Tackling climate change anxiety

By Emily Joyce

As conversations about climate change become more alarming, it's no wonder many of us are feeling worried and anxious about the planet's future. GETTY
As conversations about climate change become more alarming, it's no wonder many of us are feeling worried and anxious about the planet's future. GETTY
As the news about climate change becomes increasingly alarming, it's natural to feel worried and helpless. Here's how to manage those feelings and act in an impactful way.

Talk about the weather has taken on a new dimension.

No longer merely an icebreaker, crippling droughts, intense heatwaves, devastating fires and once-in-a-century floods are becoming ‘the new normal’, as extreme weather weaves its way into everyday conversations.

It’s not unwarranted. A United Nations report on climate change made headlines globally in October last year when it revealed there would be catastrophic consequences in less than two decades unless carbon emissions are drastically slashed.

Read more:
Greta Thunberg’s scathing message to world leaders at the UN
Five things you need to know from the UN Climate Summit
Millions take to the streets for climate action

Months later, the World Meteorological Organisation confirmed the past four years have been the planet’s warmest on record, and the trend is only going upwards.

In this make-or-break era, it’s unsurprising that terms such as ‘eco-anxiety’ and ‘climate change anxiety’ are popping up.

A 2018 survey by Horizon Research, New Zealand discovered that concern about climate change was at its highest level in six years. Sixty-four per cent of adults believed it was a problem, with 29 per cent saying it was urgent. Those aged 35-44 years were the most concerned (75 per cent).

Although climate change anxiety is not officially recognised as a mental disorder, psychologist Dr Susie Burke says, “We do note in the research and anecdotally that there are increasingly high levels of distress, ranging from mental health problems on the one hand through to a whole lot of psychosocial difficulties, that are a consequence of climate change.”

The distressing feelings can be caused by various triggers. Often, it’s through directly experiencing an extreme weather event, but it can also be a generalised anxiety about an anticipated threat.

Understandably, those closest to the effects of, and facts about, climate change are most vulnerable.

Burke says anxiety may also be caused by how climate change is reported in the media and can then be exacerbated by the inaction of decision-makers.

“It adds to this cocktail of horrible worry and guilt and despair and hopelessness,” she says.

She adds that the guilt element is common. “We are all living in a system that undeniably means we’re dependent on fossil fuels … it’s not an individual’s fault, but the knowledge that you’re continuing to participate in this system can be psychologically quite disturbing.”

Laura Waters can relate. She started experiencing deep fear, panic and sadness after training to be a climate presenter with former US Vice President Al Gore 10 years ago. She regularly loses sleep over the fact that others don’t share her devastation at the unfolding disaster. 

“During the day I can manage it fairly well, but it’s in the wee hours of the night,” she says. “I don’t understand why people aren’t running around like headless chooks trying to do something about it.”

Waters likens our complex and delicate ecosystem to a game of Jenga.

“You can’t just keep pulling bricks out and think it’s all going to stay stable,” she says.

“We’re one of those bricks and the whole thing is going to collapse if we don’t do something about it … it could literally be the end of the world and no-one is taking it seriously.”

Action is the antidote

Writing to politicians campaigning for change and hiking in the wilderness to reconnect with nature and recalibrate brings Waters some respite.

“As with any problem, when you’re being proactive about it, it makes you feel a little more in control,” she says.

In 2014, Waters completed a five-month, 3000-kilometre solo hike from the top to the bottom of New Zealand. “It’s like wanting to spend time with a dying relative while you still can,” she says. Waters has since quit her corporate job to write a book about the journey. 

“My mission now is to try and get people to see another way to be, that there is freedom and happiness that comes in living simply.”

Burke says a three-pronged approach can be useful for managing the anxiety.

The first is problem-focused coping, where you simultaneously make efforts to reduce the problem that’s causing the stress and stay involved in the solution of climate change.

This could include opting for walking or public transport over driving; eating less meat or buying food that’s locally produced and seasonal; powering your home by renewables or switching to green-energy providers; or joining a group that’s campaigning for an environmental cause.

A 2017 study from Lund University found the four actions that most substantially decrease an individual’s carbon footprint are eating a plant-based diet, avoiding air travel, living car-free, and having smaller families.

Everyone’s life is different, but there are various websites that can help get you started on your climate change path whatever your circumstances. For starters, see which actions you can incorporate into your life by visiting the Climate Council’s site (climatecouncil.org.au/what-can-i-do-to-tackle-climate-change).

Act small, affect large

To avoid feeling overwhelmed, set yourself a goal each week or choose five things to commit to.

If you’re finding it hard to change habits, consider offsetting your carbon emissions via the UN carbon offset platform.

An effective but often undervalued action is using your vote.

Dr Martin Rice, Head of Research at the Climate Council, recommends looking into your local Member of Parliament’s position on climate change. 

“If it’s not really obvious, contact them and let them know you’re concerned and want action,” says Rice. “Local MPs really do respond to their constituents and your opinion holds a lot of weight.”

