Coping With the Fear and Trauma Caused by Climate Change

To effectively address the climate emergency, how do we balance our personal stories with rational thought?

Coping With the Fear and Trauma Caused by Climate Change
Photo by Pierre Bamin / Unsplash

I grew up in the Deep South, and tornadoes and hurricanes were a regular part of my childhood. One of my most vivid memories is of my grandmother, one of my primary caretakers, carrying me home at age 6 while the Candlestick Park tornado was bearing down on a neighborhood less than a mile away. I remember putting my hands over my ears to shut out the deafening roar. By the time it was all over, the F5 tornado would end up harming 500 people and killing 57.

Every year, another storm loomed in the distance. Hurricane Betsy missed us but devastated New Orleans. Hurricane Camille blew through our town a few years later, making an indelible mark on my psyche and I began personifying storms into all-powerful, beast-like entities. And yet, for all the times hurricanes and frequent tornadoes threatened us, only once did my grandmother and I take to the basement. My grandfather would never admit to fear.

Living with these threats taught me from a very young age that some events are out of our control. And, sometimes they result in injury or death. I also learned that, while people could take steps to improve their odds of surviving, much of it was socioeconomic. In other words, where you could afford to live and whether you owned a working car were often the biggest factors. Which brings me to climate change.

As I began to understand the climate crisis and the cascading effects it could have on people and other living things across the planet, it struck a familiar chord. It prompted me to relive my fear of being harmed by events outside of my control and the frustration of watching people carry on with their routines as tornado sirens wailed and hurricanes spun violently in the Gulf.

But climate change wasn’t caused by a random act of nature. We caused it by pumping excessive amounts of planet-warming gases into the atmosphere. And we can stop it from getting worse—once we’ve stopped emitting them—while adapting to the disruptions that will happen from the carbon we’ve already released.

And therein lies the problem. We cannot separate the climate emergency, and our response to it, from our emotional and psychological makeup, which can manifest as hopelessness, fear, and despair or denial, avoidance, and insistent positivity. Both can interfere with adaptation and climate progress. One by stopping people from feeling like they can have an impact, and the other by keeping them turned away from potential dangers that may be too painful to process. Effectively addressing the climate emergency requires that we balance our personal stories—and our emotions, intuition, and histories of trauma—with rational thought, but that’s something humans aren’t always good at doing.

With all this in mind, I was eager to speak with Deirdre Des Jardins, the Director of California Water Research and a self-described teller of inconvenient truths about climate change impacts on California water. She has researched the “societal and psychological impacts of cascading disasters” and speaks openly about those impacts on social media.

Deirdre, you tweeted: “It is important to understand that processing existential threats is not rational. It's in the limbic system, the same circuitry that gives rise to the fight or flight response. And PTSD results when the person experiencing the existential threat can neither fight nor flee.” After reading your tweet, I recognized my old patterns in how I have responded to situations I cannot control. Understanding how the limbic system informs our responses to the climate crisis seems key to helping people in the climate space bridge communication gaps. How have you experienced this, both in your work and as a climate communicator?

My advocacy work is in climate adaptation in the California water sector, and the impacts of water diversions on fish, wildlife, and Delta communities. The stakeholder groups that I work with are at once very angry and devastated by what is happening to the Sacramento Delta. Fish are being driven extinct and harmful algal blooms are exploding due to freshwater diversions. There’s a lot of litigation over it, which people call “the water wars.” But it’s really kind of a last defense against ecocide. One colleague compared our advocacy work to the Alamo.

Recently I realized that I chose this very high-conflict, high-stakes work because of what I went through in graduate school after reporting gun threats in a campus online discussion forum. I had to learn advocacy because my life was being threatened, and it became my life. Over the years I’ve become very good at what I do.

Though it’s important to accept fear and grief as natural responses to the crisis, the environments in which we allow ourselves to express them seem equally important. Otherwise, some people will conflate concerns about global warming with unrelated conspiracy theories. What words of wisdom can you give to people who risk diluting the message about the climate crisis because they haven’t fully processed their own grief?

To really be effective, you have to process your own feelings.

I realized recently that I had also been compartmentalizing the grief and sadness from what has been happening. And in giving myself the space to feel that trauma, I realized that almost everyone in the advocacy community has been traumatized to some extent by what has been happening. And we all have been channeling anger, grief, and fear.

I realized that I was strong enough to let myself experience those feelings, without needing to act on them. Sometimes they were almost unbearable, and all I could do was just let myself experience them. And just being with them, they started to lose strength.

Somehow I had a breakthrough in my spiritual practice. I had had times of transcendence where I could just let go of the past and future and be in the moment, feeling connected to the earth and other living things. But those times were very few. Then I started being able to be in that space more often.

Another thing that really helped me understand more was the book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence [by Rick Hanson]. It describes the neuroscience of the amygdala and the fight-or-flight circuit, and grounding oneself through consciously recalling and focusing on good experiences.

