Climate anxiety – notes on a current buzzword in the climate crisis debate

Preliminary remarks

The inflationary use of the term “climate anxiety” in the public debate on the man-made climate crisis has become a phenomenon in its own right. This phenomenon now risks masking the significance of the climate crisis itself. If the current anxiety concerning climate change is being pathologized, the focus shifts to efforts on how to overcome this anxiety. As a result, the climate crisis would be seen as an individual problem of adaptation while in reality, the issue is a global threat that can only be dealt with on a societal/political level. An attempt to pathologize the issue can be seen as a strategy to defame social activism for climate protection and prevent necessary political decisions.

In this context, Psychologists /Psychotherapists for Future (Psy4F) offers a differentiated approach towards both the term and the phenomenon of climate anxiety. Our aim is to rationalize the debate and draw attention to the main issue at hand, which is the climate crisis itself. We would like to propose solutions which – while taking the individual level into account – focus on the necessary political processes to tackle the climate crisis. Our central message is: Concerns and anxieties regarding climate change which disrupt large portions of society are relevant and necessary for an appropriate reaction to the crisis: They motivate us to act.

Regarding the term “anxiety”

Anxiety is a multifaceted term describing different phenomena: In situations of observable danger, it is experienced as an acute affect, i.e. fear. It can also accumulate over time and become downright paralysing. Furthermore, it can be understood as an emotional state characterized by tension, concerns, nervousness, restlessness, and apprehension over future events. It can also be defined as a personality trait, where the person has a heightened sensitivity to threats. Finally, anxiety can in the clinical sense, take the form of an anxiety disorder, if it includes a high level of psychological strain and significant impairment of personal functioning. In such cases, anxiety loses its motivational function.

Psychologists/Psychotherapists for Future focus on those phenomena of anxiety and concerns in the face of the climate crisis which first and foremost have an adaptive function.

When we talk about “Climate Anxiety” (or “Eco Anxiety”, “Anthropocene Anxiety”) in the face of the climate crisis, we mean (a) concerns regarding one’s own existence and those of others in a changing world (cognitive level) and (b) anxiety regarding the practical consequences of the climate crisis (emotional level). Therefore, climate anxiety is not a psychiatric diagnosis. Only if concerns and fears take over, then the development of a mental illness in the sense of a dysfunctional and paralyzing state is to be expected. Our focus is on those meanings and related terms of climate anxiety that have an adaptive function.

Climate anxiety as adaptive emotion

Anxiety can also be induced cognitively, i.e. we can experience anxiety by thinking about threatening situations and evaluating them as (a) either more or less likely to occur and (b) either more or less threatening. For this to happen, it is not always necessary for a snake or other threatening stimulus to be present. This rational form of anxiety can also be called a “concern”. In the course of human history, this cognitively induced anxiety has proven itself as a significant advantage. It allows us to anticipate threats and enables us to reduce (a) their probability and/or (b) their extent. We might even be able to avoid them completely, which is the reason why city walls were built during the Middle Ages, why someone keeps watch when everybody else sleeps, why we have baby monitors and preventive medical check-ups. All of these are successful proactive measures to take before an actual threat occurs.

In the case of the climate crisis this preventive mechanism has obviously not worked, at least not initially, even though the effects of a massive release of greenhouse gases were discussed early on. As an example, we would like to point out the Swedish Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius who, in 1896, predicted global warming due to anthropogenic, i.e. man-made, carbon dioxide emissions.

The threat has (a) slowly increased over such a long time that (b) the changes were for a long time neither palpable nor visible (especially from a Eurocentric perspective). Furthermore, the world regions which are most strongly affected are those which are not setting the global political trends through global trade or the United Nations. In contrast, the strain in industrialized countries remained low for a long time. Extreme weather events like the recent drought that was fatal to our water balance, agriculture, and ecosystem (c) cannot, within a complex climate system, easily be linked to climate change.

Climate change is an elementary but creeping threat, it is mostly abstract and very complex, and its effects are often (still) not tangible.

