Are we all in shock?

Climate change and emotional phases

Written: 2019-06-25

I think we all are in shock. A shock that makes us deny facts and that makes us angry. I’m talking about climate change, our collective response to it and the hope of a more rational approach in the near future.

The Kübler-Ross model, or the five phases of grief, is a model that identifies a number of emotional stages when a person is affected by a personal crisis such as death or disease or other shocking events. Maybe, this model can also be used to understand what happens to people who are affected by the insight about the seriousness of the climate crisis, both as individuals and as a part of the collective / society we live in.

The Kübler-Ross model says that when a person faces impending death or other extreme and terrible destinies (as the person sees it), he or she will experience a series of emotional phases:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Do you recognize any of the above from the climate debate? I do and let me illustrate this with a good, though a bit old, example.

In February 2006, Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. wrote the following in the Wall Street Journal: (i) you will never be able to prove that global warming really exists, (ii) the public cannot be expected to read all scientific reports and thus it is rational to ignore the problem, (iii) the political decisions does not seem to be able to progress on the issue which suggests that research is wrong and he ended the article with saying that (iv) if the climate is indeed warming up, we can solve it later.


This article is good because it shows how clearly the journalist walked on the "Kübler-Ross road" towards acceptance. He starts by clearly denying climate change altogether. The denial is implicitly blamed on the complexity and abstraction of the scientific articles. In short, it is someone else's fault and we

can’t be blamed for not understanding. Moreover, the whole thing cannot be correct because the politicians do not regulate us away from the problem. He is a little angry too and so ends with "bargaining" when he writes that it is probably not so dangerous and can be solved. In this article one can thus interpret it as if he made a walk "on the Kübler-Ross road" towards acceptance. In his case, only to step three.

But this is just one example of a collective delusion that has arisen with regards to climate change. A probable couse for this delusion is that we think the whole climate change issue is a bit difficult and depressing as we may have to change our way of life and value base. That this is the case can be seen clearly from the comments fields in various social media platforms regarding the activity done by Greta Thunberg. It actually quite sad if you ask me.

So where are we now? Are we still in the denial phase? No, most people have passed this phase. Are we angry? A little but on whom is unclear (ourselves?). Are we trying to haggle? Absolutely! This was noticeable not least when a couple of professors in environmental economics tried to argue that one could continue to fly with good conscience. But for how long should we stay in phase 3? Hopefully, not for too long. Maybe we're heading into a collective depression (if we're not already there)? A problem here is that inactivity often follows from depression. Hopefully, however, this phase is short-lived and we can quickly land in a collective acceptance of the climate crisis and its effects. With a little luck, we will behave rational and skip the depression phase, move into acceptance directly and take action today!