Climate Anxiety 101

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

Eco-anxiety has been described as a source of stress when people watch "the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations… affected by feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference” (American Psychological Society, 2017) and there would seem to be an increasing amount about.

A recent Guardian article [Overwhelming and terrifying’: the rise of climate anxiety ] dealt with young people's' climate anxiety which, the article explained, can occur in surprisingly young children.  Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams was quoted saying that tackling climate anxiety and tackling the climate crisis are intrinsically linked:

“The positive thing from our perspective as psychologists is that we soon realised the cure to climate anxiety is the same as the cure for climate change – action.  It is about getting out and doing something that helps.  Record and celebrate the changes you make.  Nobody is too small.  Make connections with other people and at the same time realise that you are not going to cure this problem on your own.  This isn’t all on you ... .”

The article also featured Elizabeth Wathuti, a climate activist from Kenya.  Her experience of climate anxiety is not so much about the future but what is happening now.  She said:

“People in African countries experience eco-anxiety differently because climate change for us is about the impacts that we are already experiencing now and the possibilities of the situation getting worse."

She works with young people through the Green Generation Initiative she founded and sees the effects of eco-anxiety first-hand. A common worry she hears among students is: “We won’t die of old age, we’ll die from climate change.”

A recent study by the Environment Agency was also quoted.  This found that people in the UK who experience extreme weather such as storms or flooding are 50% more likely to suffer from mental health problems, including stress and depression, for years afterwards.  More than 1,000 clinical psychologists signed an open letter highlighting the impact of the crisis on people’s wellbeing and predicting acute trauma on a global scale in response to extreme weather events, forced migration and conflict.  Kaaren Knight, a clinical psychologist who coordinated the letter, said:

“The physical impacts related to extreme weather, food shortages and conflict are intertwined with the additional burden of mental health impacts and it is these psychologists are particularly concerned about.”

At the end of the article advice for parents was offered.  It is set out below together with my comments:

– 1 – Remember that you do not need to be a climate expert.  It’s OK to explore learning together.  If your child asks a question you can’t answer immediately, respond by saying: “What a great question.  Let me look into that so I can answer it properly.”

This depends on the question.  The answers to these the following ones are quite different in nature:  "Which is the more potent greenhouse gas, methane or CO2?"  and "Will we have to change the way we heat our home?   The first is a question of fact which you can look up.  The other is contingent on a range of factors some of which are conjectural.  There are a lot of questions of both kinds out there.  Then there are questions of value such as "How should we live in order to safeguard the biosphere?  which are hard to answer "properly".


 – 2 – Try to validate, rather than minimise, children’s emotions.  If children express anxiety, it’s much better to say: “It’s OK to feel worried.  Here is what we can do about it,” than to say: “Don’t worry.  It’s all fine.” But always try to support this emotion with suggestions for positive action.

Sometimes emotion is wholly misplaced.  If someone says that they think that world will end in 10 years because of climate change, it's surely not enough to say don't worry".  Saying that it's not true – and explaining why – would be a more responsible parental response.  As would exploring what's behind the question and where it comes from.


– 3 – Negative information hits harder.  Bad or threatening facts tend to resonate more strongly – and therefore stick in the mind.  So try to balance one piece of negative news with three pieces of positive news.  Have some examples of good climate-related news ready – for example, successful conservation projects.

Whilst recognising the potency of this issue, it's not simply about numbers and ratios which is just as well given how much troubling info there is out there about the climate.  A key issue here is whether the negative info is true or not  – and how you know.  


– 4 – For younger children, keep it local and tangible.  Suggest litter picks and school events.  For teenagers, encourage them to stay connected at a wider level – help them write to their MP, take part in protests and join local communities and campaigns.

Good advice apart from the litter picks which will not address the climate challenge.  Local campaigns to help prevent waste might but only at the margins.  By all means involve the MP and your local councillors.  Go with your children to see them.  Encourage them to ask awkward questions, and demand action.


– 5 – Set practical goals as a family and follow through. Record and celebrate your climate successes together (even a piece of paper on the fridge door).  Reinforce the message that small actions can make a big difference.

This is all very well, and we all should do it as part of good living, but it won't necessarily solve the climate crisis.  Only actions of and between governments and their agencies will do this.  So, encourage them to pressure government through MPs, but recognise the truth that small actions will only likely make a small difference.



Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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