What is Climate Anxiety?
It is frightening. The scientific reports warn us that “climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing”. Rising temperatures are causing devastating extreme weather events that we are already witnessing; floods, heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, landslides, storms. Media headlines describe this as an emergency, a crisis, a catastrophe. It’s very serious; humanity is at code red, we’re on the highway to hell and it's a matter of life or death. It’s urgent too: we need to act now, now, now and we are running out of time. At the same time we are still continuing to participate in the human race - a global competition to simultaneously destroy the planet, consume more and more of our finite resources, and exploit nature whilst also going into space. We watch scenes straight out of disaster movies whilst experiencing the trailers. We observe the loss of life, loss of species, loss of culture, loss of a stable and secure future for everyone. It is a situation that is hard to hear, hard to face and hard to process.
Compounding the issue of climate change is the inaction in resolving the problem. We hear of large meetings of global leaders that fail to address the problem. We witness businesses that are covering up, lying about and deflecting their significant contributions to climate change. On our screens we see celebrities who are ‘living their best life’ by trashing our only home. It seems we can’t get away from it; in our everyday life we are surrounded by people who are contributing to climate change through their lifestyle choices. We feel that we have a lack of ability to change those around us: our leaders, big businesses and influencers, both at home and far away.
We hear from climate sceptics. They are very vocal, appear to be prevalent, are incredibly active in denying facts and claim to have more expertise than the experts. Those who stand up and speak out are judged for doing the right thing, or not doing what someone else thinks is the right thing or for not doing enough. The language used is alarming, and rightly so. It’s overwhelming. The subject of climate change itself is confusing and complex, without clear solutions that are understood and followed by all. There doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel, or even a map or a manual to at least guide us out of this situation.
In light of this, people are expressing an emotional and/or physical response to the impact humanity is having on the Earth’s climate system. This link between mental wellbeing and climate change has been referred to as ‘climate anxiety’. People may experience bodily reactions, e.g. panic attacks, nausea, feel aches and pains, and have difficulty sleeping. It might be expressed emotionally in several different ways, from worry and fear to sadness and depression to anger and frustration, amongst others. These feelings and responses are due to the predictions of the future, the threats to our existence and the lack of time we have to resolve it.
Personally, climate anxiety is something that I have experienced ever since I was a little child. In the 80s, I saw on the TV seabirds unable to move due to oil spills, read about the worsening ozone hole in magazines, learned about acid rain at school and experienced the real threat of nuclear disaster. It was upsetting, disturbing and daunting. Meanwhile, governments were being dramatically warned about the impacts of the increasing levels of carbon dioxide, the IPCC was formed and the Earth Summit happened. I shouldn’t still be concerned about climate change forty years later, it’s even more upsetting, disturbing and daunting today. But none of us can change the decisions or indecisions made by leaders in the past; we can only affect the future.
It is important to note that climate anxiety does not describe the mental health impacts from directly experiencing the effects of climate change plus if anxiety becomes an emergency or chronic situation when it severely affects someone’s ability to live life then this must be treated by a qualified professional. There are several organisations that can help, including your GP and therapists.
Climate anxiety is a new concept for us to understand and acknowledge. We might not be aware that climate anxiety is what we are feeling, we might not be ready to admit that climate anxiety affects our mental health and we might be feeling very alone. In the UK, 85% of adults are ‘concerned’ about climate change but only 4.6% have admitted to experiencing climate anxiety. If we are going to move forward with climate change as part of our world, we have to also address climate anxiety.
My next column will delve into some of the solutions for climate anxiety.
Where to get help:
The Climate Psychology Alliance
Silvercloud Digital Mental Health Program