(Bloomberg) -- What should you do when the air outside contains dangerous levels of pollution? Stay indoors if you can. Buy an air purifier. Wear a mask to travel. It’s a list of precautions familiar to people in cities like Delhi, Beijing and San Francisco, where air pollution or seasonal wildfire smoke are the norm. It’s a list newly familiar to millions more people across North America, whose skies filled this week with dangerous smoke drifting from fires in Canada. It’s a list that will become more familiar every year, as climate change drives up wildfire frequency and intensity.
But how should you feel when the air outside contains dangerous levels of pollution? Or your community is flooding? Or drought is ravaging crops? There’s a list for that, too. Grief. Terror. Rage. Guilt. Shame. Helplessness. Any and all of those reactions are understandable and worth sitting in, says Margaret Klein Salamon, a clinical psychologist by training and executive director of the Climate Emergency Fund, which funds disruptive climate activism. Salamon, author of Facing the Climate Emergency, is based in Brooklyn; she spoke to Bloomberg Green on Friday, as the skies over New York City started to clear.
What sort of reactions were you seeing from people as they experienced the sky turn orange and the bad air?
I think, like in most climate disasters, they stayed pretty focused on what was immediately unfolding. As far as I’ve seen, though it’s not a huge sample size, they have not yet started to think: What about the next one? What’s coming down the pike?
What do you think it takes to get people to the point where they are actually anxious, scared or just feeling more?
I mean, that is certainly the million-dollar question. Because this kind of event should, by all rights, trigger a kind of Pearl Harbor-type response. The country was bitterly divided over going to war, with the most popular view being isolationist. After that attack, it became abundantly clear that it wasn’t a choice — of course, they don’t want to go to war but we had to. This is the kind of reaction we need politically.
What are the sorts of things people can and are feeling about climate change, and how can they start to process that?
The first thing is to recognize that what you’re feeling is healthy, and that feeling takes courage, and that as you go on this process, it’s critical to treat yourself with self-compassion. The situation is so extreme that the feelings will also be extreme.
The second thing: It’s really critical not to be alone with your climate anxiety, terror, grief. The number one feeling that people report to me when I ask, ‘How do you feel about the climate emergency?’… They say, ‘I feel so alone, no one understands how bad it is. My friends don’t understand. My family doesn’t understand.’ They feel alienated and separate from other people because of this knowledge and emotional experience that they have. What’s so ironic about that is that we all share the same atmosphere — this is happening to all of us. So, by all rights, it should be an experience that fosters emotional connection rather than separation and it can, if you talk to people about your feelings.
Why do you think it is so hard to just start talking about these feelings and the crisis in general?
It’s emotionally overwhelming and it’s difficult socially. When I talk to people about the scale of the climate emergency and what’s at stake — that crops are failing and states are going to fail and civilizations are going to fail — I always feel guilty, among other feelings, because it’s like being the bearer of such horrible news.
The Yale Program on Climate Communications talks about the spiral of silence, meaning people don’t talk about climate because people don’t talk about climate. The fact that people aren’t talking about it makes it seem like they’re not worried about it. Well, they’re acting normal, so it must be fine. The implication is: Just by leading your normal life, you are actually contributing to mass climate denial because people are looking at you and seeing that you think things are normal.
The climate activists are a critical part of how to reverse this spiral of silence and make it into people yelling about climate change from the rooftops all the time. The activists are not acting normal. They’re getting arrested 10 times and throwing soup on paintings and the extremity of their actions is also a demonstration of the depth of their feeling and fear, so it’s enacting.
I want to talk about grief, climate grief. Can you define what that is? What are different stages of climate grief and why it’s important to go through the grieving process.
Grieving is how we acknowledge and mourn our losses and adapt to new realities. If we don’t grieve, we don't get to that stage. Grief is central as a key part of the human condition and it’s a very important process to go through. With climate grief, there’s so many losses. It’s overwhelming. But I think the most personal and effecting element of climate grief is to grieve the future you thought you had.
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