The Five Stages: Denial to Determination

Acceptance of and understanding of Global Warming is an overwhelming action. Truly understanding what we (all of the US and all of us) face commands decisions about how one will interact with the globe from that moment on. Now, for better or worse, there are many (often illegitimate) reasons for skepticism about Global Warming. One of these is, quite clearly, an emotional desire to avoid having to face those decisions in the face. But, there is a path toward that decision point. For quite good reasons, that path is very closed to that outlined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in Death and Denying for dealing with life's tragedies.

  1. Denial,
  2. Skepticism (anger for dealing with grief)
  3. Delay (bargaining)
  4. Depression
  5. Activism (acceptance)


Again, there are many motivations that drive deniers and skeptics. At the very beginning, this is such a huge problem, so overwhelming, so outside the individual perspective, that the "norm" begins at denial: even if that denial is simply childish ignorance of the potential of such an overwhelming problem in face of the immensity of the threat and what it might mean for any/all of us.

There are those who will simply never leave denier stage, whether for theological, ideological, financial, or determined ignorance.  Poster child #1:  Senator James Inhofe (R-Exxon).

But, for those not so constitutionally incapable of facing reality, of those whose ignorance (or fascination with Bachelor Hawaii) inhibits their ability to absorb facts, facts and information will foster knowledge that there is a problem, that something is going on that merits attention. But, how much attention? That question naturally leads to ...

Skepticism… the ability to question unquestioned beliefs and stated certainties is a powerful intellectual tool. Sadly, “skepticism” is receiving a bad name through association with those ready, willing, able, and enthusiastic about denying the reality before their (and our) own eyes about the global changes in climate patterns and humanity’s role in driving these changes. But, stepping back, skepticism is the normal phase after Denial.

Okay, so someone realizes (admits) that something is happening. Then they might question: Is this serious? Does humanity have anything to do with it? Does it involve me? (Do I have anything to do with the problem? And, does Global Warming affect me?) Do I have anything to say about what will happen in the future?

Again, for those open to facts and information, the answers become clear. Yes, it is serious. Yes, humanity has something to do with causing this problem (and is driving the majority of what is happening). Yes, it has something to do with every single person. And, Global Warming affects every person. And, yes, every person in the globe (okay, not infants) make decisions every day that have implications for global warming (whether individually miniscule or larger).

Understanding and accepting these facts, this reality leads naturally to the next stage ...

Delay ...

Having accepting reality, the natural human reaction to an uncertain, large, seemingly intangible problem is avoidance. Natural for an individual. Natural for a community. Natural for society. The item on the top of the "in-box" has our attention, not the project due six months from now. The distractions of daily life (of the time urgent) often has priority over issues of longer-term.

Change is difficult for most due to fear of the uncertain. And, for many, the types of change that fully acknowledging Global Warming's implications would require are simply inconvenient (even if a truth).  There are those who enjoy jetting around the world, leaving the lights on, leaving the McSUV's engine running while they drive 100 yards from their home to their child's bus stop to keep their kid warm when "it is too cold" and leave it running while chatting outside with the neighbors after the bus has picked up their precious and fragile one (50 degrees ... real story ... no cynicism here).    Captured in their comfort, these people have not truly absorbed

There are others, far from able to engage in such extravagant wastefulness, who argue that there are such serious problems today as individuals (putting gasoline in the tank and putting food on the table, paying the rent) and society (health care, schools, stimulating the economy) that dealing with a problem 'decades in the future' is simply an unaffordable luxury.

Delay, as well, is a device by those who have seen facts overwhelming denial and skepticism. Yes, they might state, Global Warming is real but it is so immense that we can't solve it without some new magical invention. This comes with many variations. Whether well meaning (by passionate technology enthusiast) or more venal (someone seeking to maximize profit from polluting behavior), the "technology will solve everything" and "invest in R&D" is a quite dangerous trap that will trap humanity into a cycle of ever worsening catastrophic climate change.

Thus, the convincing of someone that tomorrow's technology isn't a 'silver bullet' often comes when they realize the full extent of the problem and the very (VERY) serious implications for unchecked global warming.  These potential paths are quite terrifying and can drive people to


Wow. We stare disaster in the face.  Terror.  Time to crawl under the covers.  The world as we know it is behind us. And, so much is requires to be done and there are so many standing in the way of getting things done.

Okay, let's just face facts.  The situation is dire. And, it will be difficult to move from where we are to where we need to be.  Remaining mired in depression does not provide any more promise for a better tomorrow than occurs with denial, skepticism, and/or delay.

Surrender to the despair and one gives up on the future prospects for any and all of us.

And, the answer to "depression" and despair is that we have a choice:  Global warming is serious.  Yes, it will undoubtably worsen. But, we have a choice and ability to influence (even control) just how badly it will get and whether if it will peak and turn to an improving situation in the coming decades.  Abandoning oneself to despair and depression dooms society to never reaching that turning point toward a better situation.


So, we have gone through the stages. It is time to act. And, action is multifaceted and comples. It is the three Rs in our own and society's lives (reduce use, use renewable power, and remediate).

It is making the right choice not just the easy choice but also the preferred choice (for individuals, communities, businesses, governments) as to being Energy Smart to reduce our footprints.

It is figuring our how to Energize America (and the globe) toward a prosperous, climate-friendly society.

But, most importantly, for the United States, it is voting right to change government policy for the better.  
A final thought

One way to look at the Climate Reality campaign: it is an effort to get people to move more quickly through the stages.

We can solve it ... if we choose to.

What's your choice?

NOTE: Drafted in 2007, independently of my original work on this (back in 2006, first openly published in 2008) was Steve Running's five stages of climate grief. Today, Daphne Wysham added to it in the Six States of Climate Grief.




"All of the Above" ...

with the embrace of Arctic Drilling and gushing over natural gas, doesn't tackle climate change mitigation. As a very articulate person puts it, 'we have to keep the grease in the ground' and too many of the promoted "all of the above' policies are about getting grease out of the ground.