Jessica Sarnowski is an established EHS thought leader who specializes in content marketing. Jessica crafts compelling stories intended to reach a broad audience of environmental professionals. She may be reached through LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jessicasarnowski/
Anxiety. It’s a normal part of life and plays a very important role in protecting humans from danger and preventing risk. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” Breaking that definition down, one can see that it has two parts to it: mental and physical.
If you’ve never experienced severe anxiety, allow me to demonstrate it for you.
- It starts with a worry. In this context: “The sea level is rising due to climate change.”
- That worry leads to catastrophic thinking and intrusive thoughts: “Places like southern Florida, lower Manhattan, and certain island countries will disappear, leading to mass migration, loss of natural resources, loss of biodiversity, extreme weather events, death on a scale we’ve never seen before and, ultimately, the devastation of the planet.”
- Your blood pressure rises, your pulse quickens, and you start to sweat. The thoughts lead to an even scarier, personal place: “I should never have kids because there won’t be a world worth living in by the time that they are adults. I always wanted kids, so now I’m depressed.”
In 2006, Al Gore released his film “An Inconvenient Truth” which reached a very large audience. However, instead of that truth being simply inconvenient, it is now inevitable in the year 2022. Many young people are experiencing the anxiety that comes with the uncertainty of just when the planet will plummet into the full throws of climate change.
Climate Anxiety is Real – Mostly to Younger Generations
The New York Times article by Ellen Barry, “Climate Change Enters the Therapy Room,” not only provides a vivid overview of individual struggles; it also provides links to two very interesting studies that highlight the strain that the changing climate has on younger populations.
One study published by The Lancet is a comprehensive survey titled “Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey” by Caroline Hickman, Msc et al. When reviewing the discussion section of this study, three points stick out:
- Climate anxiety is not just about worries. This anxiety can manifest in fear, helplessness, guilt, anger, and other emotions associated with, or contributing to, an overarching sense of hopelessness and anxiety.
- These feelings impact how people function in their lives.
- Governments and regulators have a lot of power to impact climate anxiety, by either taking proactive action (which would calm this anxiety) or ignoring the problem (which exacerbates the problem).
The abstract of another study titled, “The psychological impacts of global climate change,” by Thomas Doherty and Susan Clayton divides the types of anxiety caused by climate change into three categories: direct, indirect, and psychosocial.
The authors describe indirect impacts as those based on uncertainty, a key component of anxiety, along with what people observe about climate change. Psychosocial impacts are more widespread in terms of the long-term effect of climate change on communities. Whereas direct impacts are explained as those that have immediate effects on people’s lives. The study abstract goes on to suggest different methods of intervention for each type of anxiety.
Without even delving into the details of each study, one can observe that climate anxiety is not one dimensional. And, much like the ecological problem that sparks it, climate anxiety will take time and perspective to adapt to. Indeed, there is no shortcut to addressing the element of risk involved in climate anxiety. There is no answer to the uncertainty of when effects of climate change will happen.
Colleges and Psychologists Are Realizing that Climate Anxiety is a Problem
Climate anxiety is a growing component of anxiety in general. As The Washington Post reports, colleges are offering creative therapy for students with growing climate related concerns. Interestingly, some colleges are implementing what they call “climate cafés.” These are notably not intended for those looking to find resolution in their struggle, but rather are a meeting place where one can express his/her/their feelings in an open and informal space.
Avoiding solutions during these climate café talks is an interesting approach given psychological principles themselves and the results of the studies mentioned above. Psychology that addresses anxiety is meant to help patients sit with the uncomfortable feelings of uncertainty and yet carry on. The climate cafés are one way to cope with the uncertainty for our planet without spinning solutions around in one’s head until one gets dizzy.
Notably, the field of climate psychology is growing. The Climate Psychology Alliance North America makes the connection between psychology in general and climate psychology. In the past, even just 40 years ago, children were only tangentially aware of the changing climate. Yes, Earth Day was a yearly event. However, for the average kid, a vague festival did not have the same meaning as the constant reminder (on the news, in science class, etc.) of the changing climate. Fast forward to 2022. Children are more exposed to and aware of global warming, ocean sea level rise, and the probable loss of species such as Polar Bears. This awareness understandably results in a degree of worry and reflection.
What is the Future of the Ocean?
Almost everyone has some memory of the ocean – hopefully a positive memory. But, with technology today, one can visualize the ocean of the future. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a tool called the Sea Level Rise – Map Viewer which allows one to visualize areas affected by sea level rise. NOAA, along with several other agencies, also released its 2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report, which provides updated projections that go out to the year 2150. Younger generations now have the opportunity, through tools like the Sea Level Rise map viewer, to see cities like Miami, Florida disappear before their eyes.
Many young people may become anxious when they consider what sea level rise will do to family members and others living in lower elevations. Cities they once fantasized about visiting may disappear. Species that they had the opportunity to learn about, or even see firsthand, will become extinct because the animals either cannot live within the temperature range of the evolving climate, or their food sources disappear because of it. The younger generations may feel a certain nostalgia about their childhood. They are not just concerned about future generations; they are concerned about the loss that will occur in their own lives.
Indeed, the changing climate affects many facets of the ocean including:
- Species migration
- Coral reefs
- Along with much more that is explored in The Ocean Foundation’s Research Page on Ocean and Climate Change.
The Ocean Foundation’s related effort is the Blue Resilience Initiative. The Blue Resilience Initiative commits to the restoration, conservation, and financing of natural coastal infrastructure by equipping key stakeholders with the tools, technical expertise, and policy frameworks to achieve large scale climate risk reduction. It is initiatives like this one that may provide younger generations with hope that they are not alone in striving to problem solve. Particularly when they feel frustrated with their country’s action or inaction.
Where Does This Leave Future Generations?
Climate anxiety is a unique type of anxiety and should be treated as such. On the one hand, climate anxiety is based on rational thought. The planet is changing. Sea levels are rising. And, it can feel like there is little any single person can do to stop this change. If climate anxiety becomes paralyzing, then neither the young person having the panic attack, nor the planet itself, “wins.” It is important that all generations and the field of psychology acknowledge climate anxiety as a legitimate mental health concern.
Climate anxiety is, indeed, haunting our younger generations. How we choose to address it will be key in motivating future generations to live life in the present, without giving up on the future of their planet.