Expert Panel Talks ‘Climate Grief’ and Environmental Action


Last fall, days after Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Dan Suarez gave a talk branding climate change the impending end of the world, Kyle Freiler ’19 walked into Suarez’s office in a panic. He was experiencing what the American Psychological Association now recognizes as climate grief: the shock, hopelessness and despair that result from worsening effects of climate change. Freiler called it an awakening.

“I think what Kyle is going through is akin to a microcosm of what a lot of people are going through,” Suarezsaid. “How do you find your way in this world? What do you do? How do you live in it?”

While Freiler’s climate awakening was beginning, he and Charlotte Massey ’19 were in the process of arranging speakers for a panel sponsored by the Symposium Philosophy Club and the Debate Society. Inspired by his awakening, Freiler wanted to host a panel discussion with leading environmental thinkers. Suarez suggested Rupert Read, an activist, environmental think tank leader and member of England’s Green Party, as one panelist. Bill McKibben, co-founder of and Middlebury’s Schumann Distinguished Scholar, was an obvious choice. Suarez and Keiler reached out to several contributors to the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report before selecting Kim Cobb, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Georgia Tech and the lead coauthor of the 2018 IPCC report.

Freiler told The Campus that he asked Suarez to moderate because of his role in bringing in panelists and because “he’s young, he’s in the same boat as us, and he has a really clear-eyed look at the problem.”

Suarez moderated the resulting panel, “Climate Change: What Should I Do About It? How Can I Live With It?” in Wilson Hall last Monday. Read and McKibben appeared in person. Cobb spoke via videoconference, because she adheres to a strict personal carbon budget that limits her ability to fly.

Middlebury President Laurie L. Patton introduced the panel, drawing on the words of former French president François Hollande: “The time is past when humankind thought it could selfishly draw on exhaustible resources. We know now the world is not a commodity.”

In his own opening remarks, Suarez said, “It wouldn’t be quite right to say that it is my pleasure, exactly, to be with you here today, although it is, given the circumstances that have brought us together. And specifically the bewildering and preposterously grave seriousness that defines our subject matter.”

The panel aimed to confront the discomfort, anger, heartbreak and fear felt by many in the face of climate change, and to investigate the perennial question: what is to be done? By forcing reevaluations through exploration of justice and injustice, the panelists urged attendees to reject complacency — as Suarez said, “finally facing what needs to be faced.”

Read was the first of the panelists to give his opening statement. Stepping to the podium as Suarez returned to his seat, he said, “Your so-called leaders have failed you. Your parents, I’m sure, mean well, but they and their generation have failed you. Your teachers, despite their best intentions, have failed you. And we, despite our best endeavors, even we have failed you. We’ve all failed you because we are sending you, naked and unprepared, into a deteriorating future.” He went on to say that the Paris Agreement was “a voluntary agreement to do far too little to stop catastrophic climate change from occurring,” that climate-related agricultural breakdown will end the lives of some audience members long before rising sea levels inundate Boston and New York, and that the older generation has failed younger ones through complacency.

Love, Read said, caring enough about life, wilderness, future generations and encouraging one another to really show up to the climate fight, are the only things that can propel humanity through this.

Cobb opened by talking about her own wake-up call. For most of her career as a climate scientist, she thought climate change was someone else’s problem to fix, while her own role was to publish papers and raise her four children. That changed in 2017, when, over just five months, she witnessed the death of 90 percent of the corals at her Pacific research site, Christmas Island, which she described as an “absolute tropical paradise.” Soon after, she started biking to work and created her carbon budget.

“I know that the young people today will fix this,” Cobb said. “I have absolutely all the confidence in you guys. And it’s my job to try to give you the best head start that I possibly can.”

McKibben tied it all back to the iron law of climate change: “The less you did to cause it, the more and more quickly you suffer its effects.”

“How do we do this better?” Suarez asked, referring to the work of educators in guiding students in the face of climate change.

Read said that climate grief can be liberating. It eliminates the expectation of a predictable future, freeing people from the assumption that comfort is to be expected. It offers people the chance to be part of the generation that tries to save the future.

“In my experience,” McKibben said, “the great antidote to angst about all this is to be engaged in thefight.”

The discussion moved to the need for a massive change in consciousness related to climate change. Cobb said there has already been a rapid shift in public opinion in recent years. Read urged everyone to keep warning people, to take them into threatened nature, and to spread the messages of the panel.

Read said that the degree of transformation necessary to combat climate change is roughly equivalent to the human revolution — when humans first evolved. And it needs to happen fast: unless people make a serious start at turning things around in the next eighteen months, it will be impossible to complete that task within the eleven years before the consequences of climate change become even more disastrous.

“The polling in this country took its most decisive shift in the week or two after the fires in California,” McKibben said, describing the shift in people’s understanding of what is natural and normal and obvious. “Watching a town literally called Paradise literally turn into hell in half an hour had a sobering effect on a lot of people.”

“This is the world we now live in, whether folks choose to accept it or not,” Suarez told The Campus. He emphasized that in this exceptional moment of urgency, as climate change finally catches up with those who have been most responsible and most insulated from its effects, the issue of privilege, and the influences of responsibility and complicity, should not be overlooked.