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Margaret Klein Salamon
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In 2012 I was living in New York City, working as a therapist, and finishing my Ph.D. in clinical psychology. For years, I avoided thinking or reading about the climate because it made me feel terrified and helpless. I would read the first sentences of articles about global warming, and say to myself, Nope! I can’t handle it; it’s too scary. I’d close the article and distract myself with something else.

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, destruction was everywhere. I vividly remember seeing a car smashed by a huge branch. On the shattered windshield, a cardboard sign read, Is global warming the culprit? Seeing the message caused something in me to shift.  If global warming had smashed that car and the whole city, what else could it do? How bad was this situation, and what did our collective future hold? With these questions in mind, I started to educate myself. I began to finish the articles that had previously overwhelmed me. I started to seek out books on climate and ecological emergencies.

What I learned shook me to my core—and caused me to reassess my life. I went through an intensely emotional process of grief, terror, rage, shame, and more. I had experienced processing painful feelings, both as a therapist and through more than 10 years of personal psychoanalysis. I knew that the only way out of grief, and other painful feelings is “through” them.

When I began to face climate truth, I felt like the world was collapsing in on me. But I also felt deeply liberated. Rather than relegating them to the corner of my consciousness, where they continued to haunt me, I put those feelings front and center, treating them—and myself—with compassion.

Ultimately, I realized that it was my responsibility to do everything I could to halt and reverse the coming catastrophe. So I left the field of clinical psychology—which I love—and dove headfirst into activism.

In Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth I try to take readers on this same journey. To fully welcome, process, and talk about their feelings– and to turn those feelings into effective action. A modified excerpt follows below:

Living in climate truth is hard, but it’s the only way forward. Once you begin to live in climate truth, you will experience a wide range of emotions, and they will be intense. The will be upsetting and overwhelming, but that is wholly appropriate to the stakes of a crisis that is set to lead to mass destruction and death. Your painful feelings spring from the best parts of yourself, from your empathy, sense of responsibility, love for others, and love of life. these feelings connect you to all life and will fuel the work ahead.

As we explore our painful climate feelings, it’s critical to remember that all feelings are a normal, and even essential, parts of the human condition. Censoring and judging thoughts and feelings usually makes us feel worse—and it certainly doesn’t make them go away. Quite the opposite. If we can’t acknowledge our feelings, they maintain tremendous power over us. Psychotherapists and meditation teachers understand that we are healthiest when we accept—and then allow ourselves to experience—all of our thoughts and feelings without judgment and with compassion.

The best approach in almost any situation—even the most painful—is to nonjudgmentally recognize what we are feeling, consider the situation—including how our values should inform us—and then act based on a synthesis of our feelings and more rational evaluation.

Below is my best description of the emotions that I have been experiencing for the last 11 years since I started living in climate truth. I share this with you so that you might recognize similar feelings and experiences and treat yourselves with compassion in feeling them. We are, after all, two people trying to make sense of this horrifying reality we find ourselves in. At this late hour, reckoning with ecological reality is at the core of what it means to be truly engaged with life.

Fear has become my greatest motivator. It helps me keep other motives, such as my desire for narcissistic gratification, in check. I am a competitive person, so concerns about “getting credit,” or being the “best,” or “directing the most popular” organization nag me. However, I don’t deny my feelings when I feel envy or competitiveness toward another organization or climate activist. Instead, I acknowledge them and then ask myself an honest question: Do I want to be a big shot, or do I want to prevent collapse? Which is my most important priority? My answer is always the same, and I am made to remember how small and irrational my narcissistic ego needs are.

Note that I do not judge myself harshly for feeling competitive or ego-driven. It’s fine. It’s human. I simply remind myself that those feelings are not in line with my values and priorities, and I refuse to be driven by them. If I denied my competitive feelings or judged myself for experiencing them, I would be much more likely to act from feelings of competition and judgment.

In addition to fear, I feel a seemingly bottomless sadness. I am heartsick about the ecological crisis. There is so much suffering in the world now, and we are heading straight into total devastation. Human life and our natural world are the greatest blessings imaginable. This is true whether we believe life was given by God, by other spiritual forces, or by randomness. The most intelligent species is destroying itself and bringing on a sixth mass extinction. We are destroying our greatest gifts. We are choosing death.

