Martha Crawford started having climate change dreams about 11 or 12 years ago. Unlike many of her previously remembered dreams, these were not fragmented or nonsensical—they were “very explicit,” she recalls. “They didn’t require a lot of interpretation.” In one, she’s reading a textbook about climate change and then throws it behind the back of her couch, pretending it doesn’t exist. In another, she’s sitting in a lecture given by a climate scientist. But the professor starts yelling at her for not paying attention, and she fails the course. The meaning was pretty clear, says Crawford, a licensed clinical social worker: “You’re not paying attention, and you need to pay attention.”
The dreams eventually inspired her to start the Climate Dreams Project in 2019, and since, she’s been facilitating a space where people can share climate dream anecdotes, mostly anonymously.
One dream submitted to the collection was of people digging holes in the desert so that the rising seas would have somewhere to go. In another contribution, a Flood Football game was underway, and in the second half, players were floating on inner-tubes. Another person, who shared four climate dreams, recounted one in which billions of people were funneling into a giant room that looked like a video-game sports arena, but large enough to hold the world’s population. “At the end of the dream, the entire face of the earth was different,” they wrote. “It was completely icy and the only habitable part was a giant plateau with a city on it.”
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It would seem that climate change has woven itself into the “fabric of dreaming” as Crawford puts it.
Studying dreams can be slippery. We don’t always remember them, and interpreting them is highly subjective. But, according to a survey of 1,009 people conducted by The Harris Poll in June on behalf of TIME, over a third of people in the U.S. have dreamed about climate change at least once in their lives.
The imagery and sensations evoked by these dreams vary widely, according to the survey. Most people’s climate dreams involve extreme weather or natural disasters; fewer are about mosquitoes and locusts or political leaders and laws. The most common emotions reported are fear and stress, except among Millennials who seem to have more hopeful dreams. The prevalence of climate dreams decreases with age: 56% of people between 18 and 34 years old said they had at least one climate dream in their life compared to 14% of people over the age of 55. Men appear to be dreaming more about climate change than women. And people of color are dreaming about it far more than white people. Together, the data give us a new perspective on how the country may be feeling about climate change.
How Different Generations Dream
Every now and then, society collectively experiences the same moment to such an acute degree that it changes our dreams. The pandemic certainly did this, as have world wars and 9/11. The question is whether enough people are feeling climate change acutely enough that it is systemically infiltrating our dreams at a population-level. The Harris Poll survey, coupled with Crawford’s dream project, suggests that in the U.S., it may be starting to.
Climate change is now part of the zeitgeist, says Alan Eiser, a psychologist and a clinical lecturer at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. “It’s part of what we’re living in and through, so it must impact dreams.” But determining exactly how, he continues, “well, that’s complicated.”
The majority (57%) of Gen Z and Millennials have dreamed about climate change, according to the survey. That’s compared to 35% of Gen Xers and just 14% of Boomers. One way this split can be interpreted is that, from school lessons to real world events, climate change has been pervasive throughout younger people’s lives in a way it hasn’t been for older generations—and it will continue to define their future.
For many people, particularly Gen Zers and Boomers, climate change makes for bad dreams: 44% of Gen Z respondents said their dreams evoked negative emotions (rather than positive or neutral); 41% of Boomers said the same. That’s compared to 24% of Millennials, and 34% of Gen Xers. For both of those generations, positive emotions were far more common; 41% of Gen X respondents, for example, had good climate dreams compared to 35% of Gen Zers and 20% of Boomers.
But no one is having more positive climate dreams than Millennials. In this group, 54% of respondents indicated their dreams had positive emotions. Intriguingly, over a third of Millennials said their dreams involved science—at a rate at least 10 percentage points higher than other generations.
Climate dreams may actually help people feel motivated to protect the world around them, adds Crawford. “Our dreams often show us that we're embedded in an ongoing relationship with our habitat. Now, many of these dreams can strengthen people and help them find hope.”
In one dream submitted to Crawford’s collection, for example, the entrant recounts being asked to give a speech on behalf of a climate scientist: “The auditorium is filled with pictures of different mushrooms and these are important to the scientist’s work. I am asking the audience to reflect on their sense of belonging in the natural world, and their level of grief. There is a theory underlying the lecture about how these two experiences entwine, but it is overall very positive—there is a sense of active hope pulsing through the words and the crowd.”
How Other Demographics Influence Climate Dreams
Other demographic factors such as sex, race, political affiliation, and where you live, also had some influence on whether and how someone dreams about climate change—to a degree.
