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The five stages of climate change acceptance

By Andrew T. Guzman


A few days ago, the President of the United States used the State of the Union address to call for action on climate change. The easy way to do so would have been to call on Congress to take action. Had President Obama framed his remarks in this way, he would have given a nod to those concerned about climate change, but nothing would happen because there is virtually no chance of Congressional action. What he actually did, however, was to put some of his own political capital on the line by promising executive action if Congress fails to address the issue. The President, assuming he meant what he said, has apparently accepted the need for a strong policy response to this threat.

Not everybody agrees. There has long been a political debate on the subject of climate change, even though the scientific debate has been settled for years. In recent months, perhaps in response to Hurricane Sandy, the national drought of 2012, and the fact that 2012 was the hottest year in the history of the United States, there seems to have been a shift in the political winds.

Oblique view of Grinnell Glacier taken from the summit of Mount Gould, Glacier National Park in 1938. The glacier has since largely receded. In addition to glacier melt, rising temperatures will lead to unprecedented pressures on our agricultural systems and social infrastructure, writes Andrew T. Guzman. Image by T.J. Hileman, courtesy of Glacier National Park Archives.

In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described the “five stages” of acceptance:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. For many years, climate change discussions seemed to be about getting our politics past the “denial” stage. Over time, however, scientific inquiry made it obvious that climate change is happening and that it is the result of human activity. With more than 97% of climate scientists and every major scientific body of relevance in the United States in agreement that the threat is real, not to mention a similar consensus internationally, it became untenable to simply refuse to accept the reality of climate change.

The next stage was anger. Unable to stand on unvarnished denials, skeptics lashed out, alleging conspiracies and secret plots to propagate the myth of climate change. In 2003, Senator Inhofe from Oklahoma said, “Could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it.” In 2009 we had “climategate.” More than a thousand private emails between climate scientists were stolen and used in an attempt (later debunked) to show a conspiracy to fool the world.

Now, from the right, come signs of a move to bargaining. On 13 February, Senator Marco Rubio reacted to the President’s call for action on climate change, but he did not do so by denying the phenomenon itself or accusing the President of having being duped by a grand hoax.  He stated instead, “The government can’t change the weather. There are other countries that are polluting in the atmosphere much greater than we are at this point. They are not going to stop.” Earlier this month he made even more promising statements: “There has to be a cost-benefit analysis [applied] to every one of these principles.” This is not anger or denial. This is bargaining. As long as others are not doing enough, he suggests, we get to ignore the problem.

It is, apparently, no longer credible for a presidential hopeful like Senator Rubio to deny the very existence of the problem. His response, instead, invites a discussion about what can be done. What if we could get the key players: Europe, China, India, the United States, and Russia to the table and find a way for all of them to lower their emissions? If the voices of restraint are concerned that our efforts will not be fruitful, we can talk about what kinds of actions can improve the climate.

To be fair, Senator Rubio has not totally abandoned denials. While engaging in what I have called “bargaining” above, he also threw in, almost in passing, “I know people said there’s a significant scientific consensus on that issue, but I’ve actually seen reasonable debate on that principle.” In December he declared himself “not qualified” to opine on whether climate change is real. These are denials, but they are issued without any passion; his heart is not in it. They seem more like pro forma statements, perhaps to satisfy those who have not yet made the step from denial and anger to bargaining.

If leaders on the right have reached the bargaining stage, the next stage is depression. What will that look like? One possibility is a full embrace of the science of climate change coupled with a fatalistic refusal to act. “It is too late, the planet is already cooked and nothing we can do will matter.”  When you start hearing these statements from those who oppose action, take heart; we will be close to where we need to get politically. Though it will be tempting to point out that past inaction was caused by the earlier stages of denial, anger, and bargaining, nothing will be gained by such recriminations. The path forward requires continuing to make the case not only for the existence of climate change, but also for strategies to combat it.

The final stage, of course, is acceptance. At that point, the country will be prepared to do something serious about climate change. At that point we can have a serious national (and international) conversation about how to respond. Climate change will affect us all, and we need to get to acceptance as soon as possible. In short, climate change will tear at the very fabric of our society. It will compromise our food production and distribution, our water supply, our transportation systems, our health care systems, and much more. The longer we wait to act, the more difficult it will be to do so.  All of this means that movement away from simple denial to something closer to acceptance is encouraging.  The sooner we get there, the better.

Andrew T. Guzman is Professor of Law and Associate Dean for International and Executive Education at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change and How International Law Works, among others.

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Recent Comments

  1. Jen Smith

    Very informative. Climate change seems to be inevitable and the last thing we can do is accept and respond to it with the best means that we can.thanks for sharing!

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