Global average temperatures are rising. Arctic sea ice is melting at an escalating rate. Globally 800 million people are vulnerable to climate change impacts like drought and rising sea levels. We just saw the most devastating bushfire season in Australian history – over 18 million hectares of land was burned.
Sounds pretty depressing, doesn’t it? If the state of the world and our environment is sending you into a spiral of doom, you’re definitely not alone. In fact there’s even a term for it. Climate Anxiety.
1. What Is Climate Anxiety?
“Climate anxiety”, a term that’s bandied around a lot lately, is described by the American Psychological Association (APA), as a “chronic fear of environmental doom”. It’s the perfect term to describe the feeling of despair and stress that comes when confronted with the effects of climate change on our environment.
Dr. Patrick Kennedy-Williams and Megan Kennedy-Woodard are psychologists who started Climate Psychologists, an organisation created to support individuals and groups in overcoming climate anxiety. They tell Pedestrian that climate anxiety often manifests in young people as feelings of panic and dread.
“However, it can be broader than this. People may experience other responses such as grief, anger, and powerlessness. These might lead to problems sleeping or eating, or crucially, making people feel less engaged with finding solutions to tackling climate change or reducing their carbon footprint.”
It’s important to note that climate anxiety, or eco-anxiety, isn’t the same as a clinical mental health disorder. But the effects of climate change on our society, particularly among young people, are indisputable. The Australian Psychological Association recognises that “climate change is as much a psychological and social problem, as it is an environmental or ecological catastrophe”.
Many experts have said that climate fears can often worsen pre-existing mental health conditions. It’s not an irrational fear, but rather a very normal response to a very real and present threat.
2. How Is Climate Anxiety Affecting Young Aussies?
Sam Leighton-Dore is a 28-year-old who lives on the Gold Coast – a city with a projected sea level rise of 80 centimetres in the next 80 years, and no new climate change strategy since it expired in 2014.
He says he’s feeling very anxious about the state of the world. “I see a psychologist weekly and honestly, I feel ripped off that I’m having to pay a therapist to discuss the government’s ongoing inaction over a non-disputable epidemic.”
In most cases climate anxiety stems from a low-lying level of fear over the future, which at best is murky and uncertain. According to the UN, we now have less than 11 years to prevent catastrophic climate change. With many world leaders denying the existence of climate change and refusing to introduce measures to protect our planet, Is there any point in making long-term plans if we’re all going to be on fire/underwater in 20 years?
For many millennials, this is being reflected in our choice to have children. More and more, couples are choosing not to have children – partly because of the environmental impact of raising a child, and partly because it’s hard to know what kind of world they’ll be raising them in. A survey of Aussie women found that one-third under the age of 30 were reconsidering their choice to have kids, because of “concern about an unsafe future from climate change”.
Even Prince Harry shared that he and his wife Meghan would have no more than two children, for the good of the planet.
The uncertainty of climate change has Sam and his husband also rethinking their choice to have children. “I’ve been clucky since I was a kid – starting a family has always been something I’ve wanted for myself,” he said.
“My husband and I even bought a baby’s onesie when we first started dating as a corny symbol of our future together. Now that we’re married, it’s getting harder to talk about, especially considering the sluggish pace of meaningful climate action.”
3. How Can We Get Help?
In the last few years, many organisations dedicated to providing help and support for people feeling the mental effects of climate change have been established. Climate Psychologists was born when a couple of psychologists noticed they were seeing more and more patients with anxiety stemming from the threat of climate change.
“A large part of the work we do is around how to communicate about climate change in a way that helps people feel empowered to act, rather than powerless and overwhelmed,” they say.
“We started to run workshops for parents about how to talk to kids about climate change. This then expanded to education departments, government and media organisations. The way we talk and communicate about the climate crisis is such an important aspect of how we feel about the issue, and how empowered we feel as individuals and communities to have a positive impact.”
4. We Need To Take Action
The psychological effects of climate change are undeniable. But perhaps these feelings can be harnessed to help combat the threats we’re all facing.
The overriding message from researchers, psychologists, and people experiencing climate anxiety is that action seems to be the best “cure”. The team at Climate Psychologists note that people can experience positive emotions as a response to climate change, including “hope, connectedness and motivation for change”.
One of the best ways to combat the anxiety and hopelessness that comes with climate anxiety, is to take action, and engage in solutions that can give you a sense of agency.
Helen Berry, a professor and expert in climate change and mental health has spent the last few years studying the intersection between the two. She notes that when it comes to climate anxiety, we tend to feel the emotion collectively rather than in isolation. In an interview on Radio National, she commented on the sense of belonging that can come when individuals unite to fight a common enemy. The feeling of being part of a group, being able to contribute is “both tremendously helpful for mental health [and] tremendously effective as a way of taking action to achieve a goal that we as individuals couldn’t possibly do on our own.”
In the last few years, we’ve seen a surge of action against climate change from the general public. The best example of this can be seen in the global school strikes for climate change. With Greta Thunberg as their poster-woman, hundreds of thousands high school students, in 150 countries across the world, marched in the streets demanding action from political leaders regarding climate change.
Think realistically about what will work for you. Taking practical steps – even just small stuff like teaching your parents how to reduce waste, remembering to take your Keep Cup to work, or attending a local park clean-up can help alleviate feelings associated with climate anxiety.
Some days, it’s going to feel easier to lie on the couch watching Netflix and UberEats-ing Macca’s because we’re all going to die anyway. And that’s fine. But on days when you can, turn that emotion into action. Not to go all ~inspirational Instagram post~ on you, but we really don’t have to be perfect. A million people trying their best is better than one person living like an eco-saint.
Wallow in the anxiety when you need to, but take action when you can.