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How To Combat Climate Anxiety

By Sabaah Choudhary, she/her

“Climate change is the single biggest thing that humans have ever done on this planet. The one thing that needs to be bigger is our movement to stop it.” – Bill McKibben

For over a year the world has been engulfed by a global catastrophe—I could be talking about climate change, but I am actually referencing the global COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been a year and a half of governments, news headlines, and communities all over the world consumed with surviving the pandemic, the first of its kind in over 100 years. 

A heaviness set in at the start of 2020 when we all came to the realization that life as we knew it was about to change. We didn’t know then the extent of the change and for how long it would last, but since the start each of us has felt the impacts of the pandemic in some way. There has been grief, loss, and hollowness left in place of the familiarity we once all knew.

Last year, when news of the pandemic first began to dominate the media with no sign of waning, many climate scientists warned that if we didn’t make adequate space for ongoing climate news and discussion, our emergence from the pandemic into climate disaster would be that much more jarring.

They were right. 

While many Western and privileged countries were able to vaccinate large segments of their populations and reopen their respective economies with a return to some type of normalcy, we were met with devastating news: unprecedented heat waves in Canada, unlivable hot temperatures in Jacobabad, Pakistan, and the ocean bursting into literal flames, all because of a leaky oil pipeline—just some of the climate disasters we witnessed over the past month alone. 

Though some of us continued to keep a pulse check on climate-related news over the past year, the fact of the matter is that for many, this news felt like regaining consciousness. We came to terms with our climate reality after tuning it out for over a year.

These recent events (just a few of many) are newsworthy, but they are not all that surprising—especially if we have been listening to climate scientists over the past few years. The cost of inaction was always going to result in climate disaster. But this is still a lot to unpack after a year of what felt like never-ending grief and isolation, which is why we need to talk about climate anxiety.

Climate anxiety

To some extent, climate anxiety is not so terrible. For one, it is a reminder that people care, are worried about the future, and have the capacity to channel that worry into action. Apathy is always the biggest driver of inaction, which is why the fact that so many people feel so deeply and care about healing the planet is a sign of the collective power we hold and action we can take to combat climate change. The depth of your grief is a reminder of your capacity to love and our collective climate grief is actually transcendent in its potential impact.

It’s also important to bring perspective to that climate anxiety, which should serve as a reminder of our privilege. Sarah Jaquette Ray, the author of A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety, aptly wrote that, “The prospect of an unlivable future has always shaped the emotional terrain for Black and Brown people, whether that terrain is racism or climate change. Exhaustion, anger, hope—the effects of oppression and resistance are not unique to this climate moment. What is unique is that people who had been insulated from oppression are now waking up to the prospect of their own unlivable future.”

Framing climate anxiety in this way is especially poignant when we think about climate justice; climate change is one of many factors creating an unlivable future for Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities all around the world. It is a reminder that for communities of color, anxiety over the future has always been present, and climate anxiety adds another layer of grief for racialized communities already battling systemic injustice. This perspective reminds us why it is imperative to focus our climate movement on dismantling all systems of oppression.

A guide for managing climate grief

“It’s not our fault, but it is very much our problem. At the same time, we have to be patient with each other, and kind. And then we need to dig in our heels and fight, for each other.” - Mary Annaïse Heglar

When you care deeply, you can’t help but feel deeply, and advocating for climate justice in the midst of climate change is a LOT. For anyone feeling especially anxious and grief stricken over the current state of our planet, please remember there are a number of resources to help mitigate climate anxiety, and like all types of grief, healing is not linear, nor is it standard. Each of us will cope, heal, and grow through this process differently.

I want to share the resource that helped me cope the most, because it guided me through what felt like impalpable grief for the planet, but also provided tangible resources and next steps to channel what I was feeling into constructive work for the future.

Mary Annaïse Heglar, climate justice author and activist, created a “Feel Something, Learn Something, Do Something: A Care Package For Handling Climate Grief,” and it’s a perfect guide to help navigate through feelings of grief and anxiety over the environment. Like any existential threat (and mind you, this is not the first to plague society), building resilience and creating healthy coping mechanisms and safe spaces in community are essential. In Heglar’s guide, each section helps to unpack the different phases of climate grief and anxiety. The Feel Something section helps you honor and validate your grief, and cope in a healthy way; Learn Something channels worry into knowledge with excellent climate knowledge resources; and of course, Do Something provides actionable next steps to help channel that grief and anxiety into collective action and impact.

What you can do

The good news is there's a lot we can do to quell our own nerves over climate anxiety and to help power the growing climate movement. The focus is on changing systems; however, individual acts of love for the environment go a long way to build a culture of sustainability and change. At a local level, getting involved with your city’s community farming and other environmental protection projects will help create a safe space in nature for yourself and others, and ensure we are building sustainable and equitable spaces, while at the same time advocating for mass systemic change.

In addition, so many climate solutions already exist! Yes, the climate disaster is looming, ominous and terrifying, but the good news is we have solutions—we just need to advocate for them and get things done. This is obviously the most challenging part, especially noting the powerful lobbying of big oil companies, but our voices are getting louder, and organizing and advocacy works (there’s so much recent evidence of this too).

There is also an ongoing stream of good climate news stories. The Green New Deal, once thought of as radical, was reintroduced this year by Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and imprints of its key policy planks can be seen in many of the Biden administration’s climate plans. The wind and solar energy industry continues to outperform the fossil fuel industry, and is set to overtake coal as the top global power producer of energy in the next five years, and the climate movement keeps growing and gaining momentum. The pandemic has also changed everything—we witnessed our collective capacity for agility and mass change in the face of a global crisis. Restructuring how we live and work to keep our planet healthy no longer seems improbable, in fact it’s quite doable. 

There is a lot of work to do, but there have also been so many small wins and large victories, and good climate news to take in, celebrate, and rejoice. It’s a fine balance, but pairing worry for our future with collective hope and climate action will keep us resilient and help build a formidable climate movement to save our planet. 

Written by Sabaah Choudhary/Alphabets for Youth To The People