Combat Climate Anxiety with Awareness

As an opportunity to take a step back – to feel united with like-minded peers, reinvigorated by the collective fervor and reinspired to tackle the monumental tasks ahead – the Climate Strike proved extremely meaningful.

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Anxieties surrounding our changing climate are beginning to have a large impact on the day to day lives of many people.

The Climate Change in the American Mind report released in April by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication detailed that 62% of Americans were at least “somewhat worried” about the climate and 23% were “very worried.” As mental health columnist Kelly Christ, FCRH ’21, notes in last week’s issue of the Ram, psychiatric and psychological communities are beginning to collectively recognize the phenomenon, using terms such as “climate distress,” “climate grief,” “climate anxiety” or “eco-anxiety.”

Some have presented the argument that “climate alarmists” are intentionally orchestrating fear among younger generations and evoking emotional responses from voters in an attempt to lobby power for the political left. Recent media coverage of 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s emotional and angry address to world leaders at the United Nations (UN) on Monday has been met with criticisms of this nature, though the young firebrand has inspired a great deal of support, as well.  

Real change requires both uncomfortable personal sacrifices and massive shifts away from economic structures around the globe that currently benefit a select few at the expense of the masses (and the Earth). Perhaps this fact is why some with vested interests choose to see and present the increasing awareness of human-exacerbated climate change as unfounded hysteria instead of necessary exposure to the very real issues currently affecting our planet.

It is important that we continue to do all that we can to make whatever difference we can: staying informed, volunteering with impactful organizations, writing to senators, recycling, etc. But most importantly, we must understand our place within the larger narrative context; only then can we truly begin to combat the sometimes crippling anxiety that can accompany the understanding that our planet is suffering and learn how to spur the systemic changes necessary to safeguard its future. 

Individual consumption habits only account for a portion of the harm being done to our environment. The Carbon Majors Database’s CDP Carbon Majors Report released in 2017 detailed that a mere 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

Historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have also documented, through extensive research, the ways in which some high-level scientists, with extensive political connections, ran effective disinformation campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge on matters such as tobacco smoke, acid rain, global warming and DDT for decades in their influential book Merchants of Doubt

In short, individuals have always felt the onus of responsibility for our changing climate far more heavily than the corporations that actually have the most severe environmental footprints and, therefore, the potential to make the greatest difference. While these individuals seem motivated — whether it be by anxiety, guilt or hope — to make the needed changes to better the collective situation, many corporations are still failing to do so

As educated individuals in an age of climate crisis, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by what are generally considered to be dire circumstances. On a student-level, navigating concerns about climate presents its own set of challenges. Many college students are under financial or time limitations when attempting to make eco-friendly choices: choices that can prove confusing and seemingly contradictory, like which type of non-dairy alternative to buy, at which store and from which brands. 

On the other hand, students are afforded a prime environment to enrich their understanding of what is happening to our climate in ways that are generally unmediated by outside interests. Discussion with peers and access to scholarly knowledge is invaluable to those who hope to use this information to make real differences. 

The global Climate Strike this past Friday was a good example of people joining together to demand an end to government and business inaction on climate change. The strike was unarguably beneficial for the movement’s morale and momentum, but participants must recognize the event as primarily such; there is still so much work to be done to spur the significant structural changes that will have the greatest positive impact on our climate.

There is a benefit to showing your colors to your opponents, to intimidating contrarians with the size and vigor of your side’s team.

It is as simple, though, as turning off the news or staying off Twitter for those who disagree with elements of the Climate Strike to tune out the event entirely. In terms of changing minds, it seems that conversations are far more productive when they are unavoidable; UN diplomats who disagree with Greta’s position could not ignore her speech, just as those in school settings who oppose gun control could not ignore participants in the Wear Orange movement.

Similarly, for those in areas most impacted by the changing climate — where youth do not have equal access to schooling and the affected geographical landscape proves one such barrier of entry — the opportunity cost of skipping a day of school is far higher than for many who attended last week’s strike.

There is also an argument to be made that refusing to go to school is to miss out on engaging in the dialogue and on learning the informational frameworks needed to help solve the problems that the strike aims to address in the first place.

However, as an opportunity to take a step back — to feel united with like-minded peers, reinvigorated by the collective fervor and reinspired to tackle the monumental tasks ahead — the Climate Strike proved extremely meaningful.

The event brought together millions of people with a unified ethos during a time when it felt like there was little to no hope — and everyone needs a mental health day every once in a while.

In an environment of such crisis, one that’s been handed down to youth from a generation that is failing to make real changes to fix it, the communal sense of purpose that things like the Climate Strike provide is pivotal to mitigating bouts of anxiety, hopelessness and demoralization.

Participate in the movement to help our planet, but also participate because it can make you feel better. Understand that, to a certain extent, your personal carbon footprint is limited but your inspirational impact has the potential to be infinite; educate yourself to understand the full power of both.