Climate anxiety is increasingly attracting the attention of climate and social scientists, as we begin to realize the psychological impact of climate change on our mental states. Categorized as a state of heightened anxiety, climate anxiety is often described with terms like guilt, grief, and despair as an overwhelming sense of unhappiness about the state of the environment emerges.
What is Climate Anxiety?
Increasingly, the world recognizes that the climate is changing, and the climate crisis continues to capture public attention as an emerging phenomenon. At the same time, there has been a general shift in conversations from questioning the legitimacy of climate change to understanding the scope and scale of its impacts.
Since the environmental movement of the 1970s, climate change has become an increasingly important topic for the public, which have an impact on people’s mental health and well-being. Climate anxiety research intersects clinical, natural and social sciences and, although limited, an interdisciplinary body of research has emerged that generates opportunities to further study the impacts of climate change on mental health. In research linking environmental issues and mental health, terms such as climate anxiety, eco-anxiety, eco-guilt and eco-grief have been introduced.
There are a few definitions of climate anxiety that appear most frequently in research, including:
Image 1: Worrying about climate change can have a negative effect on our mental health and well-being. Source: The conversation
Climate Anxiety Survey and Recent Research
In 2020, the non-profit environmental organization Friends of the Earth estimated that more than two-thirds of young people (18-24 years old) experience climate anxiety. In fact, Aaron Kiely, climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth, suggested: “As the group of people most likely to see the compounding effects of climate chaos, it’s no surprise that a wave of young people are increasingly concerned, especially in the face of government inaction”.
Image by: Pexels
In 2021, a group of researchers extended their studies to understand the extent of climate anxiety among young people in several countries and interviewed 10,000 young people (aged 16-25) in 10 countries (Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, UK and USA). They indicated that participants from all countries were concerned about climate change (59% were very or extremely concerned and 84% were at least moderately concerned). In fact, more than 50% reported each of the following emotions: sad, anxious, angry, helpless, helpless, and guilty.
So, it becomes pretty obvious that researchers believe that younger generations suffer from climate anxiety (Gen Z has also been dubbed the climate generation). But what about older generations? Surely there are more people who are anxious about environmental issues than 16 to 25 year olds. In a 2003 article, Wright – a professor at the University of Utah conducting interdisciplinary research in gerontology – and his colleagues argued that “the natural environment has been an absent topic in education and public policy forums regarding an aging society”, and that does not appear to have changed much today.
Others have identified that older generations may worry about the short-term impacts of climate change (such as extreme weather, poor air quality and infectious diseases) as they will be personally more vulnerable. However, there is a lot of research on the physical impacts of climate change on an aging population, but less on the consequences it has on their mental health. For example, feelings of guilt can create overwhelming climate anxiety because older generations feel responsible for the destruction of the environment that they did not leave in a sustainable state for future generations (i.e. i.e. their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, etc.).
Drivers of Climate Anxiety
Like any mental health research topic, climate anxiety is complex and far-reaching, and an individual can experience it to varying degrees with different factors. We will focus on two particular drivers: the destruction of the physical environment and the communication of climate change.
First, nature can act as both an exacerbator and a healer of climate anxiety. Anxieties can be triggered by events that physically damage the environment such as natural disasters, land use change and resource depletion. Those who recognize the fundamental value of nature may experience climate anxiety when there is a risk of a catastrophic event because their connection to nature may be disrupted and is driven by climate change loss.
On the other hand, being exposed to nature can also provide an element of healing. For instance, this paper from 2015 identified the importance of a connection between humans and green and blue spaces, arguing that it can rectify psychological tension. In fact, a quick search online for ways to cope with climate anxiety will generate suggestions involving getting outside, experiencing nature, and engaging with the outdoor environment to calm anxieties and connect with nature. .
Another widely cited driver of climate anxiety is how climate change is communicated. Whether you consume your information from TV news channels, online articles, or social media, each of these can exacerbate climate anxiety. And while environmental education should convey the importance of tackling climate change, certain approaches can heighten anxiety. Specifically, when the mainstream media adopts an “alarmist” and apocalyptic tone in climate change reportsthis can aggravate public climate anxiety.
With an ever-growing wealth of research identifying more and more endangered species, rising temperatures and the continued melting of ice caps, the amount of “bad news” in the media, alongside the energetic “we must act now‘ the rhetoric of climate change can increase people’s stress levels and affect their psychological well-being. Additionally, as social media grows in popularity, we feel like we have on-demand access to a constant stream of information about environmental disasters. Since social media depends on the dissemination of information through visual media, when “bad news” is accompanied by shocking images of dying coral reefs, loss of pollinators and melting arctic sea ice, the public may feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. and their position as one person on a planet of billions.
Even solid scientific findings are available at hand, confirming the catastrophic impacts of environmental destruction. For example, since 2018, the IPCC Special report on global warming of 1.5°C has gained significant media coverage in several countries, suggesting that humanity has only 12 years left to prevent the irreversible and disastrous effects of climate change. This report often appears in the climate anxiety literature because people have applied its quantitative scientific findings to doomsday media claims about climate change and heightened fear of environmental catastrophe.
It is also important to note the rapid increase in research on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s mental health. Although COVID lockdowns may have led to a slower lifestyle in 2020, they have also exacerbated the use of single-use plastics and household waste. As humanity seems to have re-adopted the high-consumption lifestyle of the pre-COVID era, it can often feel like the potential for meaningful change is limited.
What are the implications?
As mentioned earlier, climate anxiety is complex and can express itself in completely different ways in different people and circumstances. For some, climate anxiety could be the driver for active participation in environmental activism and awareness. Take Greta Thunberg: the environmental activist who started the Future Fridays movement that has politicized a significant portion of students around the world. She spoke openly about herself severe climate anxietywhich has earned him a strong stance on environmental activism and justice work.
On the other hand, climate anxiety can create barriers to participation in climate action, as people are so overwhelmed with a sense of individual responsibility that they find it difficult to implement real change. Feelings of personal insignificance can also hinder engagement in climate action, as we are constantly bombarded by the scale of global problems and doubt our individual ability to help in some way.
How to deal with climate change anxiety
While it may seem like a lot of news and conversations about climate change are full of doom, seeking out positive climate news can help alleviate anxieties. Every day there are small victories all over the world – whether it’s a new technology to fight climate change, a species that is no longer classified as extinct or a huge movement climate which is gaining momentum on social networks, it is undeniable that there is positive changes are happening. Try filtering your Instagram feed, news app, and other means of consumption to expose yourself to the right stories of innovation and success.
Even if you feel you cannot engage in protests and public events, activism can also stay at home. For example, donating to and engaging with environmental charities can help ease climate concerns, as people can stay in the activism “loop” (even if it’s all done online). There are so many communities out there that are full of people who all feel the same way about the climate crisis and talk openly about their mental struggles about it (have you ever heard of climate cafes?). Sometimes the stigma around mental health issues (above all when related to the environment) can prevent us from opening up to others, so finding people who experience the same thoughts and feelings as you can really help.
The lack of research on mental health and climate change means there is a strong need for a growing understanding of the subject. Researchers are increasingly studying this topic, so doing a quick search online for the latest publications can help you remember that you’re not alone.
If you want to learn more about climate anxiety and how to navigate very real and justified feelings, Sarah Jaquette Ray’s book, A Field Guide to Climate Anxietyis an excellent starting point.