Activists go thru 5 stages of grief for the climate change campaign

Summary: Climate activists have begun to see the failure of their campaign to get public policy measures to fight climate change. Their actions follow the five stages of grief in the Kübler-Ross model. This helps us predict what comes next, and prepare. For example, stage four (bargaining) offers an opportunity to gain something from the expensive policy gridlock in this vital area. This is the third in a series attempting to understand the ending of this 26-year-story and find in it some useful lessons for the future.

“The time for debate has ended.”
— True words by Marcia McNutt (editor-in-Chief of Science, next President of the NAS) in “The beyond-two-degree inferno“, editorial in Science, 3 July 2015.

The 5 stages of grief in the Kübler-Ross model
Five Stages of Grief

The final chapters appear to have come in the great campaign to enact public policy measures against climate change. Twenty-six years have passed since James Hansen’s Senate testimony and ten since Al Gore’s speech (predicting a “time of consequences” with, among other things, more Katrinas). Despite support from the Left, academia, journalists, and the major science institutions — yet after 20 years they had achieved only minor support from most developed nations and almost nothing from the emerging world.

Activists responded with ever-more extreme predictions of doom from climate change. The scientists working with the IPCC refused to support most claims of a certain coming catastrophe, most recently in their 2012 Special Report on Extreme Events and Disasters and in 2014’s Working Group I of AR5 (e.g., about methane). Activists responded by denigrating the IPCC. From the “gold standard of climate science”, it became “too conservative” (e.g., Inside Climate News, The Daily Climate, Yale’s Environment 360, Naomi Klein). This too had little effect on public opinion.

Climate activists hoped for a boost from either a large weather event or President Obama. Obama did little until this year he then made only a small step with his Clean Power Plan (phasing out coal, but not addressing oil or natural gas). Activists attempted to blame CO2 for several large weather events, but were often frustrated by denials from the major climate agencies (e.g., NOAA about the 2012 Central Plains Drought and the California drought).

By 2015 climate change was moving off the center stage, as it consistently ranked near the bottom of the US public’s major policy concerns. Newspapers reassigned staff to hotter stories (the LAT in 2008, the NYT in 2013). Presidential candidates of both parties muted their climate change policies. The COP21 festival seems likely to produce few results (just like its predecessors).

The death of a large joint effort creates grief, best described (impressionistically) by the five stages of the Kübler-Ross model. This fits the recent actions of climate activists. First there is…

On Grief and Grieving
Available at Amazon (2005).

(1)  Denial

Activists’ initial reaction was (ironically) denial. They believed that the public supported them, that action was prevented only by shadowy conspiracies and unethical journalists (who reported both sides of the debate), and that strong policy action would happen soon. For decades they hoped that action will come after a disastrous weather event (to be blamed on climate change), the next conference, the next IPCC report, or the next media event.

Most of the 40 thousand attendees at the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris work and party in denial about the state of the movement. Attendees who understand this bleak prospect might treat it as a wake.

But continued bad news erodes away denial, leading to…

(2)  Anger


For some activists, denial has boiled over into anger. Most notably, James Hansen — who wrote a scathing essay overflowing with anger. Obama would not even meet with him, James Hansen — a star of the CAGW movement! Worse…

“Obama is not proposing the action required for the essential change in energy policy direction” {decarbonization} … How can such miserable failure of political leadership be explained, when Obama genuinely wants climate policy to be one of his legacy issues? … Get ready for the great deceit and hypocrisy planned for December in Paris.

… I have suggested, asked, or begged lawmakers, in more nations and states than I can remember, to consider a simple, honest, rising carbon fee with all funds distributed to legal residents. Instead, invariably, if they are of a bent to even consider the climate issue, they propose the discredited ineffectual cap-and-trade-with-offsets (C&T) with all its political levers.”

Also see “Why the Paris climate deal is meaningless” by Oren Cass (Manhattan Institute) at Politico (a useful weather vane for opinion-makers’ trends). “The more seriously you take the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, the angrier you should be.”

Anger feels good but accomplishes nothing. The next stage offers hope…

Union: bargain or beg

(3)  Bargaining

“We don’t even plan for the past.”
— Steven Mosher (member of Berkeley Earth; bio here), a comment posted at Climate Etc.

The Bargaining stage might prove fruitful, when activists see the clock running out (especially when funding begins to dry up) and change their tactics from mockery and insults (“Deniers!”) to bargaining. Both Left and Right can find common cause about many public policy measures to prepare for climate change — which both sides agree is inevitable (although in different contexts). Many such measures will require large-scale infrastructure projects, often popular in Congress.

The US public policy gridlock might break during this stage, although achieving on fragments of activists’ goals.  See more details here. But the grand hopes for massive policy action will likely remain unfulfilled, especially for those using the threat of CAGW to change our economic and political systems (e.g., Naomi Klein and Pope Francis).

But if bargaining fails (it can produce partial policy success, unlike with death), eventually most activists will come to…

"Despair" by Edvard Munch (1894).
“Despair” by Edvard Munch (1894).

(4)  Depression

People move through these stages at their own pace, often skipping one or more. Some climate scientists have moved into depression, and understandable reaction to the failure of the policy campaign to produce the measures they consider necessary for the survival of humanity — and, in many cases, to which they have devoted so much effort for so long.

