How To Deal With (And Even Harness) Climate Anxiety
Illustration by Mr Jasper Rietman
Collective failure at Egypt’s COP27. The global crackdown on climate activists. A straight path towards a catastrophic Hothouse Earth scenario. A biodiversity crisis. The planet is experiencing a climate emergency, and we don’t even need to read the never-ending reel of bad news to notice the shifting seasons, rising temperatures and destruction of local habitats. In the UK alone, three-quarters of adults are worried about the climate crisis, while among young people, global rates of climate anxiety climb even higher, with 84 per cent reporting moderate or extreme worries about their futures. No matter how much recycling we do individually, there is a clear collective struggle to deal with the psychological dread of large-scale environmental collapse, alongside all the other political crises intertwined with it.
So, what on Earth can we do about these overwhelming feelings of doom? And how do we make sure these emotions don’t push us into denial or inaction? MR PORTER speaks to climate activists and a leading psychologist to find out.
Making peace with reality
“We have to accept a degree of powerlessness, but also feel empowered by the fact that there are things that we can still do,” says clinical psychologist Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams, who also is a co-director of Climate Psychologists. “We need to bring the locus of control and agency much more into what’s near and what’s tangible.”
Dr Kennedy-Williams suggests moving away from seeing climate anxiety as a phobia or something that has to be “solved”, and instead treating more like a chronic illness. “I worked in chronic illness in health psychology and hospitals for a long time, and found some real overlaps. It’s not about saying, ‘This is a problem that we can solve by changing how we think about it’. It’s about saying, ‘Actually, there’s an ongoing problem here that, that to some degree, we’re not going to be able to regain full control over’.”
He believes that dealing with climate anxiety is much more about finding healthy and productive ways of channelling it into sustainable action and accepting that we're going to have an emotional response to climate crisis.
Others care more than you think
Any form of mental distress can feel very isolating and lonely. Often, those worrying about the climate crisis may feel like they are the only person experiencing anxiety. “That’s another myth we need to debunk,” Dr Kennedy-Williams says. “There’s a study, where people were asked, ‘How concerned are you about the climate crisis?’ and something like 45 per cent said they were very worried. And then, when asked, ‘How worried do you think the people around you are?’ only 14 per cent said they think they others are very worried.”
It seems that there’s a huge discrepancy between individual emotional experiences and our perceptions of how we think other people are feeling, when in fact, it’s a shared experience. “One of the most powerful ways of harnessing and channelling climate anxiety along with taking sustainable climate action is about connecting with people around this issue,” Dr Kennedy-Williams says. For him, this is why community action is much more powerful than individual action.
Community action over individual action
“You don’t need to – and can’t – solve this alone,” says Ms Yara Rodrigues Fowler, climate organiser and author of There Are More Things. “As the abolitionist organiser Mariame Kaba says, ‘Everything worthwhile is done with other people’. Figure out what your capacity is for organising, be realistic and kind to yourself and then get involved in your community.” She suggests either joining a local climate justice group or seeing how climate justice can be brought into pre-existing community groups.
The climate organiser’s advice is backed by research. A study led by the Yale School of Public Health has identified that collective action can help “buffer the effects of climate anxiety and prevent it from leading to feelings of sadness and hopelessness that would be consistent with major depression”. The same study found that individual actions, such as recycling and turning off lights, didn’t have the same mental health benefits.
Looking after yourself in the process
“Sometimes, there’s a rush to action in this space,” Dr Kennedy-Williams says. “But after doing more research, we now suggest taking sustainable action – which is action that is sustainable for the planet and yourself.” He says that plenty of people who will take action still feel anxious and potentially burn out.
Ms Mikaela Loach is a climate activist and author of the forthcoming book It’s Not That Radical: Climate Action To Transform Our World. She has publicly spoken about the importance of rest and joy in deterring mental burnout. During this year’s COP27 conference in Egypt, she ran a day for young BIPOC climate activists to experience the joy of snorkelling and diving in the sea. “I can’t express how transformative that was for all of us, especially as we were all exhausted from a whole week of COP27 and we left the day feeling renewed as people,” she says.
Rodrigues Fowler also highlights the importance of joy and sustainable action in the face of overwhelming destruction and negativity. “I’m determined to spend as much time as possible seeking joy with my friends,” she says. “Doing crafts, hanging out in nature, watching silly documentaries, eating nice food, cuddling my baby cousins and going to parties. Capitalism tries to steal as much pleasure, time and health as it can from us, so we have make as much pleasure as we can together, and look after ourselves and each other.”
Not just finding hope, but actively creating it
Hope in the face of the climate crisis isn’t only found in positive news stories – we need to find it in ourselves. “Hope is an active stance that we take in the world where we realise that the only way that we have a possibility of everything being OK, or transformed, or better, is if we take action,” Loach says. “I think it’s really important to realise that hope isn’t a passive thing. It’s something that we collectively have to build.”
For Rodrigues Fowler, hope can be found in solidarity with other people and community groups, as well as in remembering that past injustices of enormous scales were resisted by millions of people, across generations. “This gives me courage, patience and helps me to understand that if liberation and climate repair can be imagined, then they are possible.”