The harm from worrying about climate change

February 2020

Worry about climate change is affecting more people as global warming becomes more apparent around the world. But there is a solution that can help improve this anxiety and slow climate breakdown at the same time.

Article by Christine Ro, published by the BBC -, 10th October 2019

Back in 2014, my partner and I marked a date in our shared online calendar. Unusually, this was for 27 August 2015 – a year ahead. It was an arbitrary date.

We’re indecisive when it comes to big life decisions, and this was the biggest: whether to have children. We were aware that, now in our 30s, we couldn’t wait indefinitely to decide. So we marked “baby-making conversation” in the calendar, as ever using irreverence in an attempt to make weighty matters seem less daunting, and happily pushed the question away for the time being.

But 27 August 2015 came and went. We felt no more prepared. We moved the date back another year. Then 27 August 2016 passed too. Clearly our stratagem hadn’t worked. While plenty of factors affected our ambivalence, the personality-level issues were overshadowed by a global one: anxiety about a future planet made unliveable by climate change.

Climate change harms mental wellbeing in a number of ways. From trauma and stress following disasters, to relationship damage caused by separation and displacement, the psychological effects of climate change can be enduring. Of course, these effects are heightened for certain vulnerable populations, such as elderly and low-income people, as well as those on the frontlines of climate change.

But even people whose lives and livelihoods don’t depend directly on the climate can feel the psychological strain. As noted in a report by psychology professor Susan Clayton at the College of Wooster and colleagues, “the ability to process information and make decisions without being disabled by extreme emotional responses is threatened by climate change”.

Worrying about climate change is a reasonable and healthy response to one of the greatest threats facing humanity at present (Credit: Getty Images/BBC)

Researchers at the University of Bath have some suggestions. When I visit the university, surrounded by woodland, with soaring views of the stately city below, Caroline Hickman and I decide to talk not in her office, but by a small lake on campus. We sit on rocks surrounded by sunbathing students and preening ducks, and swap stories of climate anxiety (or Hickman’s preferred term, “eco-awareness”). We have plenty to talk about, as it’s the day after the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the UK. Hickman, a psychotherapist and researcher who studies children’s attitudes towards climate change in the UK, the Maldives and other countries, is frustrated by the flippant media treatment of the previous day. As ever, I’m nervous about this latest harbinger of doom.

Yet Hickman insists that climate anxiety – like climate depression or climate rage – isn’t a pathology. It’s a reasonable and healthy response to an existential threat. “I’d kind of wonder why somebody wasn’t feeling anxious,” she says. (Read about why ‘flight shame’ is causing people to change how they travel.)

So the first step is to acknowledge the validity of these feelings. The job of a climate psychologist is then to ask: “How can we support you to make this part of your life and not all of your life?” Hickman might encourage patients to join an activist group, or a discussion and support groups like a climate cafe.

Climate anxiety – like climate depression or climate rage – isn’t a pathology. It’s a reasonable and healthy response to an existential threat

In one study of a programme called Carbon Conversations, which involves group discussion and activity to reduce climate impacts, half of participants said that the programme helped them face their worries about climate change. And greater emotional engagement was associated with more change in habits. This showed the linked benefits of feeling part of a community, reckoning with difficult feelings, and taking constructive measures.

This kind of research has been put into practice at New York University’s Environmental Health Clinic, which prescribes climate-friendly actions and group activities to its visitors. “There’s less space for anxiety emotionally when you take practical steps,” Hickman notes.

This is true even for extreme feelings. Hickman has counselled parents who fantasise about killing their children, out of fear of the climate-ravaged future. But she calmly points out that history is rife with examples of parents preparing to end their children’s lives in order to protect them. “If we disallow those feelings, we’re just driving them back into the unconscious,” Hickman argues.

The parents who confess these dark thoughts to her aren’t actually going to act on them, she believes, and it’s important for them to have a safe, shame-free mental space to express the depth of their anxiety. Psychotherapy and other psychology tools can help people become more comfortable with the uncertainty that is inevitable when it comes to climate change.

“One of the routes through the anxiety is to engage with your grief and your sense of loss,” Hickman says.

Guilt and fear can lead to psychic numbing that is unhelpful when dealing with something on the scale of a climate crisis (Credit: Getty Images/BBC)

A world away, in the north Indian village of North Salmara, Gautam Barman happens to be putting into practice much of what the climate psychology research suggests about forging community connections and practical actions. When journalist and businessman Abhideep Choudhury and I visit Barman and his colleagues from the Maharanee Tea Company, we sit among lush tea gardens and a factory busily drying and processing leaves.

“Now it is not healthy, our garden,” Barman laments. The ideal temperature for their tea is 30-33C, he says. But they’re now seeing 37-38C. The Maharanee growers attribute the higher temperatures to deforestation, as villagers are forced by poverty into cutting down shade-providing trees, as well as to global warming. The higher temperatures directly affect the growers’ income: scorching the plants, producing fewer usable green leaves, and requiring more breaks for the workers who pluck the leaves by hand.

