It's not all in your head

These people are literally having climate change nightmares

Elena Scotti/FUSION

Scientists and others who work with the topic of climate change have reported having nightmares about its impacts.

“I’ve had nightmares of a dystopian future — think Soylent Green or Mad Max,” said Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Pennsylvania State University and director of its Earth System Science Center.

Mann was featured in the new Leonardo DiCaprio climate change documentary, Before the Flood, which showed how much is at risk if we do nothing to reduce fossil fuel emissions.

Entire island nations like the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean could disappear under rising seas. Snow and ice could disappear throughout much of the world. Countless species could go extinct — making our future almost unrecognizable.

“When I first dove into covering (climate change) and was researching the extent of the crisis, I had one quite dramatic nightmare.”

“When I first dove into covering (climate change) and was researching the extent of the crisis, I had one quite dramatic nightmare,” said Dahr Jamail, a reporter for Truthout who covers the topic.

“It was simply a vision of a future Earth that was mostly barren of biological activity, one scarred by resource wars, and having seen a massive die off of humans, given we are already well into the sixth mass extinction event,” Jamail said.

Jamail said his nightmare was influenced by the fact that so little international action has been taken to address the problem.

Jason Box, a glaciology professor at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, said the climate crisis feels more and more like a nightmare while he is awake, although he has had nightmares about it too.

“I have nightmares about how my own publications are lagging so far behind in informing what the implications of land ice melting are,” Box said. Humans have already set in motion conditions that could eventually raise sea levels dozens of feet.

Like Jamail, Box talked about the mass extinction event happening around the world.

“Humans are not going away, just most other life is being hammered…for example the World Wildlife Fund report on how two-thirds of animals will be gone by 2020, but all people talk about is their grandchildren,” Box said.

Nine-year-old climate activist Levi Draheim of Indialantic, FL, reported having nightmares about sea level rise, said Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust. The nonprofit legal organization has filed a lawsuit on behalf of 21 youth including Draheim against the federal government over climate change.

“Levi, who’s nine for instance, talks about waking up with nightmares about sea level rise and what’s happening in Florida to his community.”

“I think there’s a fear and a sadness,” Olson said. “Levi, who’s nine for instance, talks about waking up with nightmares about sea level rise and what’s happening in Florida to his community.”

“He watches his community use sandbags to try to prepare for inundations,” Olson said.

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Psychiatrists say the nightmares are unsurprising, given that climate change is causing widespread anxiety.

“The reality is that we’re talking about anxiety disorders…but this is not a disorder,” said Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist based in Washington, DC.

“Civilization is on the tracks and you can see the train coming. That’s not a disorder, that’s responding to reality,” Van Susteren said.

Current warming puts the Earth on track for “several meters” (around 10 feet) of sea level rise in the coming century, former NASA scientist James Hansen has said.

That would swamp most coastal cities and strengthen storms, Hansen said. The last time Earth was 2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-Industrial times, oceans were 18-27 feet higher than they are now. Currently, humans have warmed average temperatures by over 1 C.

The global climate treaty signed in Paris last year called on world governments to take action to keep the average temperature rise to well below 2 C, with a goal of 1.5 C.

“We are all hearing it, and we are suppressing it,” Van Susteren said.

“No one missed the memo. The godawful fires, super this, super that, temperatures that are breaking records season after season,” Van Susteren said.

What people don’t realize is that they are suppressing the reality of climate change in much the same way that they suppress the reality of their own death.

“We all know it’s coming but it just hangs there — we do what we can to avoid thinking and talking about it.”

“We all know it’s coming but it just hangs there — we do what we can to avoid thinking and talking about it,” Van Susteren said.

That suppressed anxiety and concern over climate change can make people feel powerless, including leaders, Renee Lertzman, an applied researcher focusing on the psychological dimensions of climate and environmental engagement and communication said in an article on Huffington Post.

“Climate change is arguably traumatic, for everyone including our leaders,” Lertzman said.

“They can see that this is a real issue, but they don’t know or see what they can do about it, so unconsciously they decide to remove themselves from the issue,” Lertzman said.

An example of that denial can be seen in Florida Governor Rick Scott — who banned use of the term “climate change” even as Draheim’s community was being flooded by relentless sea level rise.

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The physical impacts of climate change are not hard to measure, even if some continue to suppress the reality of the situation, Van Susteren said.

But how do you measure the psychological impacts, and how many patients showing up in psychiatrists’ offices complaining of anxiety are really worried about climate change and the unrecognizable future it promises, Van Susteren questioned.

While nightmares can be frightening, climate change may take a serious psychological toll, mental health experts have said. When the impacts of climate change destroy someone’s home or livelihood, the stress can be devastating. Those exposed to extreme weather disasters can have mental health consequences ranging from PTSD, to depression, to anxiety and suicides.

All of this creates an underlying anxiety that can cause nightmares, but the real nightmare is the reality of climate change playing out during the day, scientists said.

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“I have not had nightmares about climate change — most of my fears play out in my day-to-day work and I somehow block them out of my sleep time,” said Cameron Wake, research professor of climate and glaciology at the University of New Hampshire.

Matthew Huber, a professor at Purdue University, echoed that, saying, “I work on some of the more horrific aspects of climate change but I’ve never had a climate change nightmare.”

Huber’s research found that there is an “adaptability limit” to climate change due to heat stress that could be reached due to fossil fuel burning.

That means temperatures could become unlivable for humans.

“We may not survive this, so we suppress this information because it preserves our mood,” Van Susteren said, adding that we are hardwired to suppress very stressful information.

What’s worse, Van Susteren said, was that we all know deep down that our inaction on climate change — whether at the national or personal level — is an act of aggression towards future generations.

“We know what’s going to happen to future generations and we’re going ‘lalalala’ to try to keep ourselves from hearing it,” Van Susteren said.

“When you put people in harm’s way … there’s a name for it: it’s called aggression,” Van Susteren said.

Instead of continuing this act of aggression against future generations by doing nothing about climate change, or arguing that it won’t affect your generation, the way to ease anxiety over the issue is to realize we are not powerless, Van Susteren said.

As individuals, we can take action to shrink our carbon footprints. We can also vote for leaders who will take action on climate change, Van Susteren said.

Climate scientists were also hopeful.

“The price of alternative energy is falling quickly, and I think that at some point soon we’ll switch to renewables because they’re cheaper than fossil fuels, without any government policy,” said Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University.

“The only thing that worries me — and may start giving me nightmares — is the possibility that politicians, bureaucrats, and special interests try to actively suppress renewable energy and prevent the natural switch to it,” Dessler said.