How to reject 'climate porn' and reach 'climate acceptance'

How to reject 'climate porn' and reach 'climate acceptance'

Gravestone marked "Mother"
ShutterstockSheri Armstrong
The Mother Earth we have known no longer will exist in a familiar form.

It’s time to face climate change with acceptance. Not acquiescence, not resignation. But acceptance that we are where we are, it’s regrettable and scary, and we have to deal with it. Now and for the rest of our lives.

Getting to climate acceptance is a difficult personal journey. For many of us, it’s a difficult professional journey too. If you’re not there yet, it’s time to get there quickly. We’ve run out of time for all the other approaches.

Climate of depression, angst and anger

It’s easy to see why so many of us are stuck in very dark places about climate change. The news is bad, and the politics are worse.

We’re surrounded by "climate porn." That’s nothing new. It has intensified with an awful year of fire and flood. We’re even inundated with an intense debate about climate porn, and even a debate about that debate, as if we didn’t have enough debates about climate change and climate action (or inaction).

Our political leaders (using the term loosely) are losing ground. Far from leading us toward solutions, too many are denying the problems, despite science and the views of the general public. Some are even trying to legislate away the science.

The more you know, the worse it gets. After decades working in corporate sustainability strategy, I thought I understood climate change pretty well. Then I had the privilege of getting to know John Englander and his work on sea-level rise. John taught me how much damage is already done, and how much sea level rise is already "baked in" even if we could shut off every greenhouse-gas source today. It’s a stunning message, but it leaves too many audiences stunned rather than energized.

We’re succumbing to what’s been called "the existential dread of climate change." It’s depressing. It leaves us paralyzed — just when we most need to act. It leaves us speechless — just when we need to speak up more than ever.

The stages of climate grief

I struggled with this personally. I felt the depression, the hopelessness, the anger, the malaise. Seeking a path forward, I looked at all the climate models for analysis and policy insights, from IPCC to SDGs to TCFD. None really helped me move past my depression.

Finally, where I least expected it, I found a useful model for coming to grips with climate change: the old, controversial Kübler-Ross five stages of grief model.

Looking at that model, I realized that our problem is emotional, not analytical. We’re in mourning. We’re mourning the death of the planet as we’ve known it (the planet itself will survive us — but not as we’ve known it). We’re mourning the death of the seasons as something immutable, as snows fail to fall and migrating birds fail to show. We’re mourning the death of our own innocence, as we realize that we’ve already passed the point of no return without having stopped ourselves.

We are reacting to mourning and loss on a global scale. Look at Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief. You can map virtually everything you have said or heard on climate change against one of the stages:

  • Denial: Climate Denial: It’s all a hoax.
  • Anger: Climate Anger: It’s Corporate America. It’s the Republicans. It’s Big Oil. Someone has to pay.
  • Bargaining: Climate Bargaining: But I’m recycling all my plastic, and I’m thinking about getting a Prius. Isn’t that good? Isn’t that enough?
  • Depression: Climate Depression: What’s the point? We blew it. We waited too long. We’re all screwed.
  • Acceptance: Climate Acceptance: ?

To be rigorous, I’m not saying everyone moves through these stages in order. As the Kübler-Ross experts note these days, people "forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another and back again to the first one." Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change, people seem to stay in one stage forever.

This raises two key questions:

  1. How do we move on to climate acceptance?
  2. What do we do when we get there?

Moving to climate acceptance

Climate acceptance doesn’t mean being content with an awful reality. In the Kübler-Ross model:

[Acceptance] is often confused with the notion of being "all right" or "OK" with what has happened. This is not the case. Instead, this stage is about accepting the reality, and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live.

How do you reach climate acceptance? It’s a decision to accept the new reality. It is a hard decision, but there is a calm and a peace once you get there. It is energizing, not numbing.

Living with climate acceptance

What do you do when you get there? As a new arrival at acceptance, I’m still working this out. So far, I’ve found four key steps:

  1. Give up the false choice between fighting climate change ("mitigation") and preparing for/adjusting to climate change ("adaptation").  We need to do both. Full stop.
  2. Accept the new reality in your professional life, in your "day job." Integrate both reducing GHGs and serious adaptation into your core fiduciary responsibilities. Accept it as part of the job. It’s not greenwash, and it’s not someone else’s job.
  3. Accept the new reality in your personal life. Most of us are investors, in our 401(k)s or our houses or even vacation homes. Include both reducing GHGs and serious adaptation into your routine investment decisions. (Are you being honest with your kids about what they’ll inherit, or is that beach house on the Jersey Shore going to be worthless — or gone — by the time you leave it to them?) Ask what signals you are sending as a consumer. Are you reinforcing the behavior you want, or encouraging businesses to stay in their own denial?
  4. Accept the new reality in your political life. You don’t have one? That could be part of the problem. Use your voice, vote and wallet. Insist on including both mitigation and adaptation into the questions, conversation and voting decisions for every office at every level. Certainly, both fighting climate change and adaptation have to get back on the national agenda. But adapting to climate change is fundamentally local, affecting decisions about streets and schools and zoning and planning. Help every elected official at every level of government reach climate acceptance.

Paradoxically, acceptance of the ultimate climate negative can be a true positive for many of us. This isn’t some other form of denial: there will be lots of people who lose in this process, whose homes and jobs and communities won’t be viable. But overall, development will still happen, people will get jobs, people will even take vacations and build vacation homes — just not in the same places and same ways as before.

 As the Kübler-Ross experts say about acceptance: "Finding acceptance may be just having more good days than bad ones. … We can never replace what has been lost, but we can make new connections, new meaningful relationships, new inter-dependencies. Instead of denying our feelings, we listen to our needs; we move, we change, we grow, we evolve."

It's time to stop clinging to a world we’ve lost. It’s time to move, change, grow and evolve in the new climate reality we’ve created.

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