Climate anxiety is attracting increasing attention among climate and social scientists, as we begin to realise the psychological impact of climate change on our mental states. Categorised as a state of heightened anxiousness, climate anxiety is often described with terms like guilt, grief and desperation as an overwhelming sense of doom about the state of the environment emerges.
What is Climate Anxiety?
Increasingly, the world at large is acknowledging that the climate is changing, and the climate crisis continues to attract the public’s attention as an emerging phenomenon. At the same, 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 1970s’ environmental movement, climate change has become an increasingly salient topic for the public, which is impacting people’s mental health and wellbeing. Climate anxiety research intersects clinical, natural and social sciences and, though limited, an interdisciplinary body of research has emerged that is generating opportunities to further investigate the mental health impacts of climate change. In research connecting environmental issues and mental health, terms like 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:
- The American Psychological Association’s (APA) definition of climate anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.
- The Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht has been instrumental in raising awareness of climate anxiety, defining it as “the generalised sense that the ecological foundations of existence are in the process of collapse”, and the “worry about our relationship to support environments”.
Image 1: Worrying about climate change can have a negative effect on our mental health and wellbeing. Source: The Conversation
Climate Anxiety Survey and Recent Research
In 2020, environmental non-profit Friends of the Earth estimated that over two-thirds of young people (18-24 year olds) 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 worsening effects of climate chaos, it’s not surprising that a surge of younger people is 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 in young people across multiple countries and surveyed 10,000 young people (aged 16-25 years) in 10 countries (Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the UK, and the USA). They reported that participants across all countries were worried about climate change (59% were very or extremely worried and 84% were at least moderately worried). In fact, more than 50% reported each of the following emotions: sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty.
So, it’s becoming pretty obvious that researchers believe that the younger generations are experiencing climate anxiety (Gen Z has also been nicknamed the climate generation). But what about older generations? Surely there are more people who experience anxiety about environmental issues than 16 to 25 year olds. In a paper from 2003, Wright – a professor at the University of Utah conducting interdisciplinary research in gerontology – and his colleagues contended “the natural environment has been a missing topic from education and public policy forums concerning an ageing society”, and this doesn’t seem to have changed much by today.
Others have identified that older generations may care about the short-term impacts of climate change (like extreme weather, poor air quality and infectious diseases) because they will personally be more vulnerable. However, there is a lot of research on the physical impacts of climate change on an ageing population – but less about the toll it’s taking on their mental health. For example, feelings of guilt may create overwhelming climate anxiety because older generations feel responsible for the destruction of the environment that they have not left in a sustainable state for future generations (i.e. their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren etc.).
Drivers of Climate Anxiety
Like any topic within mental health research, climate anxiety is complex and wide-ranging, and an individual can experience it in varying degrees with different drivers. 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 like natural disasters, land-use change and resource depletion. Those who recognise the fundamental value of nature can experience climate anxiety when there is a risk of a catastrophic event because their connectedness to nature may be disrupted, and is driven by climate change-related loss.
On the other hand, being exposed to nature can also provide an element of healing. For example, this 2015 paper identified the importance of a connection between humans and green and blue spaces, arguing that it can rectify psychological strain. In fact, a quick online search of ways to cope with climate anxiety will generate suggestions involving going outside, experiencing nature and engaging with the outdoor environment to calm anxieties and connect with nature.
Another widely cited driver of climate anxiety is the ways in which climate change is communicated. Whether you consume your information from TV news channels, online articles or social media, any of these can exacerbate climate anxiety. And while environmental education must convey the importance of addressing climate change, certain approaches can exacerbate anxiety. More specifically, when the mainstream media adopts an ‘alarmist’ and apocalyptic tone in climate change reporting, this can worsen the audience’s climate anxiety.
With an ever-growing wealth of research identifying more species being extinct, rising temperatures and continually melting ice sheets, the sheer quantity of ‘bad news’ in the media, alongside the energetic ‘we must act now’ rhetoric of climate change may aggravate people’s stress levels and impair their psychological wellbeing. Plus, as social media has grown in popularity, it feels like we have on-demand access to a constant livestream of information involving environmental disasters. As social media depends on the delivery of information with visual media, when the ‘bad news’ is accompanied by shocking images of dying coral reefs, pollinator loss, and melting Arctic sea ice, audiences are likely to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issue and their position as just one person on a planet of billions.
Even strong science-based findings are available right at our fingertips, confirming the catastrophic impacts of environmental destruction. For example, since 2018, the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C has gained significant media coverage in several nations, proposing that humanity has just 12 years left to prevent irreversible, disastrous impacts of climate change. This report often appears in climate anxiety literature because people have applied its quantitative science-led findings to the media’s apocalyptic claims about climate change and increased fear of environmental doom.
It is also important to note the rapidly increasing research around the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s mental health. Though COVID lockdowns may have led to a slower lifestyle in 2020, they also exacerbated the use of single-use plastics and domestic waste. As humanity appears to have re-adopted the high-consumption lifestyle of pre-COVID times, it can often feel like there is limited potential for meaningful change.
What are the Implications?
As mentioned before, 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-raising. Take Greta Thunberg: the environmental activist who started the Fridays for the Future movement that politicised a significant portion of students around the world. She has openly talked about her severe climate anxiety, resulting in her strong stance on environmental activism and justice work.
On the other hand, climate anxiety may create barriers to participation in climate action, as people become so overwhelmed with feelings of individual responsibility that they struggle to enact real change. The sense of personal insignificance can also hinder engagement in climate action, as we are constantly bombarded with the sheer size of global issues, and we doubt our individual ability to help in some way.
How to Deal with Climate Change Anxiety
Although it may seem like a lot of the news and conversations around climate change are full of doom, searching for positive climate news stories can help to alleviate anxieties. Every day there are small wins all around the world – whether it’s a new technology to fight climate change, a species that is no longer classified as extinct, or a huge climate movement gaining momentum on social media, it’s undeniable that there are positive changes happening. Try to filter your Instagram feed, news app and other means of consumption to expose yourself to the good stories of innovation and successes.
Even if you feel like you can’t engage in protests and public events, activism can remain in the home, too. For example, donating to and engaging with environmental charities may help to alleviate climate anxieties as people can remain in the ‘loop’ with activism (even if this is all done online). There are so many communities out there that are full of people who all feel similarly about the climate crisis, and openly talk about their mental struggles around this (have you ever heard of climate cafés?). Sometimes the stigma surrounding mental health struggles (especially when they’re related to the environment) can prevent us from opening up to others, so finding people who are experiencing the same thoughts and feelings as you can really help.
The lack of research about mental health and climate change means there is a strong need for a growing understanding about the topic. Researchers are increasingly investigating this topic, so conducting a quick online search about the latest publications can help to remind you that you’re not alone.
If you’d like to find out more about climate anxiety and how to navigate the very real and justified feelings, Sarah Jaquette Ray’s book, A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety, is a great place to start.