Have you ever woken up in a cold sweat, feeling like the world is going to end? The climate breakdown is happening, and there is nothing you can do about it. Well, I have good news. You are not alone and this has a name: climate anxiety. It refers to anger, worry and insecurity stemming from an awareness of a warming planet
Sometimes, I find it really hard to study properly without being consumed by “what if?”. In October 2020, I started a new adventure by registering for a two-year MSc in Climate Change and Sustainable Development. The more I learn about climate change, the more I understand the scale of the challenge ahead of us. Studying possible projections, pathways, and scenarios, along with humans’ current actions, give me a lot of anxiety.
So, I reached out to a renowned academic to understand his view on climate anxiety and what advice he has. Dr Thomas Tanner is Director of the Centre for Development, Environment and Policy in the Department of Development Studies at SOAS University of London.
Have you ever experienced climate anxiety?
“Like many others, I have and it is good to talk about it openly. I think many people have been experiencing this silently and privately for many years, but the conversation is no longer hidden. Climate anxiety sometimes paralyses my thinking and enthusiasm for what I do – and that is in the context of a job that is directly geared to action to tackle climate change. As such, I have a privileged position: my policy-focused research grants me connections with various governments, international bodies, and grassroots organisations. But despite this, it is easy to question how much this work makes a difference and to remain anxious about the future of the planet and society.”
What is your antidote to anxiety?
“Without a doubt, it is Action. I think of it as not trying to “solve” our emotions but instead focus on some of the root causes and take action accordingly. Also, we need to remember that the media like to report the findings of catastrophic climate change impacts. Focusing on steady progress on decarbonisation or gradually successful efforts to adapt to a changing climate don’t have the same appeal for media that wants to grab our attention.
Personally, I find that ticking off the “things you can do lists” does help. For example, fly less, reduce consumption, buy local, recycle, eat differently etc. But I frequently face a dilemma. On the one side, the list of things “you can do” is great because allows a sense of agency which is vital for countering anxiety. On the other, it can also feel so small compared to the challenges and structural changes needed, making me feel my individual efforts are futile. For example, I regularly cycle to a communal recycling station because I want to recycle my tetrapak cartons. But I get annoyed that many local governments don’t collect these cartons from doorsteps – only those who actively take them to the communal sites, so claims they are “recyclable” by companies don’t hold up well.
Similarly, I need full planning permission to install solar panels on my rooftop, while the UK government has removed all grants which could potentially incentivise more households to put solar up. This is a structural barrier to action which could easily be removed; it is important because I think solar panels for private use create a huge sense of agency in taking action that can counter climate anxiety. Instead, I had to navigate and pay for planning permission, disburse the money upfront to pay for installation and my future feed-in tariff is uncertain.”
Some people feel they don’t have enough power to do things on a grand global level. Is making a change in your own backyard relevant too?
“Absolutely! Taking any little action I can to tackle the structural changes really helps my anxiety. You don’t need to be an on-the-streets activist (though that is good) to inform global changes. I support lobbying groups. I regularly write to my elected representative and national government to ask for tougher climate action locally, nationally, and internationally. Ultimately, they do respond to voter concerns – if we stay quiet, they won’t know you care.
I know I am lucky to live in a place with a Green Party member of parliament, so that is a good start. The same goes for companies – I tell them I am sick of their environmental malpractice or un-recyclable packing materials. This is easier now via Twitter or Facebook rather than having to post a formal letter (although there is something satisfyingly old-school in that, too!). Finally, I started to ask the organisations I work for, or shop from, or put pension money into about how they invest their money. I ask them to divest from fossil fuels like so many others have already done. Again, they need to know there is a demand for these changes.”
What else can we do to tackle climate anxiety?
“Connection to other people is key. “A problem shared is a problem solved”, as the old saying goes. Personally, I really enjoy honing my skills on how to influence others. You don’t have to survive a hurricane to feel climate anxiety. Instead, start from common concerns like not being able to predict the weather as before. Then try to hold a conversation even with those who might be climate deniers or openly say they don’t care about “the environment”.”
Ultimately, it is good to know that others feel anxiety too and you are not alone. Maybe the COVID-19 pandemic has also allowed people some time to reassess what is important to them, and that includes the planet’s health. It should be clear by now: sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option.
Lisa Mazzon is the founder of Caldo, and is completing her MSc Climate Change and Development whilst working as Sustainability Manager at Avaloq.