If you pay even an iota of attention to climate news, you know that the situation is urgent and grim. This week alone, the Amazon rainforest burns even more than before, Hurricane Dorian unleashes its destruction, and record-setting floods are hitting St. Louis and the Great Lakes states—and it’s only Thursday.
The climate emergency is here, and as the journalist David Wallace-Wells famously wrote, “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” If the planet doesn’t reach zero emissions in roughly a decade, millions of people will die. Growing food will become extremely difficult. Disease will spread. Civilization itself may collapse by 2050, and widespread extinction is a possibility within our lifetimes. Yes, even for humans.
This isn’t hyperbole. The reality is horrifying—so horrifying that most of us don’t want to face these darkest of possibilities. For a long time, I didn’t, either. And then last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report changed my view on everything. Let me tell you, when you realize what’s at stake, you become a different person. I’ve spent many sleepless nights wondering whether my young son will inherit a charred, destroyed planet and die before he reaches the age I am now. I recently hiked the hills behind my house, only to burst into tears upon seeing butterflies—because I see fewer now than I did as a child, and they are dying because the planet is dying. I mourn beloved places—the East Village, Miami, New Orleans—that my son will never see as I did, because the ocean will have swallowed them. And I feel guilty because my own carbon footprint contributes to all of this.
Meanwhile, I witness the otherwise incompetent Trump administration doing its best to unleash more emissions into the atmosphere, and I fume as right-wing propaganda attacks a 16-year-old climate activist for trying to stop the end of the world, and I want to scream because this is an emergency, yet people keep pretending that everything is fine.
I spent much of the past six months feeling scared, anxious, and depressed. I grieved. I lost sleep. I panicked. Sometimes all three at the same time.
As it turns out, having an existential freakout was among the best things I could do. So says Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD, a therapist turned Founder and Executive Director of The Climate Mobilization. Her book, Facing the Climate Emergency: Transform Yourself With Truth, is a guide for those of us who see what’s at risk—and are grappling with fear, anxiety, and despair because of it. Experiencing our dark feelings, Dr. Salamon says, is an important step before transforming them into action.
Here, Dr. Salamon and I discuss the scary reality of climate anxiety and how fear can be the most powerful catalyst for change.
Have you been seeing an outcry of emotional stress from people because of the fires in the Amazon?
Definitely. I mean, I’m mainly talking with people in the [climate movement]. So whenever people who are living in climate truth are feeling this, it’s so painful. I think people who are not living in climate truth are feeling this on some level as well.
How do you define “climate truth”?
Climate truth means intellectually and emotionally confronting the reality of our present situation. It’s acute, it’s so advanced, it’s accelerating, and we face the collapse of civilization within decades. It’s hard to say exactly when, but it’s already started—look at Syria and Bangladesh. We are so far over the cliff’s edge. We need to reverse, not slam on the brakes.
So when you accept that reality, it has implications for everything. People need to grieve not only the people and species that we’ve already lost, but they also need to grieve the future that they thought they had: their hopes, dreams, and plans. Because something much, much worse is going to happen. Grieving opens up space for a new way of living and a new mission.
“Grieving opens up space for a new way of living and a new mission.” —Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD
What does that way of living look like, though?
I call it going into emergency mode. It’s realizing that there’s only one way out of this, and that is to instigate a collective awakening. We are all in personal danger. My family, your family, everybody. We need to feel that emotionally as well as intellectually. When we get that national consensus, the idea of what is politically possible just totally explodes. Look, nobody wants this problem. But there is no other choice except, you know, collapse and mass death.
Nobody really wants to talk about that because it’s almost too terrifying to consider.
We absolutely should be terrified. It’s healthy. So I think, just lean into it. It’s not easy, but it’s a fundamentally different way of approaching your emotions. I advise [you] to honor and welcome all feelings, especially the painful ones that are telling you something critically important.
Fear is not a bad thing. It is literally the mechanism through which people and other animals turn a risk into action. If you see a bear, you run away. If you didn’t have that perception, you’d just get eaten by the bear. The idea that we shouldn’t make people afraid of climate change is one of the worst ideas in the world. The truth is inherently terrifying! When people say to me, “Oh, you can’t make people afraid,” I say, “You’re talking about yourself. You are the one who feels overwhelmed by fear. You are projecting that onto the public.”
This is the biggest, most epic story! It’s humanity’s last-chance battle of life against death, good versus evil, the truth versus the lies. Within The Climate Mobilization, we say, “Maximum fear, maximum hope.”
“The idea that we shouldn’t make people afraid of climate change is one of the worst ideas in the world.”
As someone who’s doing this activist work, how do you keep yourself from going into a despair spiral and getting stuck?
It’s all about action. I work at helping to create the climate emergency movement, and I will fight this battle as long as I can. Because of that, I see hope—and hope, real hope, can only be based on a realistic assessment of the situation. Otherwise, it’s not hope, it’s cheerful optimism. But I have real hope. There’s still time. We have yet to have a collective awakening, then a national consensus that we’re all personally in danger, and then to mobilize on the scale of World War II in this country and every other one.
Let’s talk about how that can happen. Some of the Democratic presidential candidates have climate plans that call for net-zero emissions by 2050. At least they have plans as compared to the current president, but 2050 will be too late.
First of all, Donald Trump does have a plan for climate. It’s called everyone dies. I think he’s in so much psychological pain and so destructive—he and the Republican Party have become a death cult. They’ll kill us all.
But the insufficient Democratic climate plans will also kill us all. Bernie has the strongest plan at the moment. There are things to like in Tom Steyer’s and Marianne Williamson’s climate plans, too.
What’s your advice for people who feel this pain, but also feel helpless or unable to make change?
Welcome the pain. The pain belongs. It’s grief. It all makes sense. Do that kind of processing with other people; you shouldn’t do it alone. One of the most common, painful experiences that people living in climate truth report is alienation, because no one understands how bad it is.
That part can be solved by joining or hosting discussions. At the end of the book, I have a discussion format with everything you need—send out this email, say this, say that. It’s very simple. It’s just going around the group and giving everyone three minutes to talk about their emotional reaction to the climate emergency. All the facilitator does is bring them back to feelings if they start to get into, you know, solar panels and climate policy and whatnot. Then the next round is sharing what you’re thinking about doing to get involved, and everybody makes one commitment.
I think the single most important thing that people can do is talk to other people. Talk from your heart. This affects everybody. You don’t need to be resigned to this. All you need to know is that we’re on a collision course for absolute ruin. Everybody’s in danger, and we need to get to negative emissions as quickly as humanly possible. So talk about it. Talk about how it feels that the Amazon is on fire, and how it feels to look into the future. Break the silence. The social taboos around telling the truth about this are literally killing us.
So even given the scale of this crisis, you think one person can make a meaningful difference.
I think that we are all called to take responsibility for the climate emergency. I mean, in one way it sounds insane, but to say, “I am going to solve this fucking problem and I’m taking this on.” Obviously, no one person can do that. But this is a bottomless responsibility, and we need to do this until it’s done.