to the concerns Doug is raising.

  6. Avatar Gracious Palmer says:

    Thank you, Doug. CRG? Brings back memories of grief and, yes, persistence and resilience.

  7. Avatar Jim Nelson says:

    I enjoyed your article ver much. Fear and grief can serve as wake-up calls, but our lasting solutions come from optimism, creativity, and shared interests in this beautiful world. Love of forests, rivers and clean air is far more powerful than fear and loathing.

  8. Terry Turner Terry Turner says:

    As we live through new extreme weather events, watch glaciers melt, and see beautiful beaches disappear under encroaching ocean waves, it’s easy to feel discouraged and overwhelmed.

    Thank you for this description of how to pass through that stage of grief, and then develop our persistence and resilience. We are all in this together. As the saying goes, there is no Planet B.

    • Avatar Doug Cook says:

      Terry…don’t be discouraged and overwhelmed… actual data shows that extreme weather had not increased. Prior to last year, we had 12 years without a Cat 4 or 5 hurricane hitting the states. Our beaches are not dissapearing. Our sea level rise is about 1.7 to 3mm a year, about a width of a dime. Nothing to worry about.

      • Avatar Randy says:

        “Nothing to worry about” as long as you can hide in personal delusions while refusing to deal with reality.
        National Climate Assessment
        “There has been a substantial increase in most measures of Atlantic hurricane activity since the early 1980s, the period during which high quality satellite data are available.,, These include measures of intensity, frequency, and duration as well as the number of strongest (Category 4 and 5) storms. The recent increases in activity are linked, in part, to higher sea surface temperatures in the region that Atlantic hurricanes form in and move through. Numerous factors have been shown to influence these local sea surface temperatures, including natural variability, human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases, and particulate pollution. Quantifying the relative contributions of natural and human-caused factors is an active focus of research.”

        “By late this century, models, on average, project an increase in the number of the strongest (Category 4 and 5) hurricanes. Models also project greater rainfall rates in hurricanes in a warmer climate, with increases of about 20% averaged near the center of hurricanes.”

        https://nca2014.globalchange.gov/highlights/report-findings/extreme-weather

        • Avatar Doug Cook says:

          “…“There has been a substantial increase in most measures of Atlantic hurricane activity since the early 1980s, the period during which high quality satellite data are available”. Good grief, Randy. Try reading and analyzing your links. Of course there was an increase in the number of Atlantic hurricanes measured after we got satellites in orbit. Prior to satellites, a hurricane could pop up in the Atlantic and we would not know it was there. Now, we can find any hurricane in the world the second it appears. The rest of your link is 0f course…predictions. So long as prominent officials, scientists, and newspeople continue to repeat the ‘conventional wisdom’ that global warming is causing increasing numbers of severe weather events, it won’t matter what the facts are. The public at large will accept what it’s been told, especially if it’s dire and alarming.
          After all, how can the headline, “Extreme Weather On The Decline” sell papers?
          Well, here’s one headline that might work: “Snake-oil ‘Scientists’ Indicted for Lying about Extreme Weather.”

        • Avatar Doug Cook says:

          Randy, It’s called observational bias.
          We did not have Nexrad Dopplar radar in the 1970s. If we did, we would have seen A WHOLE LOT MORE tornadoes.
          We’ve moved into areas that used to flood, and we didn’t care when they did because nobody lived there. But now, people live there.
          Go back in time to the 1970s and tell a hurricane hunter that in 30 years we’d be using satellites to measure the wind speed/strength of a hurricane the instant a batch of clouds came off the coast of Africa and let me know what kind of reaction you get.
          When you actually LOOK for something, chances are good that you will find it. And chances are also good it has always been there. For example: When did we first discover a hole in the ozone? The answer is: the instant we started looking for one….

        • Avatar Doug Cook says:

          Randy, It’s called observational bias. We did not have Doppler radar in the 1970s. If we did, we would have seen A WHOLE LOT MORE tornadoes.
          We’ve moved into areas that used to flood, and we didn’t care when they did because nobody lived there. But now, people live there.
          Go back in time to the 1970s and tell a hurricane hunter that in 30 years we’d be using satellites to measure the wind speed/strength of a hurricane the instant a batch of clouds came off the coast of Africa and let me know what kind of reaction you get.
          When you actually LOOK for something, chances are good that you will find it. And chances are also good it has always been there. For example: When did we first discover a hole in the ozone? The answer is: the instant we started looking for one….

  9. Avatar Candace C says:

    On my last trip to visit my brother and sister-in-law in Santa Cruz I bought the book “Losing Earth, A Recent History, by Nathaniel Rich that you recommended to me. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it. I was afraid of the contents and being a breast cancer survivor I totally relate to the “two people” analogy. I’ll read it now. Thank you.

  10. Avatar Randy says:

    Dr. Simon Donner brought up a very important point that while we feel intimadated and sometimes depressed by the challenges of AGW we should also be recognizing and focusing on all the creativity that is being focused on addressing this challenge and all the positive changes this creativity is bringing.