Grief and anxiety over climate change drove this 30-year-old to write a letter to his future child

Key Points
  • Daniel Sherrell, 30, is a climate organizer and the author of "Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World."
  • He wrote "Warmth" as a correspondence to a future, potential child. He wants to be a father, but feels deeply ambivalent about bringing a child into this warming world.
  • In a conversation with CNBC, he offers thoughts on how to overcome grief and anxiety over climate change, including a suggestion to get off social media and to acknowledge and process grief with like-minded networks of people.
Daniel Sherrell, photo by Giovana Schluter Nunes
Credit Giovana Schluter Nunes.

Last year, the American Psychiatric Association reported that about two-thirds of Americans (67%) are somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change on the planet, and 55% have similar levels of anxiety about their own mental health. Against this backdrop, CNBC is publishing a series of accounts of how climate watchers, leaders and empaths are facing the emotional toll of climate change and finding a way through their anxiety.

The first in this series comes from Daniel Sherrell, the author of "Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World." Sherrell, 30, is a climate movement political organizer and is currently the Campaign Director for the Climate Jobs National Resource Center, where he's working to combat climate change and reverse income inequality by creating union clean energy jobs. He wrote "Warmth" as a correspondence to a potential future child.

The following are excerpts of Sherrell's comments in a telephone interview with CNBC. They have been edited for brevity and clarity.

The generational divide

I am not resentful of boomers. I have many boomers who I love dearly. But even those I love dearly and stand with me in solidarity on climate issues, I think have a hard time assimilating the full reality of the climate crisis because their schemas for what the world is and how it operates were fixed in their youth when climate change was not on the radar at all.

For most ordinary folks, [climate change] was not a thing they felt like they had to contend with. And it's come sort of out of nowhere in their old age. And I think it's overwhelming to a lot of folks in my parents' generation to the extent that they sort of sleepwalk through it. They know the facts. They've seen Al Gore's Powerpoint. They know the trend lines are going upward. But actually realizing what that means, assimilating the weight of that reality? I think it's really difficult for them. And that makes sense, right? As you get older, your schemas become costlier to give up and harder to change.

Daniel Sherrell at a sit-in outside Governor Cuomo's office.
Photo courtesy Daniel Sherrell

For the generation below mine, Gen Z, this is the water they've always been swimming in. They came into political consciousness knowing that our civilization was on a path toward self-destruction. Literally that is the emissions trajectory are on right now — towards a very scary place where we cannot feed or hydrate all people on the planet and there are mass migrations and mass die-offs. That's if nothing changes drastically in the next three decades, that's the path. So they enter political consciousness with that as a premise, that we had built a society that was self destructing, unless we take radical steps, and that deeply changes your worldview.

And for my generation, we're in this weird limbo, where we had our childhood in a world where it still felt like you can become a teacher or professional athlete or a lawyer or whatever ... society is going on as normal ... You could take part in its prosperity. And then there was this whiplash as we started to emerge from high school into college and the science around climate change came into focus. Suddenly there was an asterisk and a question mark hanging over everything we held dear — all our plans for the future, all the people we love, all the principles we hold, they are cast into extreme doubt. And I think a lot of people in my generation are still trying to contend with that.

Overwhelm, compartmentalization

For a lot of people, the reaction to hearing the information about climate change is an overwhelm that translates immediately into compartmentalization. When you hear that everything you believe about the world and everything you've held dear is suddenly at risk and that bare knowledge, those blunt facts blindside you, you just put into a little box.

There's a lot of siloing that happens for people where they're trying to live their everyday life.

We live in a state of planetary crisis. We're going to live in that state for the rest of our lives. And we are deeply interwoven with each other.
Daniel Sherrell
Climate organizer, author

Just making ends meet is a challenge in this country for a lot of people. And so in the climate crisis on top of that ... Are you f---ing kidding me?

Even me, who has been involved in the climate movement as an organizer for the last decade, when I was in the trenches of email, and conference calls and stuff like that, I was totally compartmentalizing. [I could not] contend with the actual weight of the problem that I was addressing, or attempting to address.

Daniel Sherrell (front row arms crossed) at a press conference with the NY Renews coalition, advocating for the passage of a climate bill, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019.
Photo courtesy Daniel Sherrell

Private lives as individual consumers under capitalism are over. We live in a state of planetary crisis. We're going to live in that state for the rest of our lives. And we are deeply interwoven with each other. And all of our behavior affects all the rest of our lifespans.

The future is bad, but how bad is up to us

There's no need to despair. There's no room for despair, because actually, there remains to us a huge swath of outcomes. All of them bad. Honestly, all of them bad. We know this from the latest IPCC report. A certain amount of warming and the chaos it induces is baked in.

With every 10th of a degree we bring down the Earth's temperature, every little smidgen we bend the arc of emissions, we bend the arc towards justice as well, we save or consign millions of lives. And it really is a spectrum like that. So to me, what could be better moral motivation than the sense of those enormous stakes? And the fact that it's not a binary problem. It's not either we're f---ed or we're fine. There's a huge array of outcomes between two degrees Celsius and four degrees Celsius: one is very difficult; one is the literal, unavoidable end of civilization. And we get to choose. So first, that's incredibly motivating.