The stakes are high. Residents in the area decided to invest in its tea-growing potential decades ago, when the state of Assam was being torn apart by intermittent ethnic conflict. They envisioned that tea planting would provide a livelihood option for young Assamese who would otherwise feel compelled to join the militant groups. The growers organised themselves into four self-help groups, who sought training and pooled money to buy trucks. Maharanee now employs more than 700 people, so the climate’s influence on tea production affects many households locally.

Hickman has counselled parents who fantasise about killing their children, out of fear of the climate-ravaged future

But Barman is briskly optimistic. The growers are planning to go organic, which will command higher prices. They have also been planting trees for shade on their small plots in an effort to beat the heat.

This will have environmental and financial benefits, but this kind of climate action is helping the growers’ wellbeing as well. “I feel better here than in my own house,” says Jagadish Chandra Ray, standing proudly amidst his two hectares of tea plants. It’s clear that nature-based activities help mental health, and that a local and collective focus helps people to grapple with the larger climate crisis, but Ray doesn’t need reports to tell him that.

Having emerged out of self-help groups, and banded together to open a factory, the Maharanee growers’ concrete responses to climate change effects are inspiring

For parents, anxiety about climate change can raise difficult questions about their children’s future (Credit: Getty Images/BBC)

I, on the other hand, am part of the problem. Round-trip flights between London and Guwahati, the closest airport to North Salmara, emit over three tonnes of carbon dioxide – about twice as much as the average Indian emits in a whole year. I’ve come to India for other reasons besides visiting these tea gardens, though all my work and carbon offsets can’t entirely offset environmental guilt.

“When we’re scared, we can freeze,” points out Susan M Koger, a psychology professor at Willamette University in Oregon, who teaches and writes about psychology for sustainability. “We can become paralysed by fear, or just tune out. We use various kinds of defence mechanisms to distract, to deflect, to numb out.” This kind of “psychic numbing” is unhelpful, both in dealing with the climate crisis and more generally. Also unhelpful is the guilt that I’m prone to. Koger says, “Guilt is not a useful emotion because guilt is not motivating. But instead of guilt, we can reframe it as responsibility.”

I am part of the problem. Round-trip flights between London and Guwahati emit about twice as much as the average Indian emits in a whole year

Back in Bath, I grope around for ways to reframe my negative emotions, with the help of Hickman. “The primary support that people get is through their doctors and medication and CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy], none of which is particularly appropriate in response to the climate emergency,” she says. Hickman’s approach is a little different. She insists that the psychology she practices is mainstream, yet some of the things she says are out of sync with certain establishment psychologists, and she’s unafraid to be controversial.

“I can see you’re struggling with it,” she says. She smilingly implies that I’m being defensive and shying away a little, and perhaps I am. Midway through our conversation, I swap out my eyeglasses for sunglasses – mostly because of the glaring sun, but partly because I’m feeling the need to shield myself in other ways. I’ve made only passing references to my partner and children, so I’m startled when Hickman perceptively brings this up later on. But my parenthood status, like the state of the world, remains unresolved.

I’m not alone in this larger discomfort. The work of Hickman, a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, is influenced by the idea of “deep adaptation”. The concept is controversial among some climate scientists and psychologists for positing that societal collapse is inevitable. (This has driven some readers of an infamous, and influential, deep adaptation paper to move to the countryside and to visit therapists like Hickman.)

Climate change denial and doomism over problems like melting glaciers can be harmful by leading people to feel their actions will not make a difference (Credit: Getty Images/BBC)

“On a personal level, I think that’s probably true. It’s definitely hard to remain hopeful,” acknowledges Koger. “However, I do think that’s dangerous. I think it’s personally dangerous and I think it’s societally dangerous because if there’s no hope, then there’s no reason to take action.” Koger wants to avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy of climate doomism (which some have argued is just as harmful as climate change denial). “For me personally, I need to feel that I’m making some kind of a difference.”

Hickman, who is also a scuba-diving instructor, adapts scuba principles to both couples counselling and climate therapy: Stop. Breathe. Think. Connect. Act. “What we need in response to the climate emergency is both internal and external solutions,” she says, and this scuba-like model allows for both self-care and the collective action needed to confront climate breakdown. One of the takeaways is that just presenting facts about climate change isn’t as helpful as encouraging people to reflect on that information, including any discomfort they might feel.

Encouraging people to reflect on information about climate change and take positive action is one way of tackling climate anxiety (Credit: Getty Images/BBC)

At the end of our conversation, we watch dragonflies flitting around the lake and bulrushes swaying in the light breeze. We squeal at fuzzy ducklings following in their mother’s wake, in a perfect V formation.

I’ve spent two hours talking about climate change, which would normally have me feeling apprehensive and queasy. But for a moment, focused on the ducklings, the heaviness in my chest is gone.


Climate Emotions

This article is part of BBC’s Climate Emotions series. Climate change is harming the planet, and it may be harming our mental health too.

From fear and anxiety to hope and healing, this series examines our complex responses to climate change, and how those responses will shape our ability to deal with the environmental challenge we face.