On Earth Day, a 50-year-old man from Boulder, Colo., Named Wynn Bruce, set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court. Friends and family members told reporters that they believed his action was a principled protest in the name of the climate crisis.
It is not clear why Mr. Bruce self-burned. We know that climate despair and desperation lurk in the shadows all around us. In a global 2021 survey of 10,000 people aged 16 to 25 published in The Lancet Planetary Health, 56 percent said humanity was doomed and 45 percent said climate anxiety affected their daily lives. And while therapists, researchers, and the news media are beginning to explore climate anxiety and pre-traumatic stress disorder, these conditions are still largely ignored in our public conversations about mental health.
The climate emergency hurts because we love this world. We love our families, humanity and the tissues of life. But how do we turn that pain into action?
In 2013, I was about to finish my PhD. in clinical psychology, preparing to go into private practice and becoming more concerned about the climate crisis. The direct effects – more intense drought, rising sea levels, superstorms and heat waves – scared me. I was also alarmed to learn that climate change has already damaged global food security and threatened food supply, especially in developing countries, if we do not make major policy changes.
I decided to use my psychological expertise to help Americans wake up from the delusion of normalcy and treat the climate as an emergency. This meant developing a psychologically informed strategy and building a grassroots organization to promote it. It also meant inviting hundreds of people to share their emotional responses to the climate crisis in structured personal conversations and on a virtual platform.
In these “climate-feeling conversations,” participants often talk about their grief, terror, rage, shock, betrayal, guilt, and alienation. Many report that this is the first time they are putting these feelings into words. Although painful, these feelings are healthy and critical to a protective response. We can receive them with curiosity, respect and compassion for ourselves.
We can also pour them into disruptive protests and non-violent direct action, which, as history and social science show, is the fastest path to transformative change. For example, in 2019, after weeks of protests closing parts of London, led by climate activist group Extinction Rebellion, Britain declared a climate emergency and became the first major economy to legally commit to reaching “net zero” emissions by 2050.
The climate and the world are changing. What challenges will the future bring, and how should we respond to them?
If the Covid-19 pandemic blew the wind out of the sails of the climate movement, we have in the last month seen people around the world again channel their terror and grief into civilian resistance and strategic protest. My psychological education and years in the movement have shown me that this form of collective action is a uniquely effective antidote to despair.
In my role as CEO of the Climate Emergency Fund, I lead a team that raises funds and provides grants to new groups to recruit, train and prepare for mass protests and non-violent civil resistance. In the run-up to this April wave of protests, we supported 12 groups taking action in 25 countries.
One effort we support is Scientist Rebellion, a group of over 1,000 scientists around the world. They are angry and afraid of climate change and have engaged in various forms of civil disobedience, including chaining themselves to the White House fence and covering the Spanish parliament building with blood color.
Testimonies from these scientists show people who are brilliantly alive and who face the challenges of the moment. Peter Kalmus, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has described chaining himself to a Chase Bank building in Los Angeles last month as “a deeply spiritual experience – somehow incredibly satisfying and empowering and hopeful and life-affirming. “
Participating in a movement allows us to live for a purpose greater than ourselves, and a collective benefit of a national climate mobilization would be improved mental health. Instead of despair and alienation, we can find a sense of purpose and community in the face of the climate crisis.