What do all these images have in common?

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Rather than seeing it, you might be feeling it: chest tightness, racing thoughts, the feeling of impending danger… With everything happening in the world from COVID to war, the feeling of anxiety is all too familiar to us by now. When triggered by environmental concern, it is known as “eco-anxiety” – an extreme worry about current and future harm to the environment caused by human activity and climate change. 

Climate change: an ocean of emotions

Daily headlines are sounding the alarm about the ever-growing threat of climate change. The last IPCC report warns of the irreversible impact of global warming. Climate disasters are more frequent than ever. Climate change has been alarmingly absent from French election debates. And Earth Day often becomes a reminder of our failure to protect the environment rather than a celebration. 

No wonder these headlines make us anxious! In 2021, a global study carried out among 10,000 young people from 10 countries in the North and South revealed that 45% of 16-25 years old feel eco-anxious in their daily life. In addition, 75% of them consider the future to be “frightening” and no less than 56% consider that “humanity is doomed”. 

Learning about the consequences of climate change is an overwhelming process. It often triggers a wide range of unpleasant emotions. 

  • guilt for not doing enough for the protection of our environment
  • anger over the betrayal and abandonment of those in positions of power who failed and fail to act
  • denial: between reading the IPCC report (climate experts!) and flying away for some sun, the choice is still clear
  • confusion over business-as-usual behaviours in a situation of emergency
  • grief over climate-related losses of animal species and ecosystems
  • powerlessness over large-scale intangible solutions
  • disillusionment and disengagement: if we believe it is too late, then why bother?

The more we understand, the more anxious we become. In Canada, the 2022 Earth Day campaign encouraged people who live with eco-anxiety to call-in-sick to take care of themselves. The typical use of this term by populations who, for now, face the least the consequences of climate change is questionable. Yet, addressing eco-anxiety remains essential to both alleviate individual stress and work towards environmental protection.

A paralyzing feeling

Although painful and distressing, eco-anxiety is a normal reaction to the ecological crisis. It warns us that there is a threat and that we need to act now. But if our feelings become too overwhelming and unmanageable, paralysis can creep in.

The current narrative around climate change mostly revolves around a messaging that triggers fear: deadlines, mass destruction, blame… Sounding the alarm is a useful way of motivating us to act and bringing about meaningful change. Yet,  spine-chilling storytelling can end up having the opposite of its desired effect. It can ultimately make us feel overwhelmed, hopeless and powerless in the face of such planetary challenges – leaving the door open for inaction.

This is fine.

The Mindworks Lab – created by Greenpeace to understand how we react during emergencies – talks about a crisis timeline and the disillusionment phase in which people perceive the crisis as uncontrollable, losing their sense of agency.

The Mindworks Lab · Crisis Timeline

Fortunately, the gloom is not for forever. Disillusionment is followed by a recovery stage characterized by the feeling of moving on. Individuals and communities begin to assume responsibility for rebuilding their lives and adjust to a “new normal”, creating room for planning, creativity and expectations.

Turning eco-anxiety into action

We have to talk about the causes and consequences of global warming. But how we talk about it can either make people feel hopeless or convince them that there is something we can do about it. In addition to sounding the alarm and triggering our eco-anxiety, we need to build a narrative focused on solutions – a narrative that creates confidence in our ability to respond to the challenges we face. 

We are more knowledgeable and capable than ever. The Chair of the IPCC recently noted: “We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming and secure a liveable future”. We now have to narrow the gap between our knowledge and our actions. 

To turn eco-anxiety into action, we need to re-establish ourselves into positions of power. The good news is that there is not one, but a million ways to act for the environment. Adjust our everyday habits. Get involved in local environmental projects. Trigger political change. Make climate change our business’ business. Champion ideas and creative solutions. Educate ourselves and upskill. Inspire others around us. 

A (realistic) last word

Climate change is not a game: there is no winning or losing. If we go over 1,5ºC, we will have to target 1,51ºC and so on. There is only mitigating and adapting to the consequences of climate change. 

In this endeavour, we can be overwhelmed by the complexity of the problem, but we can also believe in our potential and creativity to trigger change. Addressing eco-anxiety and reframing the narrative is part of the solution. As long as our power to act is undoubted, our eco-anxiety will feed our engagement and solutions for the world of tomorrow.

Cover picture Markus Spiske by Unsplash

Melting glaciers: Bernhard-Staehli/Shutterstock; Madagascar drought: Siyapath/Shutterstock; French election debate: Ludovic Marin/AFP; U.S floods: Staff Sgt. Daniel J. Martinez/U.S. Air National Guard; Plastic landfill: Mohammed Abdulraheem/The World Bank; Glasgow Climate Clock: Andrew Boyd/EuroNews