Climate anxiety and hope

Image of a woman with hand on head, sad. Globe is behind her. Text: KAIROS Climate Action Month. Climate Anxiety. Hashtag Decolonize Climate Action

This sounds like the beginning of a joke: six years ago, a psychologist, a public health professor, and a sociology researcher walked into an online chat room.  

It wasn’t a joke. The three talked about the anxiety they felt over climate change and other ecological crises, and the anxiety we are hearing from students and young people. The climate crisis is disastrous and distressing. This is a climate crisis, a climate emergency, a traumatic situation for many.  

More than a decade ago, the most august body in the field of psychology – the American Psychological Association (APA) – began looking at the links between human psychology and climate change. The APA “recognizes that climate change poses a threat to public health, including mental health.”  

Mental health issues are on the rise according to all available data. The pandemic challenged mental health even more. Arguably, the pandemic also increased our awareness of climate change, although the much-touted decline in emissions from lowered automobile traffic and economic production did not actually occur. Some people worry that the world’s ecology is irreversibly sliding downward. It’s not surprising that this could also lead to depression.   

The APA produced a summary of the research on mental health and climate change in 2017.  

Climate anxiety is a subset of eco-anxiety which the APA defines as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future and that of next generations.” 

Psychologists who study hope point out that it is not the same as optimism. According to research, people can be optimistic when the likelihood of something happening is high. Optimism is related to probability. Hope is more about possibility. Hoping for something is not the same as being optimistic that it will happen. Hope motivates us to keep going in uncertain or negative circumstances because there still is a possibility of a positive outcome.  

It is easier to be hopeful when others surround you with support. Sadly, there is little research in sociology on hope. The problem with an exclusively psychological focus is that it makes individuals solely responsible for their responses to life’s trials. This is especially important in the context of oppressed communities, who may struggle more to maintain optimism for the future. Interestingly, much of the research on the social rather than merely personal contexts of hope, focuses on the role of religion.  

We talk a lot about “just transition” but public health researchers point to the importance of what they call the “inner transition.” Based on their research, Blake Poland and Anne Ruchetto produced an accessible summary of strategies to help alleviate the mental health and trauma associated with ecological degradation. 

During Climate Action Month, we have heard messages about climate anxiety, particularly from youth and Indigenous delegates on the COP27 delegation.  

As Tia Kennedy, one of the KAIROS delegates said in her video, “I think the biggest way climate change is affecting my work is through my mental health. It’s difficult to focus on health policy when the health of our planet is so scarce. How can we manage to heal ourselves when we can’t heal the Earth?”  

Our KAIROS hope is that you may find ways to support your mental health and hope in each other as you engage in climate action!  

Filed in: Ecological Justice

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