Get Out of Your Head and into Your Heart: From Climate Anxiety to Climate Justice
What comes to mind when you think of solutions to climate change? When I google the question, the following ideas come up: save energy at home, walk/bike/take public transportation (if possible), eat more vegetables, throw away less food, recycle. These are the most common ideas for solutions, and all of them focus on what individuals need to do to reduce their carbon footprint and save the world. The societal pressure on individuals to solve climate change – especially when only a specific demographic of individuals (primarily middle to upper class white people) have the means to comfortably afford and implement climate solutions into their lifestyle – is overwhelming and causes it to become a strong point of anxiety for many in this privileged demographic. But, the focus on the individual to solve the problem does not acknowledge the greater systems in place that worsen climate change: climate change is strongly connected to systems of inequality in our society that also make socially marginalized groups more vulnerable to its impact. It’s possible that those experiencing the greatest anxiety around climate change could do the most good by addressing structural injustice. How would that work?
What is Climate Anxiety?
Now, you might be wondering what climate anxiety is. It’s a relatively new term that helps realize the psychological impact climate change is having on people, and is often associated with increased feelings of anxiety, guilt, grief, and desperation. The American Psychological Association defines climate anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom,” while environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht defines it as “the generalized sense that the ecological foundations of existence are in the process of collapse.” In my own experience, I feel climate anxiety when thinking about what the future holds as climate change is becoming more intense earlier than predicted. For me, it is the realization and fear that the places that have shaped me as a person are going to change drastically. After I graduated high school, I spent the summer canoeing rivers through the Northwest Territories and Nunavut in Canada. With the Arctic warming at a faster rate than the rest of the world, the pristine nature I experienced will soon be unrecognizable due to erosion from permafrost and sea ice melting.
I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to experience the Arctic’s beauty, but I was able to leave the environment. Indigenous People in the Arctic do not have that same privilege and are faced with an unlivable future as it becomes warmer.
On an age level, younger people are experiencing climate anxiety at higher rates, with a survey finding that 59% of young people ages 16-25 are extremely worried about climate change, and 84% are at least moderately worried. There is less information on the mental impact climate change has on older generations, but a study finds they’re likely to care more about the short term physical impacts such as extreme weather, poor air quality and infectious diseases because they are more vulnerable. However, older generations may be feeling guilt and responsibility for not leaving a sustainable state for future generations.
How is this Different from Climate Justice?
There is a stark difference between who feels climate anxiety and who actually experiences climate change. In terms of experiencing climate change, there are numerous examples in the recent news where people of color have been hit hardest. Major flooding in Pakistan, Jackson, Mississippi losing water, and Puerto Rico losing power following Hurricane Fiona are a few that come to mind. In the United States, an EPA report found that underserved communities who are least able to prepare for and recover from natural disasters, poor air quality, heat waves, etc. are more likely to experience severe harms from climate change. Black individuals are more likely to face higher impacts of climate change due to where they live compared to other demographics, and Hispanic and Latinx individuals are more likely to live in areas with the highest projected reductions in labor hours due to heat.
In contrast, climate anxiety is primarily felt by white people, as Sarah Jaquette Ray points out in her opinion piece Climate Anxiety Is an Overwhelmingly White Phenomenon. The privilege I have with climate change being one of the only existential threats I experience as a white woman doesn’t go unnoticed by me. The prospect of an unlivable future is scary to me, but people of color have been faced with unlivable futures for far longer. They experience existential threats of slavery, colonialism, environmental racism, and police brutality just to name a few. Ray explains that climate anxiety brings forward the emotions and effects of oppression and resistance, which aren’t new to the climate movement. What is new though, is the primary demographic of people feeling climate anxiety. Most are people who have not experienced oppression before, myself included, and are now being faced with the possibility of their own unlivable future.
Sarah Jaquette Ray reframes this anxiety for people with privilege. Instead of asking “What can I do to save the world?” – which creates climate anxiety – Jaquette Ray says we should be asking “Who am I?” and “How am I connected to all of this?” She says the answers will show we are deeply interconnected with the well-being of others on the planet, and there are traditions of environmental stewardship that can guide us on where to go from here. This leads to the idea of Climate Justice – which recognizes the interconnectedness of humans and our struggles, and in turn fights for solutions to climate change that both reduce emissions and create a more fair and just world.
What are barriers to Climate Action?
So, what stops us from doing something about climate change and the climate anxiety people feel? There’s a complex psychology of climate anxiety that inhibits our ability to take action. As humans, we have evolved to respond to specific types of threats in an ideal way – threats that are immediate, visible, and fast – the exact opposite of what climate change is to us. This faulty alarm hypothesis, or cognitive bias in our evolved risk detection system, causes us to not feel enough anxiety to do something about climate change because it slips our attention. There is also the bystander effect, which is our conflict between individual and collective self-interest. This social dilemma causes us anxiety around the costs of the issue (climate change), but also around trying to predict other peoples’ behavior. It brings up the question “Can I trust someone else will do the right thing (about climate change)? And how can I trust that someone else will trust me to do the right thing?”
To address this social dilemma, we need to use cooperative strategies with each other and give cooperative behavior an environment to succeed.
Maybe the Focus on the Individual is What Gets in the Way …
Individual pressure to cooperate with others is not the right solution when there are greater systems of injustice in place. These systems exacerbate climate change but also need to be addressed before we are fully able to give full attention to the climate crisis. Racism, sexism, and colonialism are just a few injustices that are embedded into our social, political, and economic systems. When so many people are focused on surviving more immediate existential threats, climate change becomes the least of their worries.
As Sarah Jaquette Ray says, “climate anxiety must be directed towards addressing the ways that racism manifests as environmental trauma and how environmentalism manifests as racialized violence.” When we can realize how connected we all are, people with privilege can turn their climate anxiety into community building to fight for climate justice. We are all living on Native Land and Indigenous peoples conservation efforts can teach us a lot and should be a necessary partnership going forward with the work needed to combat climate change and climate anxiety.
In other words, climate action has to be based on collective trust. People experiencing climate anxiety feel a tremendous sense of distrust of other people who are not taking action to offset emissions or take other steps to protect the future that they want to have. In parallel, people experiencing climate injustice feel a tremendous sense of distrust of others to have acted to force them to disproportionately shoulder the burden of environmental harm, and who see “environmentalists” as those who would sustain that imbalance. Maybe – just maybe – those who feel climate anxiety could first address their feelings of distrust by actively engaging on behalf of communities experiencing climate injustice. And in the process of that engagement, overcome their own sense of fear of others and see new possibilities in engaging in climate action.
It’s easy to feel isolated when experiencing climate anxiety, but this is not and should not be an individual battle. Oppressed and marginalized groups have formed traditions of resilience for their survival for centuries. “They know that protecting joy and hope is the ultimate resistance to domination,” as Sarah Jaquette Ray sums it up. Our well-beings are all deeply interconnected, so we need to come together to collectively protect our joy and hope in the face of climate change, and we can look towards black, feminist, and indigenous leaders’ experiences to lead the way to climate justice.