Christoph Nikendei, 2020

Furthermore, there is a very crucial (d): Adequate reaction to man-made climate change has for decades been actively obstructed by political and economic interests. This has been impressively illustrated in Nathaniel Rich’s feature “Losing Earth” in the New York Times. For the US, a politically decisive power in fighting climate change, a connection between conservative ideology and climate scepticism has even been shown empirically. Many books have been written on evidence that serious research has purposefully been undermined due to economic interests.

Only increasingly vocal warnings by scientists and roles models such as Greta Thunberg have raised public awareness of the climate crisis. The accompanying powerful protests have led to increased media coverage which in turn raised awareness of the climate crisis further. Thus, within a short time it became one of the most important issues in the public debate as well as one of the most significant social issues. This is shown by surveys like the R+V Anxiety Study as well as the Sinus and Shell youth studies (all from 2019).

It seems that by 2019, a cognitively induced anxiety concerning climate change has finally arrived. We are able to differentiate between climate awareness (to be aware of climate change and its effects) and climate consciousness (the thought of taking action against climate change). People are concerned about their future in this world, the future of younger/future generations, and the future of the world’s manifold ecosystems. Anxiety and concerns are therefore not “negative” as such – that would be an incorrect and careless assessment. They have adaptive functions, i.e. to react appropriately and effectively to threats, even to complex and not immediately visible ones. They act as a signal and impulse, and within society they fulfil an important role as a powerful political motive.

The role of threatening information

A feeling of threat develops if current or impending circumstances differ significantly from what we have expected or desired. It is connected to uncertainty regarding the future developments of these circumstances and can lead to anxiety. Being in a state of anxiety, all we want is for it to subside. In the case of a cognitively conveyed threat (through information), it is possible to take refuge in our thoughts: e.g. by trivializing (“it won’t be so very bad”), repression (“I have to take care of other things first”), scepticism (“there are other opinions as well”) or denial (“climate change isn’t real”). Such cognitive avoidance strategies become prevalent if we feel unable to effectively deal with the threat.

We find that the conditions under which a transition to greener lifestyles takes place
are very narrow.

Kapeller & Jäger, 2019

In this context, confronting people with alarming or even apocalyptic aspects of the climate crisis can impede the gathering of broad parts of society behind the climate movement’s demands. The wish to adequately educate people about the climate crisis and its consequences can actually backfire (“backfiring effect”), as Marie Lisa Kapeller and Georg Jaeger from the University of Graz put it. From their research they concluded that increased anxiety about climate change does not necessarily lead to a greener lifestyle and that conditions where a transition to a greener lifestyle takes place are very narrow. The necessary conditions for such a transition are an individual’s high environmental orientation, an ongoing high information load on climate change, and a majority of the population believing in man-made climate change.

Dealing with anxiety and concerns

Based on these insights, there is only one definitive conclusion to handling the climate crisis under increasing time pressure: by taking action across society. Ultimately, this requires adequate political decisions.

In particular, continuous references to individual responsibility can jeopardize the successful handling of the climate crisis if the political and regulatory framework is not adapted accordingly

In our opinion, the climate crisis can only be dealt with by cooperation in a complex societal system, and by factoring in the most diverse interests. In particular, continuous references to individual responsibility can jeopardize the successful handling of the climate crisis if the political and regulatory framework is not adapted accordingly. Different societal groups should be involved comprehensively, different living conditions should be taken into account in democratic discourse and developed solutions.

For an enlightened society which respects human rights, (supposed) solutions to the climate crisis that do not lead to an alignment of interests and create social and/or democratic distress or even crises, are not an option. A cross-societal solution of the climate crisis can only result from the increasingly elaborated socio-scientific, economic and psychological concept of climate justice.

For decisive political action to be taken, some more political movement is required though. The year 2019 has shown impressively that this is a successful way of dealing with concerns and anxiety. It was a year of a strengthening global climate movement which reached a critical mass in society. Through a cycle of protests, amplification by the media, political reactions, increased protests accompanied by strong scientific findings, authentic role models such as Greta Thunberg, and alarming images, e.g. from the Arctic or Australia, the majority of people have become cognitively and emotionally aware of the climate crisis.

