This too shall last: A student’s guide to climate anxiety

Britt Runeckles, a coordinator at Climate Justice UBC (CJUBC), has firsthand experience in dealing with concerns about the climate crisis.

“I think that climate anxiety comes from feeling very powerless,” they said. “Like you can’t make any difference to the situation that’s happening.”

“[It] also comes from some of the narratives that go around … about the climate crisis that can be very doomsday-y, [like] the world is going to end in five years. And I think that that causes a large amount of anxiety for people.”

Runeckles is not alone. As public concern for the climate crisis continues to grow, so too has climate anxiety.

According to a recent study from the University of Bath, 84 per cent of young adults surveyed across ten countries were at least moderately worried about climate change, while 59 per cent described themselves as extremely or very worried. The Ubyssey sat down with student climate activists and faculty experts to discuss climate anxiety and what students can do to take action.

Despair is in the air

Climate anxiety, also known as eco-anxiety, is a general term that describes a range of negative emotions around the climate crisis such as hopelessness, fear and worry. It is experienced by individuals in varying levels of intensity and manifests differently across social and cultural groups.

There is a limited but growing amount of academic literature about this phenomenon.

Jenalee Kluttz, a PhD student in the department of educational studies, and Dr. Michele Koppes, an associate professor in the department of geography at UBC, both said that being directly impacted by climate disasters can contribute to climate anxiety.

“Lots of people are feeling the impact of either wildfires or droughts or floods, and recognizing that the signs were there … and [that the climate crisis has] finally arrived in their backyard,” said Koppes.

This sentiment is reminiscent of solastalgia, a symptom of eco-anxiety which refers to the distress people experience due to environmental loss in their home environment, according to an article presented at the 100th American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting.

Dr. Robert Gifford, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Victoria, and Eva Gifford, a UBC alumnus, published a 2016 review that also supports Koppes statement. It found that the trauma following displacement due to climate change-induced extreme weather events could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. Similarly, anxiety surrounding potential climate catastrophes had the potential to induce “‘pre-traumatic’ stress disorder.”

Kluttz also highlighted the anxieties felt by individuals who have felt the indirect impacts of climate change, such as changing livelihoods, or who observe the changes and losses experienced by other communities.

Smells like green spirit

A recent commentary published by The Lancet Planetary Health has argued that youth — specifically those aged 15 to 24 years old — will be disproportionately affected by the climate crisis as they are in a crucial period in their physical and psychological development. This form of prolonged stress may make youth particularly vulnerable to mental illness and abnormal neurodevelopment; however, the authors acknowledged that the research on this topic is limited.

Though young people may be especially impacted by the climate crisis, a study from the Journal of Social Work Practice revealed the emotional support that some youth are receiving is lacking. Upon interviewing adolescents about their feelings on the climate crisis, the study claimed that “many” individuals reported having their fears and concerns dismissed by adults, and that these young people tended to have worsened feelings of anxiety.

The article published last month by the University of Bath surveyed 10,000 young people aged 16–25 years old across ten countries to explore their feelings about the climate crisis. The data revealed that climate anxiety among young people was “significantly related to perceived inadequate government response and associated feelings of betrayal.” Overall, young adults showed negative feelings and a lack of trust that their governments were doing enough to fight the climate crisis.

“Younger generations are going to have to act immediately to make changes” as the climate crisis has not been sufficiently addressed by government representatives, according to Runeckles.

Crisis upon crisis

Koppes, Kluttz and Runeckles all acknowledged the climate crisis disproportionately impacts marginalized communities, a trend also noted in a 2017 paper by the Department of Economic & Social Affairs of the United Nations.

Kluttz also highlighted how the climate crisis can act as a compound stressor by exacerbating existing inequities.

“Marginalized communities are often affected the most by climate change and all of these changes are piled on top of existing harms and struggles,” she said.

Whether the effects of the climate crisis will be experienced unequally across different demographics has become an area of interest for human rights organizations like Minority Rights Group International.

In a 2008 briefing, they asserted that marginalized communities will be particularly impacted by the climate crisis as they are more likely to reside in the areas most severely impacted by climate catastrophes.

Similarly, an article from Environment and Development Economics argues that poverty and climate change are part of a mutually reinforcing loop, where poor populations are more vulnerable to the climate crisis which in turn creates more poverty. The authors explained that poorer individuals may not have the economic resources to invest in protections such as property or health insurance if their homes or bodies are adversely affected by the climate crisis.

It should be noted that the experience of the climate crisis may be different for marginalized groups. One study from the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that non-white respondents tended to categorize a wider range of issues as environmental, suggesting that the experience of the climate crisis varies across groups. As well, an investigative piece by YES! magazine featured the perspectives of several experts and students who felt that the term “climate anxiety” lacked necessary nuance. This information suggests that multiple perspectives from marginalized communities require consideration during discourse about the climate crisis.

From coast to coast

Direct experience of environmental losses and climate trauma is a key source of climate grief, suggesting that groups that are disproportionately impacted by climate disasters may also be disproportionately affected by the mental health impacts of the climate crisis.

According to a 2018 study, most communities in the Global South are “extremely vulnerable and under-prepared for the impending impacts of climate change.” Areas in the Pacific region, such as small low-lying islands, are especially vulnerable to rising sea levels. These coastal communities also tend to have poor access to resources and the infrastructure needed for adequate support during the climate crisis.

A report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency also explained how coastal communities are especially vulnerable to impacts of the climate crisis, including sea level rise, extreme weather events and changes in coastal water temperature that will affect coastal ecosystems.

In the same vein, a 2017 literature review published in Mountain Research and Development, claimed that high mountain areas might be the most affected by the climate crisis. Impacts on water availability, food systems, protection from natural hazards like rock falls, cultural identity and more have been noted.

