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Climate Anxiety, Explained

Biya Shadab

What is Climate Anxiety?

Recently, climate anxiety has been widely covered in mainstream media and credited for the rise and ferocity of the youth movement and touted as a looming mental health crisis. According to Google, searches for “climate anxiety” have soared 565% over the past 12 months. But what exactly is climate anxiety?

Climate anxiety is distress experienced by individuals regarding ecological change. It is an indirect effect of climate change i.e., as people become aware of the implications of global warming they feel a sense of worry, anger, despair, fear and guilt. This chronic stress has the potential to have a long-lasting impact on an individual’s psychological and social wellbeing.

It is, however, a constructive anxiety and although long term experience of this anxiety may lead to mental health issues, climate anxiety in itself doesn’t count as a mental illness. In fact, it serves a practical purpose and may help people to change their behaviours to respond appropriately to the threat.  

Why is it important to pay attention to climate anxiety?

For those on the frontlines of climate change, the trauma and stress following disasters, the damage caused by displacement and the loss of income and livelihoods, the psychological impact of climate change can be long lasting. But even for those who aren’t immediately confronted by climate change, the ability to process information and make decisions without being disabled by extreme emotional responses is threatened by climate anxiety. And even though climate anxiety has been identified as a rational response, we can become paralysed by fear, or use various defence mechanisms to distract or deflect. This kind of numbing is unproductive, both for dealing with climate change as well as more generally.  

Recent studies show that the emotional, cognitive, social and functional impact of climate change is disproportionately impacting young people. It is likely that young people will experience the crisis for the entirety of their lives. The chronic stress of this knowledge and experience disproportionately increases their risk for physical and mental health problems.  

A recent study by researchers at the University of Bath, UK, surveyed 16–25-year-olds from ten countries from both the global south and north. Their findings show that 60 percent of young people reported feeling ‘extremely’ worried about climate change while 77 percent felt that the ‘future was frightening’. These young people report feeling that a planet undergoing climate change will not afford them the same opportunities as their parents and many were hesitant to have children, given the precariousness of both their and the planet’s future.  

These figures collected from across varying cultures, incomes, vulnerabilities and exposure to climate related events show that this may be a public health crisis in the making and that we need to understand it and develop preventative and coping mechanisms.  

How to counter Climate Anxiety?  

It is vital to understand that climate anxiety in young people is not caused by ecological disaster alone, but also by the failure to acknowledge or act by those with power i.e., adults and government- resulting in feelings of betrayal and abandonment. The study showed that while over 80 percent of the young people participating had spoken to someone about climate change, almost fifty percent of them felt their concern had been ignored or dismissed.  

83 percent of the respondents of the study felt that people have failed to care for the planet, and 65 percent felt that governments were failing to protect young people. Nearly 58 percent felt their government was betraying them and future generations. Only 31 percent felt governments can be trusted. These numbers are worrying because the study found that ‘negative thoughts, worry about climate change, and impact on functioning...showed substantial correlations with feelings of betrayal and negative beliefs about government response’.

Adult failure to prevent harmful unethical behaviour is experienced by young people as a moral injury. There is an increasing understanding of the intersection between climate change, climate anxiety and human rights and with it the understanding that inflicting climate anxiety upon young people is a moral injury-cruel and inhumane. Climate criminology is giving legal recognition to this and my become a vital avenue for validating young people’s distress caused by government inaction.  

Therefore, while psychological coping mechanisms may be important to mitigate climate anxiety in young people, the real solution may lie in providing them with agency, i.e., the ability to have their views not just heard but also acted upon by those who have power. Governments must protect the well-being of young people through policy and action and act in line with climate science, all the while remaining transparent about the impact of the actions taken.

Rather than current narratives on countering climate change with individual action, action should be taken by those in power by recognising the distress of young people and protecting their wellbeing by acknowledging their rights and placing them in the centre of policy making.

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