Climate grief and perceptions of time

If you haven’t watched Arrival, I recommend you do so before reading this. It’s unlike any other first contact movie I’m aware of, and it’s worth experiencing un-spoiled. I’ll add that it is not, in any sense, a horror or action movie.

We are now caught in the storm of climate change. We have entered an age of endless recovery, and because of that, we need to make major changes to how we run things as part of our efforts to recover from disasters. It’s common for the process of rebuilding to include measures taken to reduce the damage next time a disaster occurs – it’s why we see different architecture evolve in places that are more vulnerable to things like earthquakes, for example. But with the climate warming at an accelerating rate, we cannot afford to be reactive. The scientific method can act like a strobe light on a stormy sea, giving us glimpses of the ever-shifting future. It’s not enough for us to plot out every wave that will hit our ship, but it will show us where the big swells and troughs are, and help us steer into them in a way that will reduce our chances of capsizing.

-Grim Reaping: Climate change and agriculture

In the movie Arrival, the main character Louise learns a non-linear alien language. In doing so, her understanding of time changes, as does her ability to perceive time, as it relates to her own life. Rather than living her life as a sequence of events, and the memories of those events, she begins to live all moments in her life simultaneously, experiencing them as they connect to each other. As she held her husband for the first time, she could remember all the other times she would hold him in the future, as well as the eventual failure of their relationship.

In the first moments of the movie, we hear Louise as narrator, speaking to her daughter as we watch a montage of Hannah’s birth, life, and childhood death of a rare and incurable disease. As the plot progresses, we realize that all the flashbacks Louise is having of her daughter’s life are actually glimpses forward in time. Before she even started a romantic relationship with Hannah’s father, Louise already remembered the entirety of Hannah’s life, and the heartbreak of losing her, and of losing the husband who blamed her for not trying to change the future and spare them all the pain.

While it’s never explicitly stated, I think the movie implies that the future is actually set. It doesn’t seem likely that Louise had the option of not having Hannah, and losing her. It was grief she knew was coming. At the same time, she also had all the memories of Hannah’s life – not just the pain of loss, but the joy of raising and loving a child. All the happiness and sorrow of a human life, laid out in advance.

The scientific method can act like a strobe light on a stormy sea, giving us glimpses of the ever-shifting future. It’s not enough for us to plot out every wave that will hit our ship, but it will show us where the big swells and troughs are, and help us steer into them in a way that will reduce our chances of capsizing. Unlike Louise, we can’t access our own futures to inform our present actions. Instead we just have those glimpses – clear enough to know what’s coming on a large scale, and obscure enough that many can shore up their denial by focusing on what we don’t know, to avoid confronting what we do.

When we do look at what we know, it’s hard to see much beyond the death. Arrival starts with the tragedy of a mother losing her daughter. Bad times stand out to us. In society as it exists, much of what we do involves avoiding bad experiences, and seeking good ones. The highs and the lows stand out to us, but when we learn of potential suffering in our future, it captures our attention, and we try to avoid it. That’s true when we see a rattlesnake on the trail ahead, and it’s true when we see the horrors of climate change on the horizon.

And with something like climate change, confronting reality also means accepting that at this point, there’s almost no chance that we can avoid tragedy on a scale that’s difficult to process.

You’re driving through your home town, and then, for just a minute, you can see the familiar landscape stripped barren by drought and famine, or engulfed in flames like the images we’ve seen from the United States, and Canada, and Greece, and so many other places. Can you grieve for people who haven’t died? I suppose that’s nothing new. What else do you call it when you fear the death of someone you love? When your brain conjures the image of life without them?

But that’s just worrying. It’s our imaginations creating something that could happen – we know it happens to other people “all the time”, but there’s no particular reason to think that it will. We calm those fears with the reminder that it happens to other people, at least until it does happen to us. We all know death is coming for us, sooner or later. We generally go through life ignoring that, because we can’t change it. Worrying about it too much can consume us.

I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.
When’s it gonna get me?
In my sleep, Seven feet ahead of me?
If I see it comin’ do I run or do I let it be?
Hamilton: My shot

Death is certain. We take steps to come to terms with that fact. We work to prepare ourselves and each other for every time we witness the end of a life – and all of us will witness that in one way or another.

Climate change is killing people now. It will kill a great many more within our lifetimes. It’s very possible that by the end of my life, the human population will be reduced by hundreds of millions due to heat, famine, and other climate-driven catastrophes. I can’t see their faces but I can see enough to know that they are dying and I can’t stop it. I can’t even see enough to know whether I will be among their number, though I’d like not to be.

I want to keep watch, and to see if that strobe will show me a glimpse of hope before I lose the ability to experience. Even if I don’t, well – I’ll live till then, and do what I can to provide that hope for someone else. Is that all we can do? Keep ourselves going by telling ourselves that there’s a good future out there, that we just can’t see yet?


Have you lost someone you love? Have you lost a pet you’ve had for years? Have you ended a relationship that used to give you joy? The pain can be unbearable. In the middle of it, it’s hard to notice anything else. But the pain at the end isn’t all there is to life, and it’s not all there is to death. Raksha, my dog, is going to die soon. It’s not that she has a set prognosis or anything, it’s that she’s 14 years old, has arthritis, and can’t see well. In general, 15 years is the upper limit for dogs like her. A couple years ago Tegan and I decided that the primary consideration was giving her as good a life as we can in the time she has left. Inflicting the pain of invasive treatments wouldn’t be worth the extra couple months it might buy, especially since we can’t explain what’s happening to her.

