Someone I know is undertaking professional training to counsel people about climate change resilience. People who lose someone or something they love to hurricanes, tornadoes and other catastrophes should be offered counselling, of course, and this need is likely to grow as the climate becomes more extreme, which in this area is a threat of more flooding. But I wonder if the counsellor I know will be called on for the psychological effects of climate news and forecasts by people who take warnings deadly seriously even if they have never been personally impacted. I call this climate anxiety.
In a BBC interview this week, David Attenborough said, “the moment of crisis has come …we can no longer prevaricate … we have to change.” He meant carbon emissions, of course. As a much-respected public communicator and naturalist his warning is stark and alarming.
Young people and those yet unborn will live to see the greatest impacts. Symptoms of depression are already on the rise among teenagers (1 in 5 girls in the U.S. in 2017), mostly attributed to online activity and social media, but the statistics are likely to be compounded by apprehensions about how their world is becoming impoverished by climate change as opportunities for concerted political and economic adaptations slip past unclaimed.
“Where there is no vision the people perish.”
Climate anxiety bears comparison with symptoms of grief when we lose a loved one. Psychologists have divided the familiar kind of grief into five stages, which can be fitted to emotions generated by cares for our beautiful Earth home: 1. DENIAL (weather was never constant and we are currently in a warm phase of a natural cycle). 2. ANGER (climate change is unfair because I haven’t lived long enough to enjoy a prosperous life like the lucky Boomers). 3. BARGAINING (I try to avoid air-travel and buying some foreign goods because doing my bit makes me feel better). 4. DEPRESSION (Every newscast makes me feel more awful and I have nightmares about landscapes changing and species going extinct that rob the joy of living). 5. ACCEPTANCE (OK. I understand large parts of the living planet will die and we won’t halt the process, so I will struggle to make the best of my life).
I admit feeling some of those emotions on different days. I tried consoling myself that “nothing stays, all changes” (Virginia Woolf), considering the five great extinctions before the Anthropocene, and each time evolution roared back with more wonderful living forms. It didn’t work. Perhaps in some far, far off era new creatures will replace those lost, and if humans disappear maybe the next apex species won’t terrorize the earth or will be too dim to invent destructive technologies. But hope doesn’t reach so far ahead. Coping with environmental grief is is a huge challenge to find personal peace and offer something positive for the spirit of younger generations.
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