Over the past few years, the consequences of rising global temperatures have become inescapable. For many countries, 2021 has been the hottest year on record, with heatwaves spiking land temperatures in countries in North America, Africa and Europe.[i] Even the Arctic circle recorded land surface temperature in Siberia at above 35°C[ii]. This summer, Europe has faced a series of extreme weather events which have had a devastating impact on communities and their local environment, with heavy flooding in Northern Europe, and the worst wildfires in a decade in Southern Europe. In Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, constant rainfall has led to severe damage of villages and refugee settlements and approximately 300,000 people are without access to clean water or food.[iii] Hurricanes Eta and Iota’s intensity and successive landfalls in 2020 was unprecedented, and affected over 8 million people in Central America[iv]. This short list of some of the recent extreme weather events to hit the earth does not nearly encapsulate the scope of the climate crisis: the accelerating human and economic cost of floods, fires and droughts; environmental and climate change-related migration and displacement, and irreversible biodiversity loss. Nor does it reflect the lasting trauma climate change is causing communities globally.
The physical impacts of climate change have been felt by many, but the psychological toll of living in the Anthropocene, during the sixth mass extinction,[v] is also having an adverse impact on mental health. Natural disasters caused by climate change have been found to have a direct impact on mental health, with links to stress, depression and anxiety, even in those not directly impacted.[vi] Young people in particular are prone to experiencing these adverse effects.[vii] Distinct from solastalgia, the distress caused by environmental change, ‘climate anxiety’ (also known as eco-anxiety, climate distress) is linked to the feeling of despair over what will happen in the future.
For many young people, the climate crisis is an existential threat to planetary well-being. The increasing frequency of the impacts of climate change act as stressors for those with climate anxiety. Symptoms associated include insomnia, obsessive thinking and panic attacks.[viii] There is not yet a large enough body of work to truly assess the long-term impacts climate change will have on our youth’s mental health, but initial studies have found that climate anxiety can also compound other stress related problems and increase the probability of other mental health issues.
While climate anxiety is concerned with the global impacts of climate change, the impacts themselves are disproportionately felt by vulnerable, marginalised and minority communities, including people of colour and indigenous populations.[x] Indigenous communities reliant on natural resources, poor communities with less resilient infrastructure, low-income countries without the resources to mitigate against flooding or droughts, are bearing the brunt of an increase in extreme weather events and rising temperatures. Climate anxiety suggests negative feelings of anticipation – but for many, it is not an anxiousness of what the future holds, but rather an immediate state of crisis that is causing trepidation, with the ever-present threat and lasting repercussions of climate disasters causing long term stress as well as physical damage.
Some argue that climate anxiety is a reasonable response to the current state of affairs, and a direct result of inaction on climate change.[xi] The most recent IPPC report[xii] highlights that unprecedented changes to our climate are already underway, and that rapid action to limit the already irreversible impacts of climate change will benefit not only the climate, but human health. Climate anxiety is directly connected to feelings of helplessness and despair. Apathy is the enemy of climate action, and so an increase in feelings of powerlessness, particularly in those who do have the power to make changes, is a serious concern. One likely successful treatment would be for governments to aggressively pursue climate change mitigation policies, inspiring others and individuals to follow suit.
In the absence of adequate government policy, many young people are indeed harnessing their feelings of frustration into action. Most famously, the school strike for climate change built to a mass movement of over six million young people protesting for greater climate change action.[xiii] Young activists from across the world are on the frontline of climate justice; through community engagement, challenging governments, calling for accountability, promoting renewable energy.[xiv] In Wales, a rise of climate anxiety among students has led to the establishment of environmental education programmes in schools, helping students engage with climate change policy, take action, and feel empowered rather than helpless in the face of climate change.[xv] Generation Z is using Tik Tok to discuss climate action in a fast, fun and engaging way.[xvi]
One study showed that by harnessing the difficult emotions around climate change through action and engagement, people are able to more deeply engage with the issues around climate change, and can drive individuals to lower carbon-intensive behaviours.[xvii] Participants in the study found that talking about their concerns and acting to reduce their own carbon emissions ‘helped them face their worries about climate change’.[xviii] Organisations such as the Climate Psychology Alliance[xix] advocate to treat climate anxiety through community support networks. By community building, engaging with climate worries, and pushing against any norms of inaction, climate anxiety can become a driver for change.
Individual actions can accrue in many different ways, including providing a demonstration and motivating effect for others in turn, generating a sense of hope which acts as a motivator in itself. You don’t have to do everything – but you can do any one thing and take it from there.
In this spirit and in the Agulhas ethos of applying learning, we have put together a list of links to taking action on climate, ranging from the quick and easy to the life changing. As the IPCC report quoted: ‘As for the future, is not about predicting it, but making it possible.’
[iv] World Meteorological Organization (2021) ‘State of the Climate in Latin America & the Caribbean 2020’ WMO-No. 1264
[v] Begum, T. (2021) ‘What is a mass extinction and are we facing a sixth one?’ https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/what-is-mass-extinction-and-are-we-facing-a-sixth-one.html
[vi] Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/03/mental-health-climate.pdf
[vii] Lawrance, E., Rhiannon Thompson, R., Fontana, G. and Jenning, N. (2021) ‘The impact of climate change on mental health and emotional wellbeing: current evidence and implications for policy and practice’, Gratham Institute, Briefing Paper 36
Wu, J., Snell, G., Samji. H., (2020) ‘Climate anxiety in young people: a call to action’, The Lancet, Vol 4 Issue 10. https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S2542-5196%2820%2930223-0
[xii] IPCC, 2021: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S. L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M. I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J. B. R. Matthews, T. K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_Full_Report.pdf