The risk for dysfunctional anxieties to develop most likely increases if concerns and fear take over by (a) apocalyptical warnings (or convictions), (b) a poor prospect due to counterproductive, non-existent, or insufficient political decisions, and (c) a perceived lack of individual options to do something. For concerns and anxiety not to develop into powerlessness and paralysis, we argue that the following is helpful and necessary:

(1) Individual level – climate resilience

Together with the researchers Ann Sansons, Judith Van Hoorn und Susie Burke from Australia and the US, we suggest to build up our capacity to adapt. Sansons et al. refer to results from research on resilience and development which show that the most useful individual development goals can be grouped into three categories: individual attributes (e.g. emotional self-regulation, empathy, adaptability, creativity), interpersonal skills (e.g. conflict resolution skills, ability to work in a team) and social commitment (e.g. volunteer work, participation in local groups). Multipliers for these attributes are primarily parents, friends, educational institutions, educators, and psychologists.

From conversations with students who have engaged in school strikes, we know how youth’s activism has helped them manage their anxiety about the future and channel it into determination, courage, and optimism. These students appear to have learned many valuable positive development skills and attributes through their involvement with the strikes, and these skills will stand them in good stead throughout their lives.

Sansons, Van Hoorn & Burke, 2019

(2) Group level – climate strikes

The quotation above leads us to the group level. We are convinced that individual action alone – like abstaining from air travel or excessive meat consumption – is not enough. To achieve decisive political change and to experience self-efficacy – which leads to subjective well-being and a reduction of individual anxieties – collaborative action is instrumental. Specific and low-threshold possibilities for getting involved that are offered by the “For Future” groups facilitate access to group-level action.

Especially people who experience strong concerns and feel helpless and hopeless in the face of the climate crisis, can make positive experiences by becoming active within a group.

Especially those people who experience strong concerns and feel helpless and hopeless in the face of the climate crisis, can experience a reduction of their negative emotions and an increase in self-efficacy by becoming active within a group. The energy created by negative emotions is redirected into action. This reduces helplessness and conveys the positive feeling of “being able to achieve something together”.

(3) Societal level – climate policy

Although it well known that negative messages can sometimes create anxiety and lead to defence mechanisms instead of a readiness to act, we will not be able to dispense with continued clear warnings. Negative messages from our environment will rather continue to increase as well. Therefore, opportunities to participate are becoming more important. For activists to feel that their activism has a positive impact, a movement on a societal level is necessary. This requires an adequate climate policy in addition to political processes which inspire hope.

We owe this to all of the people who have already experienced existential threats through the climate crisis, and those which are standing on the brink of such experiences and therefore suffer from existential anxieties. Traditional industrial nations like Germany have to lead by example to show the world that a transition to a non-fossil energy era is possible.

Considering these three levels of climate action, we advocate…

  • refraining from solely problem-focused strategies when dealing with the climate crisis, especially if they put all emphasis on demanding individual behavioural changes and ignore the necessity of systematic political changes.
  • perseverance in the broad discussion on climate change and its crisis-laden effects. At the same time, information on the climate crisis and its manifestations should always be accompanied by information on possible practical courses of action, especially activism and exchange on the group level.
  • meeting climate concerns and anxieties with collective action. Small improvements should be appreciated as successes, even if realistically more has to be done.
  • campaigning for political changes on all levels without neglecting or downplaying other concerns and individual afflictions.
  • politically enacted systematic incentives for climate-friendly behaviour, and sanctions for climate-damaging behaviour (on individual, structural, and industrial levels). Individual social circumstances should also be taken into account.
Our message regarding climate anxiety

Anxieties and concerns in the face of the climate crisis are natural and helpful as they provide energy for change. Individualizing responsibility is not a good solution as this can (a) increase the psychological strain and reduce well-being. As a result, (b) this threatens to reduce individual efficiency and agency. In contrast, experiencing political efficacy within a group can reduce anxieties and concerns while stimulating hope.

Only when we experience actual success with tangible changes, and when the threat is reduced credibly, then anxiety can subside.

Despite of the sometimes straining weight of the climate crisis, the increasing strength and pervasiveness of climate protests and messages for effective climate protection can be seen as the first positive trends. These should be emphasized and continued. Last but not least, political processes and results are required to create confidence. Only when we experience actual success with tangible changes, and when the threat is reduced credibly, then anxiety can abate.

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