I have this phrase in the book: "We need to grab grit from the dirt that outlasts us."

I think there's enormous beauty and meaning even in the things that climate crisis is compromising, even in ecosystems it destroys, even in the places it changes drastically. There's still enormous meaning and beauty and value to all of those places that we've essentially taken for granted and treated as externalities ... under capitalism. And we can no longer do that. That's being made very vivid.

And coming out of, what I would describe as a dream state, or maybe a nightmare state, with regard to consigning all the things in the nonhuman world to, basically, numbers on a spreadsheet that can be evaluated with a cost-benefit analysis, coming out of that nightmare state, back into attention for the world that we actually live in, I think that's a deeply humanizing process.

We have to start having these tough conversations about how we live together in a century where things are going to get worse before they get better.

Daniel Sherrell at a climate rally outside Trump Tower.
Photo courtesy Daniel Sherrell

On bringing children into this world 'without their consent'

I've known for a long time that part of me really wanted to be a father, that I was excited by the prospect of having a family and that seems like a very beautiful thing to do with one's life. And also deeply ambivalent about that question given the current scientific projections.

I don't know where the conversation with my partner is ultimately going to land. We're not ready to have children in the next year, for example. But if it lands on the side of "we are going to do this," then I felt like there was no way I could ever justify that if I wasn't ready to hand them a physical document. It's something that would allow us into the difficult conversation about the world they've been brought into, without their consent.

Imagining my hypothetical future child as an interlocutor in this conversation has allowed me to access the reality of climate change on an emotional level that I otherwise was a sort of holding at arm's length.
Daniel Sherrell
Climate organizer, author

My desire to be a father has not gone away. And in some ways, I feel like having a family is one expression of ... not necessarily blind hope, but that the human project is worth continuing. And I think it is. I'm not a misanthrope, despite how royally we have soiled the bed on the climate crisis. I think there are many beautiful things about the human project that are worth continuing. So if I were to have children, it would be out of the belief that the human project is still worthy of growth going on, despite how badly we've messed things up from the point of view of each other and the world around us.

Imagining my hypothetical future child as an interlocutor in this conversation has allowed me to access the reality of climate change on an emotional level that I otherwise was a sort of holding at arm's length.

Ten years ago for me, we spoke about [not having children because of climate change] in a joking way because we still hadn't fully assimilated the reality of the climate crisis. Not having children seemed like a drastic step. But I think now that people are reaching that brink of actually having children, that conversation is becoming much more real.

Daniel Sherrell in the low-lying island nation of Tuvalu, where he facilitated a two week climate-writing workshop with university students from the University of South Pacific Funafuti campus.
Photo courtesy Daniel Sherrell

The way forward: Honor the grief, collective healing

Be kind to yourself. I think a lot of people live with a feeling of overwhelm, and also grief, guilt, they're overwhelmed, and they should be doing more blah, blah, blah. And I think recognizing that you're grieving and overwhelmed and that is a deeply rational response to the dire situation we're in gives you a little bit of breathing room.

And then I also think, finding ways to commiserate and processes together that aren't just like alone in our room on Twitter, doom scrolling. That is a recipe for most people to dig in and like find the worst s--- and cry in our bedrooms alone.

We're not going to be able to face the next century of upheaval, isolated in the Twittersphere as individual consumers. We have to form networks of emotional and political solidarity.
Daniel Sherrell
Climate organizer, author

We're not going to be able to face the next century of upheaval, isolated in the Twittersphere as individual consumers. We have to form networks of emotional and political solidarity. And I think just communicating to people that, "Yes, this is drastic, but you're not in it alone. I am with you. We're in this together," is a deeply powerful thing.

I had this instinct that if I kept [my climate anxiety] in a box, hovering over my shoulder at all times, I would not be ready for the century ahead — if I hadn't actually taken that out of its box, engaged with it vulnerably and emotionally, and found a place of spiritual centeredness with regard to the climate crisis. It sounds a little woo woo. But actually, — and I'm a brass tacks organizer — I think that is deeply important.

We need to create cultural avenues that don't currently exist for processing the climate crisis on an emotional and spiritual level. Those are cultural tools that we need to develop, and need to develop fast for the sake of the younger generation, for the sake of my generation, frankly.

There's a kind of solipsistic madness to going further down the hole of these social media platforms, but a 12 year old's brain — let alone my my brain — can't resist these little dopamine hits. It's crazy. So I think, I think, blunting the pernicious influence of those companies, and then also doing the cultural work to provide young people a place to go to not have to hold these feelings alone and potentially build political power out of that place of commiseration, I think those are the two really important things that I see.

I do think that despair is just a cop out.

Here I am living in the global north. I'm young, I'm healthy. I have people that I love ... Who am I to give up hope if the people in Bangladesh or Tuvalu or, you know, the coast of Louisiana haven't given up? And they're on the frontlines. So that's where I come from. And people who fall into despair, I have empathy for them. But I'm not going to choose that direction. It's partially a choice, but partially a real assessment of the situation.