Our Climate Change Inaction: Is “Climate Trauma” the Missing Link?


Climate change’s dangers and dire predictions are well-established, most recently by a report by the Intergovernmental Governmental Panel on Climate Change. The report states that we have until 2030 to cut global emissions by at least 45% before irreversible climate catastrophe. Support for addressing climate change is high: two-thirds of Americans believe our government needs to do more to address the crisis. Even so, we appear to be moving backwards. President Trump pulled the US out of the Paris climate agreement, which sought to limit global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. And, while many Americans have responded in protest, Congress has yet to take decisive action on any climate proposal. Not only do we lack a plan for large-scale collective action—we lack the will to make the necessary changes.

And yet, climate change is an unprecedented threat to human existence—one that demands immediate action. So why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?

One common explanation comes from behavioral economics. As psychology professor Art Markman explains in the Harvard Business Review, ignoring climate change allows governments, companies, and individuals to benefit in the short-term, which is generally preferred over long-term prosperity that involves significant lifestyle changes. Moreover, Markman argues that, since people in developed nations often consider climate change to be slow-acting and “distant,”we have a hard time mobilizing into action.

These principles offer important insight into the thought processes that underpin climate inaction. However, Markman’s explanation  falls short of addressing the deeply personal, emotional process that is required in order for individuals to fully accept and address climate change. His behavioral economics cannot, for example, explain the experience of Mary Annaise Heglar, who became an environmental policy editor five years ago. Heglar’s progression from passive citizen to climate activist was not inspired by a rational assessment of the threat that climate change poses, nor the realization that climate change is happening quickly. Instead, Heglar describes experiencing “the five stages of grief.” When encountering climate data for the first time, Heglar felt a crushing, devastating sense of mourning. She recalls, “I would frequently and randomly burst into tears. . .When I was around bustling crowds of people, I saw death and destruction. . . I kept editing, but I tried to dissociate, pretending that none of it was real.” Heglar’s depression only subsided, she says, when she channeled her despair into “anger” and passion for climate activism.

What explains this intense, grief-like process that accompanied Heglar’s acceptance of climate change? As ecopsychologist Zhira Woodbury explains, the psychological effects of accepting climate change may be far more significant than many of us realize. Referring to this experience as “climate trauma,” Woodbury argues that the effects of climate change are not only traumatizing when we experience a catastrophic event, like a flood. Instead, climate change is an inherently traumatic phenomenon, often with many painful side effects.

Woodbury compares “climate trauma” to the well-established phenomenon of cultural trauma. Cultural trauma describes when an entire group suffers long-term psychological damage from a catastrophic event, like the Holocaust or 9/11 attacks. “Climate trauma” has many similarities to cultural trauma. What makes it unique, however, is that “climate trauma” is universal—and unlike most traumatic events, there is no end in sight. In other words, our experience of the effects of climate change is unique because it is ongoing.

“Climate trauma” is a helpful framework for understanding the emotionally devastating effects of living with climate change. As in Heglar’s story, Woodbury describes how thoughts of climate change can haunt our daily lives, “from. . .the absence of songbirds and honey bees on our nature walks. . .to the latest superhero movie.” When we consider climate change, we aren’t just thinking about changing lifestyles. Its threats also force us to question our futures and our relationships with and places within nature. We are also forced to confront the inherent injustice of climate change: in part because of vulnerability to natural disasters and a reliance on subsistence agriculture, poor countries that contributed least to the crisis are affected the most. Because the threats of climate change are so disturbing, it is perfectly reasonable, then, to see why understanding and acting on climate change can lead to, as Heglar describes it, intense feelings of “grief.”

Considering the phenomenon of “climate trauma” allows us to see that coming to terms with climate change is an emotional, “traumatic” experience, as well as a rational one. This may offer new insight into why we hesitate to fight for large-scale action. Because experiencing climate change is so complex, perhaps our inaction is not merely due to laziness or a failure to prioritize. As Woodbury explains, some of the most common reactions to traumatic events are denial and dissociation, as Heglar describes feeling in her early stages of “grief.” In other words, the implications of climate change are so overwhelming that we often try to ignore it in our everyday lives.

However, being affected by “climate trauma” does not mean that we are helpless. If we begin to discuss the emotional, personal effects of climate change—and how its accompanying anxiety, fear, and despair can permeate our lives—we may not only reach a better understanding of our apparent “apathy,” but succeed in galvanizing ourselves to action. Adding “climate trauma” to the national discussion may be our best strategy for bringing climate change close to home. Incorporating emotional experience into our discussions may even help sway those who dismiss or outright deny climate change. People do not deny climate change simply because they are uninformed; therefore, they may not be convinced by a simple presentation of facts. If we acknowledge the bravery needed to fight climate change, we also stand a better chance of convincing people blinded by denial or fear. “Climate trauma” recognizes and validates the struggle, energy, and courage it takes to address climate change. Incorporating our emotional experiences into national discussion of climate change--along with more practical and economic concerns--may help build community, personalize climate change, and move citizens into action.

Ellie Hansen