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How your editors deal with climate grief » Yale Climate Connections

When the Yale Climate Connections editors got together to chat recently, the conversation turned to climate grief. Working as climate journalists every day, we’re frequently exposed to loss alongside hope for the future. In this conversation, we talk about how climate grief affects us and how we manage it.

This roundtable discussion has been edited and condensed. 

Sam: I’ve been gathering data for a story documenting the death toll of climate change in 2023. And initially, I was like, “Is this going to be a very stressful, sad experience?” But I also think there is something very important and grounding about acknowledging what has been lost. Looking towards the future, having better rituals for grieving things I think is going to be important.

Pearl: I’ve been listening to Anderson Cooper’s podcast on grief. It’s really interesting because he talks to a wide array of people. He talked to President Biden, he talked to Stephen Colbert, who lost his father and two brothers in an airplane crash. I think having a healthy relationship with grief is so important and, you know, grieving for the planet, but also grieving the people that have died and acknowledging them is very important. So that’s good work that you’re doing, Sam. 

Sara: Yeah. Yeah. It is. Sometimes when I’m really troubled by the things that I encounter as part of my work, I can shift into a mode of thinking of, well, it’s really important for there to be a witness. And to say this happened and it’s really bad, but we’re not going to ignore it.

Pearl: Whatever form of grief it is, that’s the most important thing, is to have someone bear witness. So many people grieve alone. The collective is really important in that work.

Sam: I can get sort of stuck in these internet whirlpools of, like “Individual action is so important,” or “Individual action is doing nothing.” You know: the online discourse. I should probably be off the internet more. [everyone laughs]

Pearl: Yeah. I think we can all agree. It’s very hard. It’s hard to not be on it.

Sam: They make it addicting. 

I do think there’s something both empowering and motivating and also, you know, very frustrating about the problem of climate change: You are needed to act, but also you — as an individual — can’t solve it yourself. So yeah, whether it’s collective sort of grief rituals or collective action, I think it’s there’s something really beautiful about the need to act in community and build community ties and to, you know, weather storms together — literally — or decrease pollution.

Pearl: And I think that’s been lost so much, and obviously 2020 accelerated that greatly. We’ve lost a lot of our connection with community. I’ve definitely felt it. I’ve self-isolated a little bit too much. That is also one of my other resolutions for the year: reconnecting with people. Inevitably, I end up talking about climate change in some shape or form. Like the other day, I was talking to a friend down in Florida. Somehow we were talking about ovens — electric ovens versus gas ovens. And she’s like, “We have an electric oven, but I know cooking with gas is better.” And I’m like, “No!” And I did the whole spiel for that. So inevitably, it’s good to connect with people and get on your soapbox.

Sara: I also just find it very sustaining to be around other people. I mean, people can be very irritating, but I think that’s what it means to live in a society. You have a community, and you figure out how to be with them and support them. And they support you, too.

Sam: Yeah. 

Pearl: Yeah. I think I’m most misanthropic online, though.

Sam: Yeah. Nobody is bringing their best to the internet.

Pearl: But then when I’m actually physically around people, I’m like, “Oh, this feels good.” I can feel my heart rate slowing down. And I feel better for doing this. 

Sam: Yeah. I think also as an anxious person, one of the things that climate change really activates for me is the uncertainty about the future. So knowing that I have a good group of people — whatever happens, I have a support system to fall back on — is helpful. And we will take care of each other. And there will be times that are hard and bad, but there will be safety even as there is unsafety.

Pearl: One thing that I definitely need to work on moving forward is kind of keeping a little gratitude journal or something so that every day I can concretely put something down that I’m grateful for because, yeah, I spin way out of control.

Sam: I can’t even deal with it being an election year. I’m just not accepting this yet. I don’t have the space to process what that means.

Pearl: But going back to the connecting thing, just like with grief, it’s good to know that there’s other people going through similar feelings. I mean, I love that I can sometimes explain my thought processes and either you or Sara are like, “Yeah, I totally thought the same thing.” And I’m like, OK, so I’m not alone in thinking this way.

Sam: Not at all.

Sara: Yeah. I’ve been thinking a lot about something that Tony [Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D., is the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, the Yale Center for Environmental Communication, and a senior research scientist at the Yale School of the Environment] said about how in Europe in the Middle Ages, communities would start building cathedrals knowing that the cathedral would not be completed in their lifetimes. Not in the lifetime of anyone who started it. And I just think about that a lot that, you know, we’re here in this time in the 2020s. It’s really important for us to begin the work. We’re not going to finish it. But one day there will be that cathedral.

Pearl: Wow, he’s full of such great analogies, huh?

Sara: Yeah.

Sam: It’s almost like he’s a professional communicator. [everyone laughs]

Sam: What you said, Sara, makes me think about how sometimes even I get stressed out with “We have 10 years to do X,” or “We need to stay under 1.5 degrees of warming.” I get those things are true and scary and it would be great if we could be perfect. But also, it isn’t “10 years and it’s over,” or “We hit 1.7 and it’s over.” Every life we save is important. Every degree is important. 

Sara: Right? Yes, exactly. That’s so true, Sam.

Pearl: Yeah, I think these are all resiliency measures that you just have to have in the Rolodex in your mind, always, as we go through the work. And I really need to build up that Rolodex because I know, yeah, it is not over, but I also know that there are going to be bad times and it’s going to get worse. And to be able to be mentally resilient is so important.

Sam: Yeah. Well, does anybody have any last things they want to say?

Sara: I guess one thought was, I think it’s really good and healthy to think about resiliency, but also make sure not to make that another thing to try to be perfect at. And just to acknowledge that sometimes things happen that are really tough. We’ve all been through those times and at those times, it’s part of the human condition to just freak out. And that is OK, too. I wouldn’t ever advise someone to freak out indefinitely. That feels really bad and is hard on your body, but it’s also not something to feel like, “Oh no, I’m failing at resiliency now, too,” if you freak out occasionally.

Pearl: Crying is scientifically proven to reduce cortisol levels. It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to break down. It’s OK to not be OK.

Sara: Yeah, absolutely.

Sam: I definitely tend to over-rationalize my emotions and be like, “Well, these are the reasons why I should not be feeling this way. Therefore, why am I still feeling this way?” So I have been trying to practice completing the full emotional cycle more and being like, this is just a bad day and that’s fine. And it’s not a problem to be solved. It will eventually be done. And not fighting it makes it go away faster.

Pearl: Yeah, that was something I didn’t realize. I got a stress workbook and I learned that you can get stuck in the stress cycle if you don’t complete it. 

Sam: Brains are so weird. They’re just firing: “OK, here comes the jaguar trying to eat you!” And I’m like, no, actually, it’s just that my friend texted me and I’m stressed about coordinating a time to hang out.

Pearl: Well, it’s the lizard brain part. I mean, it hasn’t evolved enough to know about texting.

Sara: Brains are so weird. That’s the perfect place to end. 

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