“It makes sense” is the first thing to say about the phenomenon being described by psychologists as climate anxiety. Wherever in the world you live, there are very good reasons to feel anxious about the rate of global heating and the lack of adequate action to tackle it by governments, businesses and organisations of all sorts.
The predicted consequences are frightening: hotter weather in already inhospitable places, sea-level rises caused by melting ice sheets, and increased disruption of weather systems leading to floods, fires, hurricanes, food and water shortages – with the linked biodiversity crisis another cause for grave concern. Depending on the steps that are taken (or not) over the next decade, a period during which the UN estimates that carbon emissions need to be cut by 7.6% annually if we are to avoid temperature rises above 1.5C, the disruption caused to human societies could be immense. For countries such as Bangladesh, the effects are likely to be devastating.
Given all this, it arguably makes more sense to be anxious than not. And climate anxiety is one way of describing the motivations of every person or organisation that is trying to do something to limit or to mitigate the effects of global heating – whether an individual altering their diet, a charity switching energy supplier or a council setting emissions targets.
But, as with all negative emotions, the trick is to distinguish ordinary feelings – what Sigmund Freud famously called “common unhappiness” – from those that are disproportionate, or so intense and prolonged as to be debilitating. While it makes sense to be worried about the climate emergency, becoming overwhelmed is counterproductive. The sound advice from psychologists that actions, however small, can help to alleviate feelings of distress and powerlessness echoes the experiences of activists including Jane Fonda that “the minute you start doing something, the depression goes away”.
Not all low moods are readily lifted, however, and warnings of worsening mental health as a result of climate disruptions and hardships should be taken seriously. Already there is cause for concern, with research showing that people who have experienced extreme weather such as floods in the UK are 50% more likely to suffer from problems including depression. Resilience may be a desirable quality, but is much more easily developed by those who are cushioned by income or advantage.
Growing demand for psychological support should be met by professionals who are able to distinguish everyday worries from post-traumatic stress or other symptoms. Disasters on the scale of Australia’s recent bush fires and Indonesia’s floods can be expected to produce severe mental as well as physical reactions, particularly in children and other vulnerable groups. In some parts of the world, trauma is already normalised, and when psychologists write of their fear that it could become ubiquitous, policymakers everywhere should take notice.
But it’s important to remember that there are reasons to hope, as well as despair. As the environmental scientist Vaclav Smil said last year, “We [humans] are stupid, we are negligent, we are tardy. But on the other hand, we are adaptable, we are smart and even as things are falling apart, we are trying to stitch them together”.