Climate anxiety

By Laura Chevrot, GLOBUS Correspondent

I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.

Greta Thunberg

Such were the words of 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg in her speech “Our House Is on Fire” at the 2019 Davos World Economic Forum. And indeed, activists are increasingly using their platforms to voice share their experience of “climate anxiety”, defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as a “fairly recent psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis”. 

Just like Greta, a number of climate activists and young persons are struggling to come to terms with the situation they’ve been forced into. Faced with the impossibility of pawning off responsibility to future generations like so many before them, teenagers and young adults are dealing with a time-bomb waiting to explode. If decisions and actions aren’t taken soon, it may be their own lives that are at stake. 

According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have only 12 years left to reverse current trends before overshooting the mark of 1.5°C of global warming, a scenario which would be apocalyptic at best.  

Worried yet? If not, here’s what our future looks like today:  

According to an IGTV video by the World Economic Forum, if no action on climate change is taken by 2030, sea levels will have risen by 20cm and 90% of coral reefs will be threatened by human activity. Over 100 million people will have been forced into extreme poverty due to crop shortages, and climate change-related illnesses will have killed an extra 250,000 people every year. 

The predictions for 2040 are even grimmer. That decade will see annual floods in certain parts of the world, whilst 8% of the global population’s access to water will be severely reduced. The Arctic will be ice-free in summer, a scenario which seemed unimaginable a few decades ago. Sea levels will have risen by 60cm in areas such as the Gulf of Mexico. 

And it doesn’t stop there. In the 2050s, it is estimated that 2 billion people will face 60°C temperatures for over a tenth of the year and masks will be worn daily to protect from smog. Instead of experienceing one flood a year, the Northeast US will deal with 25 major floods per annum. It is thought that 140 million people will be displaced for reasons related to the climate.  

Going as far as 2100, temperatures will have increased by 4°C, meaning that coastlines and islands such as Florida will have vanished under the sea. Coral reefs will have disappeared, destroying a quarter of the world’s fish habitats. Insects will, them too, have vanished. Every year, an area in the US as big as Massachusetts will be subject to forest fires and 40% of the global population will be dealing with issues of drought.  

If this doesn’t seem alarming enough, southern Spain and Portugal will have become deserts. 

It’s understandable that some of us are worried.  

Climate anxiety also affects those who witness first-hand the consequences of inaction. Those affected by floods, wildfires, heatwaves and other natural disasters tied to climate change know too well how devastating our actions have been. Some may develop anxiety as they lose control over their livelihoods, particularly those who have been displaced as a result of changing conditions.  

Just like any form of mental illness, climate anxiety can have a very real and tangible impact too. Anxiety associated with climate change can impact children, causing changes in their behaviour, development, memory, scholastic achievements, decision-making, and much more, according to the APA.  

Climate anxiety is serious; as stated by the APA, “although the psychological impacts of climate change may not be obvious, they are no less serious because they can lead to disorders, such as depression, antisocial behaviour, and suicide. Therefore, these disorders must be considered impacts of climate change as are disease, hunger, and other physical health consequences.” Effects of such anxiety include (but aren’t limited to) memory loss, digestive issues, sleep disorders and immune suppression. 

So what do we do?  

Arguably, we do what we have to do. That is, in a collective fight against climate denialism and inaction, we put pressure on those in power to reverse the situation. We use our anxiety to fuel a revolution towards sustainability and move away from the “business as usual” attitude we have abided by since the 70s. In Greta’s words, “there are no grey areas when it comes to survival”.  

As for managing anxiety, we build networks of support and contribute to the validation and understanding of climate anxiety as an obstacle to wellbeing. We help those bearing the costs of inaction to maintain the decent standards of living needed for their peace of mind. And we ensure that in such times of incertitude, we maintain healthy lifestyles and take care of ourselves too. 

Caption image by Markus Spiske at Unsplash 

2 comments

  1. This is a very good pithy article. I think you are right that the only answer to all our anxiety is to get active. We cant run away into hide aways and bunkers like some of the global rich are doing (see this article in the Financila Times for one example: https://www.ft.com/content/79781c20-051d-41c4-bd2c-31ceffb763e80).
    So, we have no choice but to campaign. Of course, campaigning also brings its own stresses but it can also be so uplifting and rewarding as its one way in which we learn about ourselves and others and the issues we face.

    Like

  2. As a personal reflection, I didn’t understand climate anxiety until I watched a talk by Roger Hallam – one of the intellectual leaders of the Extinction and Rebellion movement. Roger argues that Climate Change is not about polar bears or even most of the physical impacts we usually discuss. Instead, we should focus on the potential social outcomes, principally the fiscal collapse of the state: the failure of welfare payments and other public provisions such as schools and hospitals. This he argues will likely result in war and the deaths of the currently young generation, and not in Africa where this is normalised, by in Europe. Roger then uses the anxiety he creates argue in favour of the only possible opportunity to avert this future: the direct and non-violent action as the only means to challenge the status quo effectively, as seen in previous social revolutions, such as the overthrow of British imperialism in India and the dismantling of racial segregation in the USA.

    If you want to develop your creative anxiety, the video is here and well worth giving time to the slow and effective build up, but do be ready to feel real climate anxiety in the latter parts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_g3zoL8TFU

    Liked by 1 person

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