COP27: climate anxiety is rising

Young woman during a demonstration

Young woman during a demonstration

World leaders are about to gather for another UN climate summit – COP27 which kicks off in Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday – and the reality of climate change for many people can be overwhelming.

Record heat waves, devastating floods in Pakistan and drought in East Africa – and that’s just this year.

It’s no surprise that climate anxiety is on the rise, especially among young people, most of whom have only known a world affected by climate change.

But experts and campaigners have told BBC News these fears may actually be good news for the planet.

“People who are really aware of climate change can be more motivated to act,” said Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist at the University of Bath.

His research has linked climate concerns to taking effective action, including reducing the carbon footprint by reducing waste or buying second-hand.

When people talk about their own climate anxiety, they often say it’s linked to the vast amount of negative and often scary news on the planet.

“I think it’s hard not to worry about climate change. We’re constantly bombarded with press and social media stories about how it’s crisis after crisis – melting ice caps, disasters – that can be very overwhelming,” says Roisin, 16, from County Antrim in Northern Ireland.

Roisin is a member of Save The Children’s Youth Advisory Council, which recently found that 70% of children in the UK are worried about the world they are inheriting.

Roisin, 16, says almost everyone his age talks about their fears for the planet

Roisin, 16, says almost everyone his age talks about their fears for the planet

But she says there is also hope: “You can still see young activists like Greta Thunberg and people like David Attenborough taking action on this.”

Roisin says she has gone vegetarian and makes sure she only shops locally. “Taking action is my only way to deal with climate anxiety – it means knowing I’ve done everything I can to address the issue,” she says.

Some activists, like Zahra Biabani, 23, in California, say the widespread attention to climate catastrophe can be misleading.

When she started posting about environmental issues online in college, she realized there was “a gap between education and action, which was bridged by ‘doomism'” .

“Climate education can be debilitating without some form of encouragement to act, especially when you see what’s happening in the world and how it’s going to get worse,” she explains.

Now she shares “climate optimistic” news and writes newsletters focused on good news and solutions.

“Climate optimism is not just nice, it’s necessary because to be supported in our action and advocacy, we need to believe and have something worth fighting for,” she explains.

She believes there is a generational gap between many young people who want to focus on how the planet could be saved, and the ‘older white male community’ who are focused on how ‘the world is going to end’. .

“I don’t want to think it’s coming from a bad place. I think they have a lot of anxiety too, but they find a very different way to use it,” she suggests.

Psychotherapist Caroline Hickman specializes in climate anxiety and has treated a significant number of young people. She says it’s “completely normal” to worry about the state of the planet, but “sinking into despair and ‘climate doomism’ is not the solution”.

It is important to distinguish between severe clinical anxiety about climate change, which is a mental health issue, and worry or concern.

Professor Whitmarsh suggests that although there are high levels of concern about climate change, particularly among young people, most people do not suffer from debilitating climate anxiety which requires treatment by a medical professional mental.

What to do if you suffer from climate anxiety

Zahra suggests:

  • Focus on the good news. Find stories about progress in the fight against climate change or a new solution. “Look for information that is encouraging and does not blind you.”

  • Give yourself a break Do something unrelated to the problem – exercise, go outside, read or watch a movie. “Finding an activity unrelated to climate change is really cathartic and really beneficial.”

Caroline offers:

  • Take action Join a local group doing something about the problem or lobby politicians to pass laws. “Find like-minded people and work together to advance a goal.”

  • Do not turn off completely “I caution people against complete shutdown – because when you wake up the reality will be too extreme.”

Top image from Getty Images. Visualization of climate bands courtesy of Professor Ed Hawkins and the University of Reading.

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