The psychological impact of climate change... and what to do about it
The federal election is fast upon us and one of the topics under the spotlight is climate change. With all this talk about carbon emissions, green energy, financial burdens, scientific evidence and the dire predictions for our civilisation... did you know that climate change distress is a real thing?
What is climate change and climate change distress?
Very briefly, climate change refers to changes in climate and weather patterns around the world due to excessive greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere. Climate scientists are predicting that unless we stop burning fossil fuels and make significant changes, the human race will face extinction.
Feelings of distress, frustration, worry, guilt, anger, helplessness, hopelessness, and feeling overwhelmed are all associated with climate change distress, or more commonly called “ecoanxiety”, “ecological grief” and “climate change stress”. There’s lots of reasons why one would experience such feelings associated with climate change and ecological issues more generally, including:
the probable occurrence of future aversive weather events,
vicarious trauma from witnessing other parts of the world impacted by weather related events,
loss and grief for parts of our natural and human-made world that may cease to exist for future generations, and
existential fears surrounding our civilisation potentially ending as a result of environmental destruction and climate change.
Governments' hesitation around implementing far-reaching policies around climate change and ecological conservation in general, likely adds to individual’s sense of helplessness and frustration.
What about those who deny the existence of climate change?
Although the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that Climate Change is a real phenomenon, there are still a very small but noisy minority of people, including politicians and the general public, who claim that climate change either doesn't exist or doesn’t represent a significant threat to civilisation.
Minimising, avoiding, or switching off from the problem of climate change appears to be a common response for many people. Why is this the case? Well there are a number of suggested reasons for this including.....
“motivated interference” which refers to a bias to ignore evidence. The solution to climate change requires is very expensive and life-interfering which is not very popular for most people including those running countries;
Unfortunately it is likely that the interests of the fossil fuel industry has permeated the discussion around climate change, influencing how we see the problem, the science behind it, and the solutions;
Perhaps there is an information gap, however it seems that knowing the facts about climate change doesn’t seem to be enough to change minds;
The solution to the problem is gigantic. The idea that one person can make a difference may seem impossible, and the changes required, overwhelming.
Coping with climate change
The distress and stress associated with climate change and ecological destruction more broadly can be overwhelming and may lead to both helpful and unhelpful coping responses. Unhelpful but very common coping responses might include:
denial that there is even a problem;
avoidance of engaging in the conversation about, and solution for, climate change;
unrealistic optimism for the future; and even
These coping responses are very common and are used by even the most well-meaning individuals. These responses may help people cope with overwhelming feelings in the short-term, but they do not ultimately help with dealing with ongoing distressing feelings or the problem itself in the long term.
What can we do about climate change distress?
Can you relate to climate change distress or even climate change denial? Don't worry you are not alone, and it is not hopeless.
There are many different ways to respond helpfully to climate change distress, from taking action to making room for your feelings. Here are a few suggestions you may benefit from:
Do Something! Taking action can help relieve one’s stress about climate change. This might include joining a climate action group; lobbying the government, industry leaders, supermarkets etc; making changes at home such as walking/taking public transport instead of driving; reducing your plastic use; choosing products that don’t require excess packaging; start eating less meat; speak to your workplace about making the workplace more environmentally friendly; turning down A/C or heaters. Pick just a few issues to focus on, otherwise it can become overwhelming and invoke feelings of hopelessness.
It’s also important to take time out from thinking about climate change. Being exposed to the constant stream of news stories and social discussions about climate change is stressful. Being intentional with your breaks is important, it’s not about quitting, but taking some time out to not think about it. This will help you recharge and stay connected to your cause.
Seek out social support, share your concerns with trusted friends, family or colleagues. Ensure that you are spending time with friends, both who share your environmental values and those outside of that. Join a group who share your interests and who you can work with on environmental issues.
Be aware of your thinking around climate change, when we think catastrophically or are extremely judgmental of ourselves and others, we can feel a range of negative emotions, including hopelessness, frustration, anxiety, and guilt for example, which can drive unhelpful behaviour, such as avoidance or frantic efforts to enact change. Increasing compassion for yourself and others, taking a step back to gain perspective and see change as a slow process, and being hopeful about humanity and the future can assist in feeling less overwhelmed by climate change and maintaining positive proactive behaviours. Reminding yourself that the problem of climate change was not created by one person, therefore one person isn’t going to change it. Being one person doing their part amongst many will result in greater change.
Be kind to yourself, take time out to check in with how you are feeling about climate change, make room for that feeling, label it and validate it.
Get out in nature. Explore and enjoy the natural world that you are working so hard to conserve!
Climate change is a big issue that affects all of us, but don't despair! If you are trying to fix the problem all by yourself, be kind to yourself and remember that with small changes by each individual, we can make a big impact. If you are sitting on the fence when it comes to climate change, it might be time to take your head out of the sand and consider what you can do to be part of solution, even if it's only with the tiniest of changes.
Written by Helen Robertson, Clinical Psychologist and Director of Drummoyne Psychology
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