It’s going to suck when it happens. I try not to think about it.

Do I regret the 14 years I’ve spent living with her? No. Will I? Maybe sometimes, but I wouldn’t be who I am without having had her in my life. In the end, it’s not about the end, it’s about everything else.

The future looks bleak. If humanity makes it through to the other side of this nightmare we’ve crafted for ourselves, I doubt it will be in my lifetime. Even so, I’ll keep fighting to bring the world I want to create closer to me, and in the meantime, seek happiness around me as I go.

Due to my immigration status, this is my only form of income for the foreseeable future, and it’s currently not enough to make ends meet. If you like the work I do, please share it around, and please consider supporting me at It costs as little as $1 per month (though more is appreciated), and gets you access to a little bit of extra content, and early access to some things like my climate-related short stories.


  1. klatu says

    A couple years ago Tegan and I decided that the primary consideration was giving her as good a life as we can in the time she has left.

    What more can you do? Getting old is always a terrible thing, in a lot a ways. Ursula K. LeGuin once talked about it beautifully. She called it being “diminished”. The older you get, the more diminished your life becomes. It’s maybe not a hopeful message. But the journey doesn’t have to be all terrible, either.

    I’m sure your dog has had a pretty decent doggy life, all things considered. Death is simply part of nature, yada yada platitudes. My sympathies, either way.

    The future looks bleak. If humanity makes it through to the other side of this nightmare we’ve crafted for ourselves, I doubt it will be in my lifetime.

    I totally get you about the fear of death of others. The older I get, the more I dread the prospect of my parents dying. I know it will happen at some point. The messed up thing is that I know their lives will have been better than mine is likely to ever be. And my nieces’ and nephews’ children will inherit a dying world.

    The future for most other animals looks just as bleak as ours, sadly. We’re facing another PT level extinction event here. And we’re betting on being part of those 2-4% of surviving species. What we’re doing is not only cruel to ourselves, it’s cruel to most every living thing on this stupidly improbable planet.

    You are not alone in worrying about the future. Or in worrying about worrying about the future. Among many other costs, climate change brings with it a severe mental health tax.

    (As for Arrival, I unfortunately found the movie kind of boring, no matter its craftsmanship. Oh well…)

  2. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Hijacking this thread. I think I finally have a clean direct question that can clear up any remaining significant confusion that I might have.

    Quoting Amory Lovins

    But even if — contrary to most fusion experts’ expectations — fusion turns out to be a clean source of energy as advertised, I think we would lack the discipline to use it with restraint. If you ask me, it’d be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it. We ought to be looking for energy sources that are adequate for our needs, but that won’t give us the excesses of concentrated energy with which we could do mischief to the earth or to each other.

    Agree or disagree?

    I vehemently disagree.

    Sorry for imposing and hijacking, but if you could briefly answer this question, it would really help me understand where you’re coming from. I’ve recently come to the frightening realization that far from a fringe position, this appears to have wide acceptance and maybe even has majority acceptance among Green-aligned voters, e.g. Democratic voters who support the Green New Deal.

  3. says

    @gerard – It’s sort of a mix. I disagree with their conclusion.

    I think that if we get everything fusion advocates promise, and nothing else in society changes, then sure – it will be misused, just like fire is often “misused”.

    Hell, it’ll probably be misused even with the changes I want, some of the time – people do stupid things.

    But that’s not a reason not to go for it. It’s a reason to change how our society works. If control over fusion energy is left in the hands of capitalists and their lackeys, then I think we would see artificial scarcity come into play, as it has with every other form of abundance we’ve created.

    I also think that the ubiquity of this belief is probably more like the ubiquity of support for single-payer healthcare. A majority of Americans like it in theory, but they have worries that can show up as opposition, and their desire for a universal system may not be strong enough to sway their voting, if they have a reliable job and good insurance.

    I suspect a lot of the people who agree in general with the sentiment wouldn’t take to the streets to stop fusion power plants from being built (absent a propaganda campaign, I suppose), and also don’t believe it’s anything more than a fairly abstract hypothetical – we’re all used to being told that fusion is right around the corner to solve all our problems, and that always being warrantless optimism.

    So yeah – society as it exists will absolutely misuse fusion power if we have it, and no – that’s not a valid reason not to pursue fusion power and use it if we get it.

  4. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Well, thanks Abe. You’re a lot more reasonable than I sometimes give credit for, and for my past faults, I’m sorry.

    I’m not as optimistic as you that this belief “clean, cheap, abundant energy is bad” is fringe or not operative after a few recent threads in Pharyngula, including:

    Small sample size though. Maybe I should be more optimistic. Sigh.

    Thanks again, and have a good day.

  5. says

    It’s very easy to assume that our personal experience is more representative than it is. Left-wing Twitter often has this problem too, I think.

    One of the advantages of having a somewhat abnormal childhood and life is that I’ve been repeatedly forced to confront the fact that a lot of knowledge and beliefs that I thought were more or less universal are actually anything but.

    I think it’s also important to remember that a concerns or disagreements over safety do NOT always mean committed opposition. We’re in an era during which a lot of things are going to change very, very quickly, and most of the ways that can go badly require certain behaviors and thought patterns to continue or worsen. History has shown that they’re likely to do that, but times like this – insofar as there has ever been a time like this – also cause people to re-examine their core beliefs and assumptions about the world.

    In terms of what I feel like I may be able to do personally, it’s trying to influence that process, even if very indirectly.

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