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Climate Grief: Learning How to Respond Well

Climate Grief: Learning How to Respond Well

Hannah Malcolm explores how theology allows us to unpack our grief around what climate change has taken, and will take, from us. 2/11/2021

Reports of climate and ecological grief, anxiety, and trauma have dramatically increased in the last decade – and not just in our headlines, but also in professional care settings. The American Psychological Association, for example, now offers official guidance on mental health in a changing climate.[1] For many of us, it seems as though our feelings about the death of the world are finally being recognised as a vital dimension of both behavioural change and our collective flourishing.

Yet we also live with conflicting narratives about the truth of our experiences: ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’ and ‘(all) your feelings are valid’. These claims appear at odds – but they both assume that our experiences of the world operate outside ethics. Feelings are presumed personal and in some sense inevitable (we don’t choose or change them). As such, they are beyond moral judgment. Consider this summary of climate grief from ‘Climate and Mind’, a project established by psychotherapist Andrew Bryant: 

There is no “right way” to grieve… (we should be) wary of talking about grief in terms of rigid, universal stages or tasks… having a fixed idea about how we should feel about particular loss can make it difficult to notice how we actually feel… No model can override your personal experience… (or) deny other, equally valid ways of conceiving of and working through loss.[2] 

As short–term advice for individual emotional distress, this therapeutic approach is compassionate and useful. However, climate and ecological grief is not a temporary, private state from which we can recover. Climate and ecological breakdown are grief multipliers: the sources and severity of this grief will grow over time. If we are to live well, we will need to ask how to grieve well – and admit that we can grieve badly, both in what we grieve and how we grieve. 

This is, I believe, where theology can offer a different story. 

The Christian tradition treats ‘emotions’ as bearing moral weight: they reveal the direction of our love,[3] and under the guidance of reason can be powerfully redirected towards goodness, transforming ourselves and those around us. Our emotions – our longings – are shaped by the world around us. We can learn what to grieve, and if our grief is poorly directed or dysfunctional, we can learn again what is worthy of sorrow and what is not. Your feelings are real, but not all of them are good, or useful, or an approximation of truth about the world. 

How do we know if our grief is good? In the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo launched a powerful defence of the passion of sorrow against the stoics of his day.[4] While the Stoics maintained that the truly wise could control their passions so completely that they would not experience sorrow at all, Augustine argued that sorrow was a fitting response to brokenness and even a virtue:

Sorrow…, which the Stoics would not allow to be represented in the mind of the wise man, is used in a good sense, and especially in our writings. For the apostle praises the Corinthians because they had a godly sorrow… according to sacred Scriptures and sound doctrine, the citizens of the holy city of God, who live according to God in the pilgrimage of this life, both fear and desire, and grieve and rejoice. And because their love is rightly placed, all these affections of theirs are right.[5] 

Sorrow can, however, also be the product of a poorly directed will; we can grieve things we shouldn’t grieve, and that should provoke self–examination and the desire to redirect our longings. His approach would later be adopted by Thomas Aquinas, who would likewise treat sorrow as morally powerful, and to a certain extent something our will can direct.[6] 

Augustine and Aquinas both looked to Christ as exemplar for fitting sorrow. In his sorrow over the sins of Jerusalem (Luke 19), over his imminent crucifixion (Mark 14), and over his dead friend Lazarus (John 11), he offers a model of sorrow over sin, death, and suffering: 

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you put him?” He asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they answered. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how He loved him!” (John 11:33–36, NRSV) 

1500 years later, liberation theologies would also turn to Christ’s sorrow, though not so much as model, but as a sign of his solidarity. Black liberation theologians like Howard Thurman and James Cone would emphasise that Christ sorrows because he comes to us as one of the poor, the suffering, the oppressed. These two approaches – Christ’s sorrow as exemplar and Christ’s sorrow as solidarity – can direct our grief. We learn what we should sorrow over, and whose sorrow is echoed at the very heart of God. 

As far as we know, Christ did not weep over animal death or barren land. If sorrow can be read as a spiritual or moral condition, is it appropriate to experience it in relation to the death of the non–human? Theologically speaking, climate grief should involve sorrow over sin and its consequences, not only as a therapeutic coping mechanism but as prayer: naming our grief and the griefs of others, acknowledging our culpability, asking for God’s help. 

In the Christian tradition, this prayerful grief and anger is called lament. Lament’s communal nature also makes its expression useful in teaching each other what is worthy of grief in the eyes of God. Good climate grief is not, for example, compatible with a continued desire for wealth accumulation and power, or a narrowed focus on our own anxiety and loss. Expressing climate grief through lament will also teach us to treat the world with fitting humility, our prayer framed by the conviction that we are not gods on a dead planet. We are creatures on a living planet, who have much to repent, much to rejoice in, much to learn. 

A theological approach to climate and ecological grief dethrones us: it demands that we examine ourselves honestly, admitting the ways our grief can become nihilistic, self–involved, destructive (and the ways we have driven loss ourselves). It demands a humble response, driven by love, rather than belief in our own rightness or power. And it redirects our will: away from our own comforts and towards the flourishing of those whose sorrow was embodied by Christ, the man of sorrows, our teacher. 

If you enjoyed this blog, you can find our COP26 series here.

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[1] American Psychological Association (A)A. Mental Health and our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications and Guidance. APA, 2017 (

[2] Bryant, A., ‘What is Climate Grief?’ (

[3] In particular, this is a theme found in St Augustine’s writings: ‘Love, then, yearning to have what is loved, is desire; and having and enjoying it, is joy; fleeing what is opposed to it, is fear; and feeling what is opposed to it, when it has befallen it, it is sadness. Now these motions are evil if the love is evil; good if the love is good.’ Augustine, The City of God, Book 14, Ch 7

[4] Augustine, The City of God, Book 14.

[5] Ibid., Chapters 8 & 9

[6] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Prima Secundae Partis.

Photo Credit: VladimirYa / Shutterstock

Hannah Malcolm

Hannah Malcolm

Hannah Malcolm is an ordinand in the Church of England and is writing a PhD on a theology of climate and ecological grief. She is on the board of Operation Noah, and regularly speaks and writes about climate justice and the church. She is the editor of Words for a Dying World: Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church (SCM Press, 2020).


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Posted 2 November 2021

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