I cannot be cynical in the face of all this loss and suffering, telling myself that humanity is irredeemable and collapse is inevitable. For me, this tragedy is all the more painful because I believe in the glorious immensity of human potential. I know that growth and change are possible in individuals and societies. In fact, as a psychologist, I believe that processing and accepting feelings with nonjudgmental self-compassion are crucial to achieving growth and transformation. Humans are excellent at responding Collaboratively and effectively when facing existential crises. That is why the gap between who we are and what we’re doing now and what we could be and do is so devastating. We are capable of so much more than this.

I also feel disgust, shame, and contempt. I am disgusted by the dehumanizing and racist death machine we call an economic and political system. I am disgusted and ashamed of myself for taking part in it. I feel disgust and contempt for everyone else who takes part in it. I feel filthy for taking part in it—it’s a stain I cannot wash off. Every day, we pump more carbon into the atmosphere, put more plastic into the ocean, cause the extinction of more species, and we do it with a smile. I sometimes wonder if, when we arrive at the pearly gates, and St. Peter is determining whether to let us into heaven, we will be faced with a pile of garbage and a C02 calculation: Time to tally up all the plastic crap and everything else we ever threw “away.”

I feel incandescent rage. It’s always there, coursing through my veins. What we are doing is wrong. It’s evil. I want to shout and scream. I have had confrontations with drivers idling their cars on the streets of New York City, but I try to avoid them. I feel angry when people post on social media about their tropical vacations. I feel angry about people “just living their lives” as normal.

I feel guilty for not doing more to solve the climate crisis: not working harder, not being more effective, not personally getting arrested, not donating more money, or otherwise sacrificing more. I feel guilty about my consumption, as well as all of the horrible things happening in the world, all of the present suffering and oppression that I am not focused on because I am focused on preventing a catastrophic breakdown in the near future. I feel guilty for my many privileges, my life of comfort. And why not? The world is so brutal and unfair. How did I end up so lucky? Sometimes I want to renounce this fallen world and live like a monk or a nun.

I feel alienation. I feel so different from people who aren’t living in climate truth. When I walk down the street in Brooklyn, and everyone is going blithely about their lives, I feel strange and different from everyone. I feel they cannot really understand me and that I cannot understand them and what I see as their petty or self-involved concerns.

On the other hand, I feel deeply connected to others when we do share our feelings about the climate emergency, and especially to the activists who are fighting for all life. And I feel deeply empowered by taking part in and supporting climate activism.

It’s so important to remember that you are not alone, even though it can often feel that way.  The Yale study, Climate Change in the American Mind, identified the “Spiral of Silence”– that only 9 percent of Americans hear people they know talk about climate change at least once a week, and only 15 percent once a month.

Yet the same study found that 35 percent of Americans are “very worried” about the climate, and another 35 percent say they are “somewhat worried.” In other words, Seventy percent of Americans are worried, but they aren’t talking about it. Instead of collective political will, they perpetuate the illusion that “everything is fine,” while feeling alone with their dismal knowledge.

It’s time for each of us to break the silence about the climate emergency—to tell the truth, loudly, and all the time. Talk about climate is the one mode of engagement that I recommend to everyone. It’s healthy, for you and your relationships, and it is highly politically effective. Start with your friends and family and expand from there. Or, if you feel more comfortable talking with strangers who you know are on a similar emotional journey, join a Climate Emotions Conversation,and talk to strangers from all over the world who understand. Or join a program with the Good Grief Network, or find out whether Extinction Rebellion or other activist groups in your area host Climate Grief Circles.  I find any situation in which people share their climate emotions feels restorative and beautiful.

After that necessary and healing processing of painful feelings, including sharing them with others– It’s critical to come out on the other side and turn that pain into action. It’s not time to give up. Not while there is still any chance of restoring a safe climate. We should choose the more challenging path of going all-in to solve the climate crisis. Let the pain be your fuel. Let your total rejection of the status quo give you the courage to transform your life, to stand out from the crowd, and to demand transformative action.

This text has been modified from Facing the Climate Emergency, Second Edition: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth by Margaret Klein Salamon 


Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD, is a clinical psychologist turned climate activist and thought leader.  She helps people and organizations face the frightening, painful truths of the climate emergency and empowers all of us to transform despair into effective “emergency mode” action. She has pursued this work as founding director of The Climate Mobilization, as Executive Director of Climate Emergency Fund, and her project Climate Awakening allows people to call from all over the world and share their climate emotions with people who understand.

Call to action: Join the disruptive climate movement, with Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, or other civil disobedience groups. If your life doesn’t allow for taking disruptive action personally, you can donate to the Climate Emergency Fund to support others. To process your climate emotions, attend a Climate Emotions Conversation online and host a Climate Grief Circle with your loved ones.