Thinking about loss raises the question of what response is most appropriate.

A 2009 paper (Randall, 2009) listed several types of loss in relation to climate change, most importantly absolute loss, transitional loss and anticipatory loss. All of these losses inevitably involve grief and mourning of some kind.

Loss: absolute, transitional, anticipatory and ambiguous

Examples of absolute loss are the 150,000 deaths estimated to be caused annually through climate change (WHO); the extinction of species; and the losses of home or livelihood brought about by drought, storm, flood or rising sea levels. These devastating and traumatic losses are often what first comes to mind in relation to climate change, but they are also frequently turned away from by those who are not suffering them.

The idea of transitional loss is helpful in thinking about how people in the over-developed countries make the shift to a sustainable, low-carbon life in which many of the luxuries of modern life are absent or rare. Transitional losses typically occur as people pass from one life stage to another, shift status or change job. The new state may compensate for the loss of the old – as for example when marriage is felt to compensate for the loss of sexual freedom – but it may not. There may be little in old age that makes up for the loss of physical capacity. As the transition to a sustainable low-carbon life is perpetually postponed, the pain of transitional loss is likely to increase.

Anticipatory loss originally described the experiences of those who know that someone they care for is terminally ill (Parkes, 1975). It is a useful term for describing the complexity of the grief felt by those involved in campaigning or research when they think about what climate change may bring and also the distress and anger which those who are (for example) watching the sea level inexorably rise around their homes may feel, not knowing how long they have or exactly what may transpire. Anticipatory loss is also what many of those who remain in states of disavowal are avoiding.

More recently the idea of ambiguous loss, first proposed by Pauline Boss in the 1970s to describe the experiences of families of soldiers missing in action, has been used to describe those losses which have begun but whose endpoint is unknown (Meehan, 2018).

Appropriate responses

Thinking about loss raises the question of what response is most appropriate. Psychologically, it is essential to feel the grief and to mourn but beyond that there are many different routes.
Some contemporary projects have chosen to memorialise the losses of climate change and environmental degradation through public art, hoping thereby to facilitate the expression of grief. The Memo project on the Dorset coast plans a memorial in Portland stone to commemorate plants and animals that have become extinct in modern times.

Others focus on reparation, for example the Repair Acts project which looks “...towards the disconnect and the discarded, what is in ruin and broken as a means through which to reimagine what we define as growth”.

A third response to terrible loss is political action, embodied most powerfully in movements such as Act Up (1990s response to the Aids crisis) and the contemporary Black Lives Matter. The idea of healing justice, which is an essential part of such movements, may have a particular resonance for climate activists struggling to find expression for their grief.


Meehan, C. (2018). Besides, I’ll be dead. London Review of Books, 22 February 2018. Available at: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n04/meehan-crist/besides-ill-be-dead (Review of Goodell, J. (2017). The water will come: rising seas, sinking cities and the remaking of the civilised world. New York: Little, Brown and Company).

Murray, C.M. (1975). Bereavement: studies of grief in adult life. London: Penguin.

Randall, R. (2009). Loss and climate change: the cost of parallel narratives. Ecopsychology 1:3. Available at: https://climateaccess.org/system/files/Randall_Loss%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf

World Health Organisation [online]. Deaths from climate change. Available at: http://www.who.int/heli/risks/climate/climatechange/en/ [Accessed April 2018]

Photo: Extinction rebellion protest, Oxford Circus, London. 23 November 2018. Taken by David Holt. Creative Commons License. See https://www.flickr.com/photos/zongo/46017222011

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