Opinion | Climate Change Despair Has a ‘Life-Affirming’ Remedy

On Earth Day, a 50-year-old man from Boulder, Colo., named Wynn Bruce set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court. Friends and family members told reporters they believed his act was a principled protest in the name of the climate crisis.

It is not clear why Mr. Bruce self-immolated. We do know that climate despair and desperation lurk in the shadows all around us. In a 2021 global survey of 10,000 people ages 16 to 25 published in The Lancet Planetary Health, 56 percent said that humanity was doomed, and 45 percent said climate anxiety affected their daily lives. And while therapists, researchers and the news media are beginning to explore climate anxiety and pre-traumatic stress disorder, these conditions are still mostly ignored in our public conversations about mental health.

The climate emergency hurts because we love this world. We love our families, humanity, and the web of life. But how do we turn that pain into action?

In 2013, I was finishing my Ph.D. in clinical psychology, preparing to enter private practice and becoming more alarmed by the climate emergency. The direct effects — more intense drought, sea-level rise, superstorms and heat waves — terrified me. I was also alarmed to learn that climate change has already damaged global food security, and threatens the food supply, especially in developing countries, if we don’t make sweeping policy changes.

I resolved to use my psychological expertise to help Americans wake up from the delusion of normalcy, and treat climate like an emergency. This meant developing a psychologically informed strategy, and building a grass-roots advocacy organization to advance it. It also meant inviting hundreds of people to share their emotional reactions to the climate emergency in structured in-person conversations, and on a virtual platform.

In these “climate emotions conversations,” participants often speak of their grief, terror, rage, shock, betrayal, guilt and alienation. Many report it is their first time ever putting these feelings into words. While painful, these emotions are healthy and critical to mounting a protective response. We can welcome them with curiosity, respect and compassion for ourselves.

We can also pour them into disruptive protest and nonviolent direct action, which as history and social science demonstrate, are the fastest path to transformative change. For example, in 2019, after weeks of protests that shut down parts of London led by the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion, Britain declared a climate emergency and became the first major economy to legally commit to reaching “net zero” emissions by 2050.

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The climate, and the world, are changing. What challenges will the future bring, and how should we respond to them?

If the Covid-19 pandemic knocked the wind out of the climate movement’s sails, in the last month we’ve seen people around the world once again channeling their terror and grief into civil resistance and strategic protest. My psychological training and years in the movement have shown me that this kind of collective action is a uniquely effective antidote to despair.

In my role as executive director of the Climate Emergency Fund, I lead a team that raises funds and makes grants to emerging groups to recruit, train and prepare for mass protest and nonviolent civil resistance. In the lead-up to this April’s wave of protest, we supported 12 groups taking action in 25 countries.

One effort we support is Scientist Rebellion, a group of over 1,000 scientists around the world. They are angry and fearful of climate change, and have engaged in various forms of civil disobedience including chaining themselves to the White House fence, and covering the Spanish Parliament building with paint the color of blood.

Testimony from these scientists shows people who are radiantly alive, meeting the challenges of the moment. Peter Kalmus, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has described chaining himself to a Chase Bank building in Los Angeles last month as “a profoundly spiritual experience — in some way, incredibly satisfying and empowering and hope-giving and life-affirming.”

Joining a movement allows us to live for a purpose greater than ourselves, and a collective benefit of a national climate mobilization would be improved mental health. Instead of despair and alienation, we can find a sense of purpose and community in the face of the climate crisis.

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