How do you handle situations where you have to work with people who haven’t accepted some of the hard truths about what the science says, and how do we communicate these uncomfortable truths with the requisite clarity and empathy to effect change?

Once you develop the ability to just be with yourself, then you develop the ability to give up your own ego and be with others—and to truly listen to them. That deep listening is one of the most healing, wonderful things in the world, and something we rarely experience. It is really important.

Something I’ve learned over the last couple of years is that what sometimes looks like apathy or unchecked hope, can be a cover for much deeper feelings. Not everyone has the capacity to focus on climate and still be able to get up each morning and face another day. How do you handle the prospect that climate grief could lead some people to severe depression and suicidal ideation?

The COVID pandemic was very bad for everyone’s mental health, and greatly increased depression and suicidal ideation. The thing to do is to be gentle with other people, and to develop the ability to give loving kindness. I've learned recently how powerful loving kindness can be. I’ve started practicing the [Buddhist] Metta Bavana, or loving kindness meditation. And to the extent that I can put myself in that space, it’s truly healing, for both myself and others that I express loving kindness, too.

It seems rather ironic to be learning these things after being in high-conflict campaigns and legal cases for two decades, but I am seeing the world less as good and evil now, and more like a Greek tragedy. We are all connected, and experiencing moments of connection is what gives me hope.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Here’s what else is happening.

Catching up

It’s been several months since I railed about Congress not acting on climate, but as I’m sure you’ve heard by now, they did decide to act, passing the most sweeping climate package in U.S. history. The Inflation Reduction Act is nothing less than remarkable, and I’ll be sharing more details about how the different parts are progressing in future posts. But it also means there will be—and already are—some uncomfortable decisions to make as we transition to a carbon-free economy. As Sammy Roth wrote in his Los Angeles Times newsletter, Boiling Point, “Now comes the hard part—or, at least, the next hard part.” To get an idea of what I mean, follow Sammy across the West in this video where he speaks with the man overseeing the country’s largest wind farm project along with the executive director of the Western Watersheds Project about expanding renewable energy while preserving wildlife habitat. You can read the article about it, here.

What to read

In the Washington Post, Brady Dennis wrote about a flood-prone community in South Carolina where the government is buying out homeowners who have agreed to move to safer ground to escape rising seas. But relocating has an emotional cost. As one lifelong resident told the Post, while packing up to leave her longtime home, “It’s like a death . . . . I didn’t have any intentions of leaving. This place is my heritage.”

Because of climate change, these kinds of stories will become increasingly more common. It’s yet another way people are already experiencing the grief and trauma of the crisis.

What to know

- Low-water records were set in October across a 270-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Missouri and Mississippi, blocking the flow of grain and other goods up and down the river’s shipping channel. “If barge traffic on the Mississippi River is slowed for an extended period of time, the entire U.S. economy suffers, with impacts to the global economy and world food supplies,” according to Jeff Masters and Bob Henson at Yale Climate Connections. “These events serve as a warning that climate change can be expected to cause an increase in extreme events that will impact critical global trade chokepoints.”

- The same La Niña pattern that has dried up the Mississippi and left at least 80 percent of the U.S. parched has caused widespread flooding across Australia, forcing thousands from their homes. It’s unusual for extreme precipitation to impact the whole continent, notes flood historian Margaret Cook in the Washington Post. A warmer atmosphere holds more water, as scientists keep telling us, supercharging rain events. It’s also unusual to experience three straight years of La Niña conditions, but a recent study published in Geophysical Research Letters points to the possibility that human-caused global warming is behind the recent uptick in La Niña cycles.

- “Dozens of wildfires raged in northern Spain on Friday after unusually high fall temperatures hitting 30 Celsius (86F) . . . . adding to mounting concerns about changing weather patterns in Europe,” reports Vincent West at Reuters.

- Europe is setting heat records for this time of year.

- Jair Bolsonaro losing to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil’s presidential election is a big win for the climate. Here’s what Lula said in his victory speech: “Instead of being world leaders in deforestation, we want to be world champions in facing up to the climate crisis and in socio-environmental development.” To learn more about the effects of deforestation on carbon dioxide stores and rain patterns both in South America and elsewhere, I recommend this story by Craig Welch in National Geographic. “According to one modeling study,” he writes, “if the Amazon were ever completely deforested, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains—a crucial water reservoir for California—would be diminished by half.”

- The entire U.S. is set to experience some interesting weather this weekend, with medium to heavy precipitation in the Pacific Northeast, above normal temperatures in the East, and stormy conditions in between, typical of the type of weather patterns that spawn tornadoes throughout the middle of the country. And, on top of all that, there are two named hurricanes in the Atlantic, an unusual occurrence for November. Let’s just hope the atmosphere doesn’t get too supercharged! Stay safe out there, everyone.