Unsurprisingly, living in the Western United States—where drought, heat, and wildfires are all worsening due to rising global temperatures—can affect someone’s climate dreams. There, 44% of respondents said they’d had a climate dream compared to a third of people across the South, Northeast, and Midwest. And half of people out west—and the same number in the Midwest—had dreams filled with extreme weather compared to 37% in the South and 46% in the Northeast.
Catastrophes like tornadoes or tsunamis are a common theme in all dreams, not just climate-related ones. “Our emotional lives often present like weather,” says Crawford; we use phrases like “I’m flooded,” or “I’m heated.” So it’s common for that symbolism to crop up when we’re sleeping. But now, such imagery is more often literally about climate change.
“I am visiting a friend who has been ill with covid. Despite her long recovery she still has multiple loaves of fresh baked zucchini bread for her guests,” recounts one contributor to Crawford’s dream project. “We wander out to see the zucchini growing and her garden is exquisite and abundant, with flowering bushes towering over my head. We collect flowers for wreaths, everyone is wearing flowers. I begin to wonder how they have the water to maintain this garden. I think I have not seen flowers in such abundance that we can wear them in ages, and I compare it to my own parched land. I am not sure if I should be happy for my friend—this generous, giving person—that she has water, or angry that she is using so much when I cannot.”
Be it drought or heat waves, hurricanes or flooding, people of color are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. And that awareness seems to be reflected in the survey results. Half of all people of color who were surveyed said they had dreamed about climate change at least once in their lives, compared to just 28% of white people.
Meanwhile, people who self-identified as Conservatives dreamed far less (24%) than those who said they were Liberal (48%). And of those who did have climate dreams, positive dreams were far more likely among Conservatives (60%) than Liberals (45%). This seems to reflect the current national divide when it comes to views on how urgent of a threat climate change is. According to an April survey by Pew, significantly more Democrats, or Democrat-leaning, individuals (78%) view climate change as a major threat to the country’s well-being compared to just a quarter of Republicans.
The Harris Poll survey also showed that 43% of men had dreamed about climate change while just 29% of women had. More men (50%) had positive dreams compared to women (34%). And regardless of whether the dreams were positive or negative, more women (39%) reported dreams about family than men (29%).
That resonates with Rebecca Weston, co-president of the Climate Psychology Alliance North America. As a licensed clinical social worker, Weston often listens to people’s dreams. Dreams are a “kind of a repository and a filter of the feelings and thoughts and images that we're still trying to process in our life,” she says.
Personally, she says, “my dreams are often that I cannot save my children,” from a looming threat created by some sort of extreme weather event. “It taps into my sense of futility and helplessness in the face of something so large. And it’s much more often about my feeling of helplessness, and I visualize less what happens to my kids.”
How To Interpret Your Climate Dreams
Studying dreams helps people better understand how the world affects them emotionally. This is particularly true for things outside of an individual’s control, like the impacts of climate change. Part of navigating the climate crisis through dreams, says Crawford, is being “able to come to terms with the aspects of living, the world, and our habitable environment that we do not have control over.”
There are a few questions Weston says she’d ask to help someone interpret their climate dreams: What is your relationship to the land, and the place that’s being affected in the dream? What feelings of home does it stir up? Or what about feelings of loss or connection? Who else is in the dream, and what is your relationship to them? What type of relationship is it, one of power, stability, or perhaps insecurity? “I would ask about those things and then talk to them about how that manifests in their world, in their lives,” she explains. Maybe it’s part of your subconscious self “saying this is what we need to develop in your waking life, more connection, more access to nature … connection to other people who are engaging in these issues.”
There could be lessons beyond the individual too. Maybe dreams can teach us something about how to deal with climate change, says Tore Nielsen, director of the Dreams and Nightmares Laboratory and psychiatry professor at the University of Montreal.
Dreams have, after all, inspired innovations ranging from the sewing machine to the Periodic Table. When it comes to climate change, maybe logical thinking hasn’t been working so well, says Nielsen. Maybe “we need more approaches, like a dream-oriented approach.”
“Imagine you send out a call for dreamers to dream up solutions to climate change. You’d get probably 10s of 1,000s if not hundreds of 1,000s of replies. A lot of them, obviously [won’t be] very useful,” he suggests. “How many good ideas would it take?”
A dream shared in Crawford’s collection offers one vision of the future. “I was part of a group of nomads consisting of about 20 people,” the person begins. “We would camp in one place for a while then leave before the stormy season.” To survive they planted many, many crops to ensure enough food survived the harsh weather.
“We traveled light, living in teepees mainly. Some of them were insulated and had air conditioning units. We had solar panels for electricity, but mostly used it for lighting and communications. We used large trucks for long-distance journeys and horses for local travel. The most valuable skills were agriculture, mechanics, and electronics. There was no money, and no taxes. Life was simple but we were free.”
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