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Understanding grief can help us adapt to climate change

How will we cope with the losses posed by climate change? Tim J Keegan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Understanding grief can help us adapt to climate change

How will we cope with the losses posed by climate change? Tim J Keegan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Grief is a natural response to the loss of something cherished – a loved one, a place, a memory, an icon, a way of life.

As people adapt to the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events, and to a changing environment, researchers are starting to realise the role grief can play in how well people are able to cope with climate change.

Even with concerted efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, some climate change cannot be avoided, with many changes such as increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events to 2040 being locked in, regardless of action we take. These changes are already happening now and will continue into the foreseeable future.

The resulting impacts will require all communities and individuals to adapt in some way. If they don’t adapt in a planned way and react to events as they happen, it is likely to increase the likelihood of loss, poor responses and vulnerability to future events.

These impacts are not only changing the world around us but also the way we live. As with all change, there is an element of loss and the potential for grief.

Does climate change cause grief?

A variety of losses can be experienced. People may grieve due to the perceived future loss of something; for example, the type of grief often expressed via social media over the potential loss of the Great Barrier Reef. Individuals and communities may grieve for the loss of a loved landscape damaged by drought, fire or flood.

Grief can also be associated with changing environments and circumstances. For example, business sectors such as farming and tourism which are sensitive to environmental impacts may need to change traditional structures and ways of operating to ensure their future viability. At an individual level it can be the loss of a sense of safety or security.

In a normal and healthy grieving process, individuals move through the process of grief and continue with their lives. How well a person copes during this process depends on their experience, context and external circumstances.

For instance, at the New South Wales Coastal Conference in 2012, one local government participant told us they had found that the community accepted and believed that climate change was happening but added that “when we went to talk to them about possible relocation in the future, they got really angry”.

The five stages

A few years ago I found that some people working on climate adaption did not understand these sorts of reactions from communities and businesses. This was often because they had not thought about how people might respond emotionally to the information they were sharing.

Clive Hamilton discusses some of these responses in a 2009 paper, and in his 2010 book Requiem for a Species where he proposed that denial, maladaptive (bad) coping, and adaptive (good) coping were the three key psychological responses to climate change. This gives a context for understanding responses at a conceptual level.

In response, I adapted one of the best known models used for grief and loss, developed by Elisabeth Kubler Ross, to give a practical context to these responses and enable better management of them. This model defines five key phases of responses to loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and has been incorporated into standard change-management processes.

There are limitations to using this model as the process of climate change is not a neat bell curve which moves through phases in sequence, rather a dynamic process which can be subject to unexpected shocks.

Celeste Young, Author provided

Other researchers have developed other models. Rosemary Randall (2009) adapted William Worden’s therapeutic model because she found it “offered more practical assistance”. This model uses four key tasks: accepting the reality of the loss, working through painful emotions of grief, adjusting to the new environment and reinvesting emotional energy. These tasks can be revisited as part of an ongoing process.

Climate change does throw up some unique challenges because it is continuous change. This may result in people becoming overwhelmed as losses accumulate over time, or becoming “stuck” and unable to move through the grief process. Denial and avoidance can impede the ability to adapt, and make individuals and communities more at risk of climate impacts as a result of inaction.

It can also result in a sense of hopelessness about the future. Without the right type of support, these responses can result in serious conditions such as depression or anxiety which require professional intervention.

Helping people grieve

So how can we help people and communities work through the climate grieving process?

Proactive responses directly after an event can be very useful in specific contexts. In January 2011, floods devastated Grantham in the Lockyer Valley region in Queensland, resulting in “significant loss of life and property”. The community and local government acknowledged these losses and as part of the process of rebuilding. They decided to relocate their community at risk of further flooding to higher ground through a consultative process. This has not only helped the community heal from the losses they encountered but has also saved the community “tens of millions of dollars” in damages from subsequent flood events.

Another way to help people accept these changes is through cultural activities that support the expression of grief. In Australia, local government, community, and the arts sector have led in this area. Storytelling is often used as it provides a structured and often empowering way of expressing difficult emotions.

For instance, following the devastating Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, the community of Strathewen, supported by local government and the RedCross, created a memorial to honour those who had died and the memory of the event, as part of their recovery.

The community felt the best way to do this was to make a place where people could come to remember and reflect. The final design was a series of concentric stone circles, which visitors could walk through and experience the different stages of the fire – from fear and despair to hope and regeneration – through the stories of the survivors engraved on them.

The Strathewen Black Saturday memorial - designed by the community. ©Arterial Design

These types of activities can also improve connectivity and resilience as noted by Murdoch University arts expert Peter Wright. In his evaluation of the GOLD project run by BigHart, with communities in the Murray Darling region during the drought, he concluded the program:

reveals, and is consistent with international and national experience is that culture is a tool for dialogue and social inclusion, and therefore key in social cohesion and stability each being key to human development and increasing each individual’s human capabilities…in the words of one farmer - BigHart (coming) was like someone saving a life.

Grief is a natural process and by not including it as part of the cycles of change, we reduce our resilience and make the task of adaptation harder. We should not allow our grief to direct what we create for the future from a sense of loss. We should use our understanding of grief to inform and enrich it.

In understanding what we have lost or are losing, it is possible to see our own fragility, and gain a deeper understanding of our connection to, and the possibilities of, the changed landscape we now inhabit. It is a conversation we need to have.

The author would like to thank Professor Roger Jones for his support in writing this article.