A startling survey in the Independent appeared last week, which said that “One in 15 Conservative MPs believe climate change is a ‘myth’ – poll claims”. The article continued that out of the MPs polled, “one-third of Tory MPs (37 per cent) do not believe that the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events come from climate change – despite agreement among scientists that the impacts can already be seen”.
Climate anxiety: responses to climate change
In Saving Us (2021), the eminent professor Katherine Hayhoe moves away from the popular binary terms of ‘alarmist’ and ‘denier’ and instead highlights the work of Tony Leisorowitz and Ed Maibach in Global Warming’s Six Americas. This grouping falls into:
- ‘Alarmed’, those who are convinced global warming is a serious and immediate threat (26 percent)
- ‘Concerned’, those who see the threat as more distant (28 percent)
- ‘Cautious’ (20 percent)
- ‘Disengaged’, those who know little and care less (7 percent)
- ‘Doubtful’, those who don’t consider climate change a serious risk (11 percent)
- ‘Dismissive’, those who angrily reject that human-caused climate change is a threat (8 percent).
These categories and percentages approximately match the findings from the recent survey from UK MPs and it is notable that the reporting of these beliefs tends to be on those who are dismissive, rather than the rising numbers of those who accept human-caused climate change and are prepared to take action. It is worth remembering the largely silent majority who are alarmed and concerned, rather than listening to the disproportionately vocal minority. This can feed into recurring news cycles, that emphasise an overly negative picture, leading to a rise in environmental psychological cases.
As an example, the Guardian recently reported that:
“Few willing to change lifestyle to save the planet, climate survey finds”. Although the survey found that “that 62% of people surveyed saw the climate crisis as the main environmental challenge the world was now facing”, it also highlighted that “almost half (46%) felt that there was no real need for them to change their personal habits.”
Environmental psychological health issues
With this apparent disconnect between climate action and mental attitude, it is perhaps not surprising that the Lancet medical journal calls for a ‘call to action’ in regards to climate anxiety in young people, warning that “Symptoms associated with climate anxiety include panic attacks, insomnia, and obsessive thinking. Feelings of climate distress might also compound other daily stressors to negatively affect overall mental health, potentially leading to increases in stress-related problems such as substance use disorders, anxiety disorders, and depression”.
Peter Kalmus, the American climate scientist and author of Being the Change, recently analysed the Lancet survey of 10,000 young people (16–25) in the Guardian, commenting that, “We are in a growing epidemic of serious climate depression among young people. Ultimately, the only thing that will help the mental and physical safety of every age group including the young, is meaningful action from world leaders”.
Climate crisis and mental health challenges: depression, devastation and anxiety
Kalmus emphasised that “climate depression is real” and suggested the usage of a new word, ‘neocide’, commenting that, “The Greek word neo means ‘young, new’. We can thus coin a word, neocide, meaning ‘the deliberate killing of young people and future generations’”.
Kalmus concluded that “It is psychologically devastating to feel climate and ecological catastrophe closing in every day while watching those in power not only failing to act, but actively making things worse by expanding the fossil fuel industry”.
The findings from the Lancet survey certainly seem indicative of the psychological anxiety affecting young people.
“Respondents were worried about climate change (59% very or extremely worried, 84% at least moderately worried). Over 50% felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty. Over 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning, and many reported a high number of negative thoughts about climate change.”
Government inaction making matters worse
Sally Weintrobe, a psychoanalyst and author of Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis, also focuses on government inaction as a leading cause. She comments that, “A further shock is realizing more clearly that most current leaders are heading us to ecocide”.
Weintrobe lists the multiple terms that are now being used to describe environmental anxiety such as: “Eco-anxiety … eco-futility … eco-grief … solastalgia … eco-shame … eco-rage…” which all attempt to define the psychological impact of failing climate action. Of these, Weintrobe notes that “’Solastalgia’ is Glenn Albrecht’s term for melancholic distress specifically caused by detrimental environmental change”, and is one that resonates the most with her.
Weintrobe discusses the power of psychological denial resulting from negation and disavowal of these climate issues, much like the views of UK MPs, and explores the factors that drive people to take climate action, commenting that “Entitlement powers our will to act. To act, we first need to feel entitled to act”. The agency to act and to have an emotional response to a crisis, or even the perception of an agency to act and have meaningful control, can have a positive impact on mental health.
Weintrobe concludes by suggesting that “It is an act of love to care”, and that discussions and speaking about love of the planet should be regarded as a strength.
Dr Judith Anderson, psychotherapist and Chair of the Climate Psychology Alliance, also highlighted the importance of social networks and resilient communities, though agreed that this could be difficult in the face of ‘doomist’ literature.
She told me that although there is some hesitation about using the term ‘eco-anxiety’ within the psychological community, the validation and allowance of these feelings was crucial. She argued that when there is a diminution of urgency from governments, this can increase the number of cases that are presented. Dr Anderson was careful not to suggest that there was a silver bullet ‘solution’ for climate anxiety but commented that “a treatment for climate anxiety is an active government taking the problem seriously”.
With COP26 now concluded, the long-term impact of climate anxiety could well be the next crisis that the UK faces. There are physical and mental effects of the climate crisis – the financial responsibility for the physical impacts is robustly argued over in terms of global reparations, as well as loss and damage national funding. With some UK MPs though, still denying that a problem even exists, it raises questions as to whether the necessary funding for psychological support will be forthcoming.