In the aftermath of climate catastrophes, residents in high-risk areas may be displaced or forced to migrate to other areas as climate refugees — migrants who are forced to relocate due to environmental deterioration caused by the climate crisis.

Climate grief in Indigenous communities

Many Indigenous land defenders were advocating for climate action long before non-Indigenous environmental activists.

In a report titled the “Cultural Rights of First Nations and Climate Change,” the BC Assembly of First Nations outlined how climate change threatens Indigenous culture and cultural rights such as traditional knowledge, practices and skills.

Environmental changes caused by climate change cause disproportionate negative impacts on the mental health and well-being of Indigenous peoples due to “disruptions in land-based activities” and loss of cultural identities, according to a 2013 case study in Climatic Change on the Inuit population of Rigolet, Canada.

The study also showed that changes to the climate and environment were associated with increased family stress, worsened previous traumas and stressors and increased the risk of substance abuse and suicidal ideation.

Kluttz explained how the grief caused by climate change is part of a long history of trauma among Indigenous peoples due to land dispossession and colonization. She stressed that the onus is on non-Indigenous environmental activists to decolonize their work, while “learning the colonial roots of the climate crisis.”

84 per cent of young adults surveyed across ten countries were at least moderately worried about climate change, while 59 per cent described themselves as extremely or very worried
84 per cent of young adults surveyed across ten countries were at least moderately worried about climate change, while 59 per cent described themselves as extremely or very worried File Kristine Ho

In my feelings

Koppes argued that we must “recognize” that “our emotions are an important part of our ability to process change.”

“[Climate anxiety] is a real feeling and we need to recognize that, so we can process it before we can act.”

Similarly, according to Kluttz, climate anxiety is, to an extent, a healthy response to the climate crisis.

“[C]limate anxiety and grief are not necessarily bad,” she said. “It’s actually a pretty healthy survival response that’s kicking in, that should be really pushing us towards timely and transformational action ... [But] we need to really learn how to manage it because we don’t want to end up in absolute paralysis.”

An article from the International Review of Psychiatry demonstrates that climate change can both directly and indirectly impact psychological well-being and be a trigger for mental health issues. The authors also recommend that mental health professionals be educated on the interplay between the environment and health, and innovate ways to best support patients during the climate crisis.

At UBC, the Climate Hub is one resource that has provided workshops to support student well-being in the past.

Kluttz advised students with climate anxiety to research techniques and strategies designed to manage anxiety, like ecotherapy. Kluttz and Koppes recommended that students access UBC’s existing counselling and mental health resources if needed.

“Students should feel like it is encouraged and accepted for them to reach out to mental health counselors to process the climate grief that they’re feeling,” said Koppes.

Finding community

Kluttz stressed the importance of joining communities that mirror one’s concern about climate change.

“Find a community that’s taking action,” she said. “You feel less like you’re in a hostage situation [or] like you can’t do anything, and you feel like you have more agency.”

If you’re looking for a climate activism community to join, one option for students is CJUBC.

“One of the things we really focus on doing is creating a culture within Climate Justice UBC that is supportive, acknowledges everybody’s fears and anxieties that they’re feeling, and also helps to harness that towards change,” Runeckles said.

Another community space on campus for students passionate about the climate crisis is Climate Hub UBC.

Kluttz also emphasized that community activism is a good strategy to avoid activist burnout — the physical and emotional exhaustion experienced by some activists due to their involvement in advocacy work.

“You can step back [from doing active climate activist work] when you need to … because you know someone else in your community is stepping up at the same time,” she said.

Call to action

To get some background knowledge about UBC’s response to the climate crisis, read UBC’s Climate Emergency Task Force (CETF) Report and their Climate Action Plan 2030.

The CETF report highlights UBC’s commitment to institutional leadership on climate justice, incorporation of Indigenous perspectives in climate initiatives and policies and strengthening climate research, education and advocacy in the UBC community.

The Climate Action Plan explains UBC’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, invest in more sustainable buildings and energy supplies, while listening to the perspectives of the campus community.

UBC Climate Hub and CJUBC also provide opportunities for students to get involved with climate activism on campus. Some of CJUBC’s previous accomplishments include a climate strike at UBC and a six-year campaign that culminated in UBC agreeing to divest from fossil fuels.

In the 2020/21 school year, the UBC Climate Hub activities included hosting its “third annual Climate Solutions Showcase,” spearheading a research program focused on climate research called the Climate Justice Research Collaborative, working with the UBC Sustainability Initiative to incorporate interdisciplinary climate education into undergraduate curricula through the Climate Teaching Connector and much more.

There is also the UBC Sustainability Scholars program — a paid internship program that enables UBC graduate students to work on applied sustainability research projects.

Both undergraduate and graduate students can also apply for the UBC Sustainability Ambassadors program — a leadership experience program where ambassadors work as part of a team to educate UBC students about sustainability and “raise awareness about sustainability issues” on campus and in the community. Applications for the 2022/23 cohort open in January.

According to Runeckles, student engagement is especially important for those who might not be significantly impacted by the ramifications of the climate crisis.

“Sometimes we can allow climate anxiety to debilitate us. We can even allow it to stop us from engaging in a movement, but that to me is a sign of privilege,” they said. “If you’re able to protect yourself from the climate crisis you have a responsibility to protect others who aren’t able to.”

Runeckles is an elected member of the Ubyssey Publication Society Board of Directors. The board has no say over The Ubyssey’s editorial operations.

The article of part of The Ubyssey’s Sci Lit Week 2021 coverage. Keep an eye for more articles this week and check here for more!