Climate Anxiety: The Lesser-Known Impact of the Climate Crisis
Sat, April 10, 2021

Climate Anxiety: The Lesser-Known Impact of the Climate Crisis

20-year-old Clover Hogan found herself crying during the way and panicking upon waking up at night, reported Matthew Taylor and Jessica Murray of British newspaper The Guardian. Now living in London, Hogan grew up in Queensland, Australia, where she was surrounded by wildlife, avoiding snakes dangling from the ceiling and picking up frogs from the toilet. She admitted that the lowest point in her life was when she heard news about half a billion animals dying from the bushfires that set her country ablaze. 

Hogan said, “I’ve found myself bursting into tears … just seeing the absolutely harrowing images of what’s happening in Australia – it is overwhelming and terrifying.” It’s not hard to ignore the physical impact of the climate crisis. However, experts are increasingly concerned about a lesser-known consequence— the mental toll of the crisis to the wellbeing of the youth.  

The Effects of Environmental Crisis On Mental Health

Experiencing damage caused by storms, floods, or any extreme weather conditions can exacerbate mental health problems like stress and depression by 50%, according to research by the Environment Agency this Flood Action Week, via the UK’s official government website GOV.UK, cited Taylor and Murray. A quarter of people who have experienced the floor still live with these issues at least two years after the event.

Flooding negatively impacts a person’s mental health due to the financial repercussions of fixing extensive damage to lost sentimental damage and the stress that it places on the relationships of the survivors. Flooding forces people to be displaced from their community and homes for several months.

However, the Environment Agency found that preparing for a flood can reduce damages by about 40% and minimize the likelihood of suffering from mental health issues in the future. Alarmingly, low-income households are eight times more likely to live in tidal floodpoints compared to more affluent households. 61% of low-income renters do not have home contents insurance, making them more vulnerable to financial shock.

Insurance company Aviva noted that most low-income renters would face difficulty in meeting typical insurable losses with nearly three quarters or 73% of those renters unable to meet an unexpected bill of £500 without assistance. Moreover, flooding can induce feelings of heartbreak with the likes of keepsakes, photographs, ornaments, and other common non-replaceable items.

Climate Change As An Important Issue Today

The Harris Poll conducted an online survey in the US on behalf of the American Psychological Association from December 12 to 16, 2019, among 2,017 adults ages 18 and older. Figures for age, sex, education, race/ethnicity, education, region, employment, marital status, household size, household income were weighted with their actual proportions in the population where necessary.

More than half of US adults (55%) said climate change is the most important issue in today’s society. However, four in 10 have not made any changes in their behavior to minimize their contribution to climate change. Seven in 10 wished there were more they could to combat it, but 51% of respondents admitted they don’t know where to start. On the other hand, six in 10 adults have changed a behavior to reduce their contribution to climate change. In fact, nearly three quarters (73%) are very or somewhat motivated to change.

When the respondents who had made behavioral changes were asked why they have not done more, one in four (26%) said they do not have the resources like time, money, and skills to make changes. For those respondents who have not changed their behavior, 29% said nothing would motivate them to do change when asked if anything would inspire them to reduce their contribution to climate change.

The survey also found that more than two-thirds of adults (68%) said they had at least a little “eco-anxiety,” which refers to being anxious or worried about climate change and its impacts. The effects of the crisis may be disproportionately having an impact on the US’s youngest adults with 47% of respondents age 18-34 saying that the stress they feel about climate change is affecting their daily lives.

The most common behavioral changes people have already made or are willing to make were reducing waste, including recycling (89%), upgrading insulation in their homes (81%), limiting utility use in their homes (79%), using renewables, such as solar panels (78%), consuming less in general (77%), or limiting air travel (75%).

The most common motivations among respondents who have taken action to reduce their contribution to climate change are their desire to preserve the planet for future generations (52%) and knowing about climate change and its impacts on the news (43%).

A Number of Psychologists Are Concerned With the Effects Of the Climate Crisis

Over 1,000 clinical psychologists signed an open letter to emphasize its impacts on people’s wellbeing and predicting that trauma would be widespread in response to conflict, extreme weather calamities, and forced migration.

Kaaren Knight, a clinical psychologist who coordinated the letter argued that psychologists are concerned with the physical impacts related to extreme weather, food shortages, and conflict are linked with impacts on mental health. She added that fear and trauma results in the decline of psychological wellbeing. “This is of huge concern to us and needs to be part of the conversation when we talk about climate breakdown.”

The Prevalence of Climate Anxiety

Psychologists warn that the impact of the climate crisis can be debilitating as more people become overwhelmed by the scientific reality of ecological degradation and those who have experienced traumatic climate events, such as those in the global south. Two years ago, Oxford’s clinical psychologist Dr. Patrick Kennedy-Williams said climate researchers and scientists working in Oxford had started to ask him for help.

He noted that these people were “facing a barrage of negative information and downward trends in their work.” The more the experts engaged with the issue, the more they realized what needed to be done “—and the more they felt that was bigger than their capacity to enact meaningful change.” The consequences are burnout, anxiety, and professional analysis.

But it’s not only the professionals. Kennedy-Williams said even parents are reaching out for support on how to talk to their children about the climate crisis. He discovered that worrying levels of environment-related stress and anxiety are also present in younger children.

He narrated, “My own daughter was just six when she came to me and said: ‘Daddy, are we winning the war against climate change?’ and I was just flummoxed by that question in the moment.”

Kenndy-Williams noted that there was no way to shield the youth from the reality of the climate crisis. Parents should discuss with their children about their concerns and help them feel empowered to make changes, no matter how small. While climate anxiety and addressing the climate crisis are intrinsically linked, "the cure to such anxiety is the same cure for climate change— action," he argued.  

Individuals who have suffered from climate calamities exacerbated by the crisis are more likely to experience stress and other mental health issues. For instance, survivors suffered from financial stress and depression even after the flooding in the UK.

More people, especially the youth, are suffering from environment-related stress and anxiety as the climate crisis looms over the planet. Like the UK flooding study, the panacea to minimizing the impacts of the climate crisis on people’s mental health is nothing but action.