The rise of eco-anxiety and how to come to terms with climate change

‘Lots of people say they won’t have kids. One woman told me she fantasised about killing her child,’ psychotherapist says

Phoebe Weston
Science Correspondent
Saturday 22 June 2019 17:38 BST
Eastern European states block bid for EU climate change 2050 decarbonisation target

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Plummeting insect numbers. A sixth mass extinction. Thinning of ice sheets. Sea level rise. Wildfires in California. Thawing Arctic permafrost.

The full tragedy of climate change is unravelling before our eyes.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, we have 12 years to stop this catastrophe. Climate action has become part of the zeitgeist, yet global emissions keep inching up and reports of Earth’s ecosystems collapsing come thick and fast.

Donald Trump is still in denial.

In 1958 scientists first noticed levels of carbon dioxide creeping up. In the 1980s global temperatures began to rise but warnings were ignored and covered up. For most people, the first nail in the coffin came 40 years later with the 2018 IPCC report, which said we faced major environmental catastrophe within our lifetimes, and potentially as soon as 2040.

For many, the news was a bereavement – a calamity we engineered without knowing it. “You’re talking about a mix of confusing feelings, including depression, grief, rage, despair, hopelessness, guilt and shame. All of those feelings come with it,” says Caroline Hickman, a teaching fellow at the University of Bath and member of the Climate Psychology Alliance.

For many, these conflicted feelings are now part of daily life. The American Psychological Association describe this “chronic fear of environmental doom” as eco-anxiety.

Ms Hickman has been a psychotherapist for more than 20 years and before last year she had two or three patients at any one time with eco-anxiety.

“Pretty much everybody is referring to it now,” she says.

“Lots of people are saying they won’t have children. Other people say they don’t want to feel guilty about having a child and bringing it into a world where they know there’ll be lots of problems. One woman told me she fantasised about killing her child.

“In fact I’ve had eight women who have said that to me. These are women desperately thinking about how to protect their children. They’re talking about despair, impotence and powerlessness.

“Psychologically, when you get one piece of information that is difficult, you can ignore it. We have lives with other pressing concerns, you’re worried about paying the rent or your exams or something else, and we push out concerns about the environment. That’s a normal, healthy human psychological response,” she says.

However, in the past year – specifically since the IPCC report – that information can no longer be dismissed. “It’s like you’re being hit over and over again or like having eight alarm clocks in your bedroom. How is a human being meant to process this information?”

Almost 70 per cent of British people want urgent political action, but there is a growing gap between announcements on climate change and the implementation of policies.

The UK has promised to cut greenhouse gases to zero by 2050, yet we are currently set to miss targets for both 2025 and 2030.

Academics who have been at the coal face of climate research for decades are exhausted.

Professor Camille Parmesan, from the School of Biological and Marine Sciences at the University of Plymouth, spent years producing scientific papers on the impacts of climate change but saw little to no action being taken by governments.

She became “professionally depressed” and considered abandoning her climate research entirely. This is despite her being one of the most influential scientists of our time and a named official contributor to IPCC receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 with Al Gore.

“Saying you’re going to do something is only a small way towards actually doing something,” she says.

“I’d say it causes me more anger than anxiety. I don’t like lying, and many politicians – Trump is the champ on this – are simply lying about what the facts are. That really makes me angry. I’m doing all I can to counter that, but the public still wants to believe what they are told by their leaders… strange to now begin to think of that as a bad thing.”

Very few countries are currently doing much to stop climate breakdown. Even if nations were to fully implement their Paris Agreement pledges, temperatures would probably still rise by 3C by the end of the century. The future looks bleak from any angle.

“Eco-anxiety is only going to increase. I don’t see how it can’t,” says Ms Hickman.

“At the moment we’ve got this level of anxiety with relatively little impact in terms of climate emergency in Wiltshire or in London. I look out of the window and the world looks like it does five years ago. What’s it going to be look like when I look out of my window and the world looks completely different?”

However, Ms Hickman say eco-anxiety is a healthy and appropriate emotional response to the information we’re getting.

“People need to not feel ok about this because that feeling will spur action. It’s a collective anxiety. People need to process these feelings so they can continue to live their lives but not in denial.

15-year-old shakes her head as all five conservative leader candidates argue over climate change

Ms Hickman says taking control of individual emissions can dramatically improve people’s mental state. Rather than ignoring the issue, getting informed and involved – with things like climate cafés, school strikes or parent groups – lessens feelings of hopelessness and loss of control.

“I’m not going to say go hug a tree because that would be a crude version of this, but by protecting the environment, grieving what we’ve done to the planet and recognising our interdependence, we will save ourselves.”

Dr Nick Hartley a clinical psychologist working in Newcastle Upon Tyne joined the Green Party in 2015 after feeling anxiety about the climate crisis. He wanted to understand how to address climate injustice and promote discussion of these issues at councils and parliament.

He also found it helped him eat, shop and travel in more ethical ways.

“It’s really important we don’t downplay the challenge in making these choices, as we live in a system that makes hypocrites of us all. Facing the climate emergency is not on the shoulders of any one individual, and if we are to live with the anxiety of the gigantic task we face, then we all need to band together to push for political and systemic change,” he says.

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