Understanding where your personal finances are invested is also important because many banks, super funds and share portfolios invest in fossil-fuel projects. 

“Tell them that you’re serious about tackling climate change and they should move their portfolios from fossil fuels,” says Rice. 

Placing pressure or moving money helps stop financing these industries and raises awareness about the need to move to clean forms of energy.

Rice also suggests arming yourself with facts about climate change. 

The Climate Council (climatecouncil.org.au) and reputable evidence-based science organisations such as the Bureau of Meteorology (bom.gov.au) and CSIRO (csiro.au) are a good place to start.

And if you’re planning on moving house, Rice recommends making sure the location is conducive to walking, cycling or using public transport.

Consider the energy efficiency of the building, too. In addition to reducing carbon emissions, there’s the added bonus of health benefits and cost savings.

Because our brains are highly tuned to noticing others’ behaviours and following suit, our actions have a ripple effect, influencing those around us. Modelling pro-environmental behaviours, like leaving your bike helmet sitting on your desk at work, helps to create social norms.

This was demonstrated in a 2019 article published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, which found that rather than giving people general information about the importance of saving water, emphasising the water-conserving actions of others in the same social group encouraged similar behaviour changes and reduced water demand.

Research has also shown that when people are given feedback about the average energy consumption of their neighbours, they tend to adjust their own energy use.

Talking helps, too. The more people hear others talk about the risk of climate change and the more it’s viewed in a social network as something that requires action, the more it amplifies an individual’s own risk perception and intention to act.

In addition to tackling the problem of climate change head-on, Burke says periodically turning away can help manage anxiety as well. Switching off the news or spending times with family, friends and pets is known as ‘emotion-focused coping’.

“It’s all those sets of behaviours that are good for being able to lift your mood and dial yourself back up again when you’re feeling flat or down,” she says.

Thirdly, Burke recommends ‘meaning-focused coping’ to alleviate anxiousness. This reframes the problem, allowing it to be viewed in a way that gives solace or hope.

“Try reminding yourself how many millions of other people around the world feel deeply about the planet and are making big efforts,” says Burke. 

Or take a historical perspective and look at past struggles, like apartheid, where the future would have looked bleak for those experiencing it, but determination and time led to change.

There is power in the collective, so join forces where you can. “It addresses so many of our human needs,” says Burke. 

“To feel a sense of belonging, to have special connections with other people, to feel encouraged that we’re not alone in the things that we care about, and that other people are also helping. When we do things together, they’re much more effective.”

Consider the recent School Strike 4 Climate, where more than 1.6 million young people around the globe garnered worldwide media attention when they took to the streets with their demands. Leaders including the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, welcomed them. Organisers have since met with members of the European Parliament.

The movement’s leader, 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Her powerful speech to British Parliament on the subject was heard around the world.

Mind tricks

To take effective action, it’s helpful to understand our inaction. With more than 97 per cent of scientists agreeing that climate change is happening, and that human activity is the cause, why are the well-documented threats to the planet not enough to radically change our ways?

Humans are vulnerable to many cognitive biases – mental shortcuts – which can make it hard to appreciate the scale and threat of the problem. For example, we tend to downplay risks that are long-term, gradual, affect others but not ourselves, and those that lack any clear ‘bad guy’.

Another bias strongly at play is the bystander effect, where we believe that someone else will deal with a crisis: unfortunately the bigger the group, which in the case of climate change is the entire world, the stronger the bias becomes.

Cognitive dissonance, where what we know conflicts with what we do, can hinder us, too. For instance, we know that burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change, yet we continue to drive and fly.

When it’s too hard to change the behaviour, it’s often easier to change the thinking and tell yourself things such as “individual emissions are tiny compared to big business” or “compared to other countries, our emissions are insignificant”.

There is some truth to these comparisons. A 2017 Carbon Majors report by the Climate Accountability Institute revealed that 71 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to 100 companies.

However, co-founder of the institute, Richard Heede, told Vox that every part of society has to participate.

“It’s the consumers that actually burn and demand the fossil fuels that these companies provide,” he says, pointing out that the emissions directly produced by oil, gas and coal companies amount to about 10 per cent of fossil-fuel emissions, while 90 per cent are from their products.

While our brains may be working against us, the most helpful trait we possess is our ability to innovate. 

Heede goes on to say, “We have the most innovative, intelligent, compassionate humans on this planet that we all share. If we exercise intelligence and compassion, we will collectively help solve this problem – or at least avoid the worst of what climate change has to offer.”

Rice is also hopeful about the future. He has seen a significant uptake of renewables by local and global businesses and says many states and territories are moving ahead, too, despite the lack of a credible climate policy.

“It’s a bit like a snowball effect and it’s really gathering so much momentum,” he says

“The window of opportunity is closing rapidly but we still have an opportunity and the solutions at our disposal.”



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