The age of climate anxiety

Illustration of a climate protest
Nerissa Hsieh/File

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One of the more unsettling lyrics from Bo Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling,” a viral song about our desensitization to constant traumatic news, is when he sings, “Twenty thousand years of this, seven more to go.”

This is in reference to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s conclusion that we have less than seven years to reduce carbon emissions if we want to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. By incorporating this finding into his lyrics, Burnham shows that climate change and its consequences are always at the back of our minds.

The physical impacts of climate change are well-documented. We’ve gotten used to scrolling past news about the latest unprecedented natural disaster, the new hottest temperature ever recorded or the most recent endangered animal that went extinct. What hasn’t been as extensively documented, at least until recently, is how the effects of climate change impact our mental health.

Climate change-related anxiety is now a worldwide phenomenon, especially among young people. Generation Z must grapple with the burden of being the ones that must solve climate change. A recent global study surveying 10,000 participants aged 16 to 25 found that nearly 60% of young adults feel “very worried” or “extremely worried” about climate change. 45% of participants said that their anxiety about climate change affects their daily lives, while more than half believe that “humanity is doomed.”

This anxiety is fueled by a sense of despair and dread as young people feel increasingly powerless in the face of ecological disaster. In 2017, the American Psychological Association officially recognized eco-anxiety as a threat to mental health. And Google searches for “climate anxiety” increased by 565% over the last 12 months, revealing a growing awareness of the relationship between the climate crisis and our mental well-being.

Climate anxiety often stems from feelings of powerlessness and frustration in the face of institutional inaction. Just 100 companies are responsible for the majority of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and many young people see the climate crisis as something out of their control.

Tristan Vassallo, campus junior transfer student and sociology major, said climate change is always at the back of their mind, framing many of the decisions that they make. A major contributor to their eco-anxiety is the lack of government action addressing climate change.

“While part of envisioning a revolutionized society is adjusting one’s own life to reflect those ideas, it’s hard to feel like it’s worth it when the government is far more interested in funding imperialism (which is in and of itself a major contributor to climate change) than it is in solving systemic problems,” Vassallo said in an email. “I try to maintain a veneer of hope—but I am very actively playing my life by ear, because I honestly don’t know what will happen in the next five years, let alone the next twenty.”

Climate anxiety has driven young people to file lawsuits against their governments for the creation of our climate crisis and failure to appropriately respond to it.

In expert testimony for one of these lawsuits, Juliana v. United States (2018), psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren wrote, “Day in and day out worrying about the unprecedented scale of the risk posed by climate change, and the future for oneself, children, and future generations, takes a heavy toll on an individual’s well-being, wearing them down, sending some to the ‘breaking point.’ ”

Climate anxiety also forces us to put things in perspective — planning for the future can seem meaningless when the sky is an apocalyptic shade of orange, as it was in the Bay Area last fall due to wildfire smoke. Young people confronting the existential threat of climate change must often consider it when making major life decisions.

A 2021 study in the “Population and Environment” journal found that concerns about the climate crisis are being increasingly factored into reproductive decisions as people consider the environmental impacts of having children. According to the authors of the study, “There were feelings of guilt, both for bringing a child into an unknown world and not guaranteeing a good quality of life, and for contributing to climate change through an increased footprint.”

The rise of climate anxiety has led to a growing interest in the field of climate psychology, which seeks to understand psychological responses to environmental harm. Organizations such as the Climate Psychology Alliance, Good Grief Network and Psychology for a Safe Climate provide resources to both people whose mental health has been impacted by climate change and therapists who want to better support clients with eco-anxiety.

For campus junior and society and environment major Allison Curtis, climate change is an important consideration when determining her future plans.

“It’s definitely a significant stressor in my life,” Curtis said. “I feel like I have a lot of worries about what the future is going to look like. My climate anxiety makes me think a lot about where I want to live in the future, and how climate change might make some places unlivable or potentially dangerous to live in. It also makes me wonder about whether I want to have children or not, and things like that.”

A potential silver lining to this is people’s willingness to turn climate anxiety into climate action. Driven by their fear of the future, young people across the globe have engaged in acts of activism and resistance — including hunger strikes, school strikes and street protests — to draw attention to the climate crisis.

Campus junior and molecular environmental biology major Kira Wiesinger tries to alleviate her climate anxiety through involvement with the environmental justice movement.

“I try to have hope that putting pressure on our governments to implement meaningful climate policy and educating our communities about climate change can lead to a better future, but sometimes it feels like that will not be our reality anytime soon,” Wiesinger said in an email. “Getting involved with student organizations that focus on environmental and climate justice has helped reduce my eco-anxiety because these organizations have an impact by bringing attention to pressing issues.”

Despite climate change’s overwhelmingly negative impact on our generation’s mental health, our response to eco-anxiety might carve a path towards a more hopeful future.

Contact Sanjana Manjeshwar at [email protected].