These stories make anyone sad who has a shred of empathy. See some examples at “Climate depression is real. Just ask a scientist.” by Madeleine Thomas at Grist (October 2014). More recent are the stories at “When the End of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job” by John H. Richardson at Esquire (July 2015) — “Among many climate scientists, gloom has set in. Things are worse than we think, but they can’t really talk about it.” For a in-depth discussion with one scientist see “Is it ok for scientists to weep over climate change?” by Roger Harrabin at The Guardian (July 2015) — “The devastating impact CO2 emissions are having on oceans recently brought one professor to tears during a radio interview.”

Active people eventually recover from their depression, realizing that some valuable steps can be taken. This leads to…


The Future: next exit

(5)  Acceptance

Life goes on, even for activists. There is always another campaign, as the coming apocalypse from air & water pollution was followed by the The Population Bomb (1968), which gave way to Limits to Growth (1972), then nuclear winter (1983), then several more campaigns until peak oil, peak everything, and climate change.

Activists will enjoy the certainty that they were correct even though defeated by an ignorant public led by conservatives and oil companies. They will look forward — as did previous generations of such prophets — to the eventual apocalypse that results from the world’s refusal to believe.

Eventually the weather will decide whose science was stronger, that of the “activists or the “skeptics”. It might take years to see decisive results, or perhaps decades (see some scientists’ predictions here). Climate change is a commonplace in history, sometimes destroying entire civilizations. Our refusal to prepare even for the obvious — continuation of the two centuries of warming or, even more irresponsibly, for repeat of past extreme weather — probably will prove expensive in lives and money.

Other posts in this series

  1. The bottom line: How we broke the climate change debates. Lessons learned for the future.
  2. A story of the climate change debate. How it ran; why it failed.
  3. The 5 stages of grief for the failure of the climate change campaign.
  4. Next week: The climate change crisis, as seen from 2100 AD.

For More Information

Pointman predicted in 2010 that AGW activists would go through the 5 stages of grief when their belief system crashed.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information about this vital issue see The keys to understanding climate change and My posts about climate change. Also see all posts about forecasts of the future world, and these posts about the campaign for public policy action to fight climate change — how it went wrong and how it can be fixed…

  1. Ten years after Katrina: let’s learn from those predictions of more & bigger hurricanes.
  2. Manufacturing climate nightmares: misusing science to create horrific predictions.
  3. Politifact tells us about American politics and science. We should listen.
  4. A new response to climate change that can help the GOP win in 2016.
  5. Important: climate scientists can restart the climate change debate – & win.

14 thoughts on “Activists go thru 5 stages of grief for the climate change campaign”

  1. Pingback: Activists go through 5 stages of grief for the climate change campaign | harrisophielizabeth

  2. The first half of 2016 has seen temperatures breaking 2015’s record breaking temps. Some scientists are predicting no Arctic sea ice by the end of this summer. If one goes back to 1880, we have already warmed 1.5 degrees C as they continue to say we must not go over 2.
    And still no one in power is really listening.
    West Virginia is drowning, India is burning up at 130 degrees, and Alaska is ten degrees warmer than all previous records.
    I think looking at grief is quite appropriate, as I believe we are facing human extinction. We are ALL going to finally have to come to acceptance of that. Not pretty.

    1. Gayle,

      I appreciate your attention to the daily news and it’s “if it bleeds, it leads” alamism. I suggest instead reading the IPCC’s cogent and clear summary of scientists’ work, and paying less attention to whatever alarmists that clickbait-hungry journalists feature.

      Predictions of summer melting of the arctic are a dime a dozen, and have been for 15 years. So far 2016 is closely tracking 2012, which had a minimum of 3.4 million sq km.

      Another example is the 2014-15 hysteria about the “super” “monster” “Godzilla” El Ninos that would wreck havoc. Instead it ran much as NOAA predicted, roughly similar to the three other strongest El Nino events of the past quarter-century. Not remotely a “hundred year event”, like the hundred year floods insurance companies use for ratings.

      The world has been warming for 2 centuries as it rebounds from the Little Ice Age; with only the post-WWII warming caused by us. We have no direct records of warmth in previous cycles (just proxy data of uncertain reliability), so “record highs” are in fact usually “records of the past 50 or 100” years. A dot in a world with 30 and 60 year long weather/climate cycles.

      “I think looking at grief is quite appropriate, as I believe we are facing human extinction”

      I feel sad for you, since there is no scientific basis for your fear. Try reading the Summary for Policy Makers of the IPCC’s AR5 report. Nothing in it gives the slightest support for your belief. Less hysteria, please. More science.

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  5. The science was right in the early 70’s, Global Cooling. If you look at the climate history for the last 15,000 years, or even the last million, you will see we are due to cool, with short warming trends for about the next 30,000 years. Science is fun. I am certain you can find the historic charts showing long term natural weather patterns

    1. Michael,

      If you look at the reports of the IPCC, you’ll learn that climate scientists are well aware of that history. Why would you believe that they are not?

      As for belief in the 1970s of global cooling, it’s wildly exaggerated. There were some scientists who believed that the world was cooling — largely due to anthropogenic emmissons of aerosols. Most scientists were uncertain which would prove the dominate forcing, aerosols or CO2. That was decided by the 1960s and 1970s clean air regulations in Japan, Europe, and America. For documentation see

      1. About the press: About those headlines from the past century about global cooling….
      2. About the science: A look at global warming written in a cooler and more skeptical time, giving us a better understanding of climate science.
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