My Turn: What to do about climate anxiety

  • Climate activists protest demanding a renewable energy future for Africa during the Africa Energy Week, held at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. AP PHOTO

Published: 6/21/2022 9:21:26 PM
Modified: 6/21/2022 9:21:06 PM

A great many people are anxious about the climate. Some of us experience periodic anxiety. Some are living under a cloud of constant despair. Some are mostly trying to avoid thinking about the climate crisis. Most of us are aware that there’s a serious problem and that efforts to address it are moving too slowly.

A recent study of 10,000 children and young people in 10 countries, published in The Lancet, found widespread climate anxiety. The researchers included young people ages 16-25 and found that 56% of respondents said that “humanity is doomed.” More than 45% said their feelings about climate change “negatively affected their daily life and functioning.” A larger percentage respondents from poorer countries such as Brazil, India, and the Philippines reported negative impacts from worry about the climate, but anxiety was high across all countries studied, including the U.K., France, and the U.S.

The New York Times recently featured an opinion piece on climate anxiety by Ph.D. psychologist and activist Margaret Klein Salamon. She held “climate emotion conversations” with hundreds of adults and found that participants often spoke of “grief, terror, rage, shock, betrayal, guilt and alienation.” She says, “While painful, these emotions are healthy” and are part of developing an appropriate response to the climate crisis. She encourages us to welcome these feelings with “curiosity, respect and compassion for ourselves ”

In earlier writings Salamon has recommended that we 1) face climate truth; 2) welcome fear, grief, and other painful feelings, and “get comfortable with crying;” 3) understand and enter “emergency mode;” and 4) join the “climate emergency movement.”

“Emergency mode” is when we intensely focus our attention and energy and prioritize working to solve an emergency; and we find our self-esteem and joy in contributing to the solution. Climate change may be a longer and slower process than other emergencies, but it is an existential emergency for humanity, nonetheless. Because it is such a threat to our species, it inevitably brings up strong feelings when we put our attention on it.

Many people seem to be avoiding sustained climate action because they are trying to avoid feeling the feelings that climate change brings up for them. This is understandable, but is ultimately not a successful strategy. It generally fails to give us peace and happiness and it prevents us from contributing to solving the great existential crisis of our time. I think Salamon is correct that we need to face and accept whatever fear, despair, grief, and overwhelm we feel in connection with climate change.

A recent workshop on “Eco-grief,” skillfully led by Amherst Sunrise high school students at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment gave those of us who participated, not only an opportunity to feel some of those feelings, but also to talk about them with others. We agreed that it made a big difference to be listened to and to face feelings together, rather than be alone with them. I’ve also found that when I have a safe space to release my climate grief in tears, it seems to cleanse me and renew my energy.

In the recent New York Times piece, Salamon encourages people also to pour their painful emotions about the climate crisis into protest and nonviolent direct action. She writes, “My psychological training and years in the movement have shown me that this kind of collective action is a uniquely effective antidote to despair.”

A recent study reported in the Yale Environment Review examined the effects of three types of protest: peaceful marches, civil disobedience, and violent protests. This study found that in the U.S. peaceful marches and nonviolent civil disobedience are both effective in raising public support for climate action (and that neither has the sometimes feared effect of alienating potential supporters).

This is good news! Participating in protest and nonviolent direct action is good for our mental health (an “effective antidote to despair”) and raises public support for climate action! If you have not experienced these benefits yourself, or not experienced them recently, I encourage you to decide now that you will join in the next time there is an opportunity to participate in a climate protest.

We need bolder climate policies in our local cities and towns here in the Valley, in our state, and in our nation. Whether you join a march or rally, stand with others protesting a bank that is funding new fossil fuel projects, or participate in nonviolent civil disobedience, your action will help lead to better climate policies and be a tonic for whatever climate anxiety you feel.

You may want to start by attending meetings of a local climate organization. As Salamon says, “Joining a movement allows us to live for a purpose greater than ourselves, and a collective benefit of a national climate mobilization would be improved mental health. Instead of despair and alienation, we can find a sense of purpose and community in the face of the climate crisis.”

Russ Vernon-Jones of Amherst was principal of Fort River School for 18 years and is a member of the Steering Committee of Climate Action Now (CAN). The views expressed here are his own. He can be reached at russvj@gmail.com. He blogs regularly on climate justice at www.russvernonjones.org.


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