The Current State of Climate Anxiety

man standing at the base of ice mountains

Marco Bottigelli / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A recent report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emphasized humans’ role in climate change.
  • People worldwide experience climate anxiety, a fear and sense of helplessness around climate change.
  • It’s important to find climate-friendly action that is right for you and sustainable in the long-term.

Each Earth Day in middle school, I donned my “protect our planet” shirt and strode into school, positive even this little show of support mattered. I knew climate change was a threat, but I assumed with the right attitude humans could fix it—the adults were on it, right? Years later, I know the answer to that is actually “not really.” While many incredible people are fighting to protect the environment and awareness has increased since my early school years, the barriers (read: people and corporations) standing in the way can feel insurmountable.

As a result, fear and anxiety replaced my optimism. I watch extreme fires ravage landscapes and droughts accompany record-breaking temperatures with despair. Every year seems to bring new extremes in the form of hurricanes and floods. I often recycle, shop primarily from thrift stores, and walk whenever possible, but none of it seems to make a difference. To sum it up, I feel defeated and terrified of what will happen to the world we’re lucky enough to call home and our fellow inhabitants. What can I possibly do to change the course of our climate? I’m just one person.

Recently, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change re-emphasized this hopelessness when it released a special report stating, “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.” Key—and terrifying—findings included that no part of Earth remains untouched by climate change and that carbon dioxide levels are higher than any time in the past two million years.

Those points alone are more than enough to create a sense of helplessness. I’m far from alone in feeling this way with people across the world experiencing anxiety about the climate crisis.

Feeling the Weight of Environmental Uncertainty

Take Saira, who, at 27, is overwhelmed when she thinks about the planet her future children will inherit. “They would have to live in a world where the impacts of climate change would be very real,” says the New Zealander. “The sea levels are rising, the ice caps are melting, our ecological systems are slowly but surely collapsing right in front of our very eyes, yet the big capitalist machine grinds on without seemingly paying much attention. Honestly, it fills me with terror.”

“Being confronted with the overall futility of your individual actions just increases the anxiety, the feelings of hopelessness, of a lack of control, of irrelevance,” continues Saira. “It makes you feel small, like you don’t matter—because your actions aren’t helping. What do you do with that feeling? That you can’t do anything but watch as it gets worse?”

Erica Dodds, PhD, CEO of the Foundation for Climate Restoration

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to climate activism.

— Erica Dodds, PhD, CEO of the Foundation for Climate Restoration

Across the world, the ticking clock on properly addressing climate change is just as overwhelming. “A lot of the stress and anxiety I personally feel comes from knowing there are climate targets that are not being taken seriously,” says Nigel, a Canadian.

For people who live in high-risk environments like Carla, a Filipina, climate change is an “all-too-terrifying reality.” Since childhood, she has watched destructive typhoons displace fellow residents of the archipelago year after year with only short-term solutions put forward.

“Research suggests that my home might be under the high tide line in about 30 years, and though pessimism doesn’t help, I feel like it will come sooner rather than later with the way things are going at the moment,” says Carla.

With such evident climate destruction occurring in front of our eyes, it’s easy for anyone to feel like the steps they’re taking to combat it won’t make a dent—no matter how committed they are. “I was raised in a very environmentally conscious family and have done what I can all my life to ‘do the right things’ from becoming vegetarian, recycling, buying local, researching companies sourcing and environmental practices, and avoiding ones that have bad practices,” says Gillian, who has lived across North America and Europe.

“It feels so pointless,” she adds.

Burden of Personal Responsibility

Marketing and discussion around climate change continually point to what individuals can do to be environmentally friendly. However, the 2017 Carbon Majors Report found that 71% of global pollution came from just 100 corporations since 1988.

“There is only so much one person can do while corporations knowingly and willingly continue to pollute our planet on such a scale,” says Saira. “Not only are corporations absolving themselves of any environmental responsibility, but in doing so, they are shifting the burden of blame on to us, the consumers and individuals. This blame is a heavy burden, and even though the blame does not sit with us, we internalize it until we believe it does.”

Saira, a New Zealand resident

It makes you feel small, like you don’t matter—because your actions aren’t helping. What do you do with that feeling? That you can’t do anything but watch as it gets worse?

— Saira, a New Zealand resident

Feeling like the weight of climate change is on your shoulders can lead to a tremendous sense of guilt if you don’t act perfectly environmentally friendly—an impossible feat. “I get guilt around things that I feel like I should have done—like when I don't wash cloth diapers in time and have to use a disposable, or when I can't rinse off a recyclable item, or forget reusable bags at the grocery store,” says Mandie.

With so much focus on personal responsibility for everything, such as recycling a water bottle, the California resident finds it easy to forget how small her footprint is compared to corporations’ harm.

How to Stop Climate Anxiety From Consuming You 

There's no reason to pretend that anything other than lasting policy change can eradicate climate anxiety. However, just like the pandemic and other long-lasting stressors not entirely in your control, it’s essential to explore coping mechanisms that help stop it from overwhelming you.

There are many climate anxiety-centered techniques to utilize in addition to traditional stress coping mechanisms such as meditation, therapy, and journaling.

The first step is exploring the right actions for you. “There are so many possible ways to contribute to the movement, and most people can find actions that are energizing and sustainable in the long term,” says Erica Dodds, PhD, CEO of the Foundation for Climate Restoration and sustainability, climate change and eco-anxiety expert

Dodds cautions on the importance of treating the process of adapting climate-friendly habits like a marathon versus a sprint. Taking on a sustainable action that leaves you tired or won’t integrate into your life long-term is not the best option to pursue. As an example, she explains that if you live in a city designed only for cars, trying to take public transportation every day isn’t feasible. We each have our strengths and limitations from health to location, and it’s critical to find the options that work best for you instead of following exactly what those around you do.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to climate activism,” says Dodds.

However, bonding ideas off like-minded people and seeing that others care is a great way to get involved (and mitigate fear) around climate change. “Find a community of like-minded people, protectors, and defenders of environmental health, and let your small army become a mighty one,” says Kim Knowlton, DrPH, MS, a senior scientist and deputy director of the science center at the National Resources Defense Council. “Strategize on very local actions you can take, and savor your small victories—they get bigger and bigger as more people come into your posse.”

Nigel, the Canadian, credits having conversations about taking concrete collective action instead of hyper-individualized solutions as an empowering step for him in fighting climate anxiety and change.

Reggie Ferreira, PhD, an associate professor at the Tulane University School of Social Work and program director of the Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy at Tulane, explains that it’s important to open these conversations up to children. “We must create an environment for them where they can work towards addressing climate change by joining community action groups or even just doing their part in the household,” he says.

Brandy Hall, founder and managing director of Shades of Green Permaculture

I’ve worked with nature and the environment for years, and while I’ve watched patterns change as a result of climate change, I’ve also seen how working with and for nature can help reverse the impact of climate change.

— Brandy Hall, founder and managing director of Shades of Green Permaculture

Whether on your own, speaking to kids, or participating in a group, it’s essential to keep in mind that the benefits of your actions will come—albeit slowly. “I’ve worked with nature and the environment for years, and while I’ve watched patterns change as a result of climate change, I’ve also seen how working with and for nature can help reverse the impact of climate change,” says Brandy Hall, founder and managing director of Shades of Green Permaculture

Hall practices and teaches permaculture as a method for people to take back a sense of control over climate change. It allows individuals to “deepen their role as an environmental steward and reconnect with the land,” she explains.  

Again, each individual initiative makes a difference but, corporations need to do the same—and continually get pushed to do so. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves as individuals to do the heavy lifting of restoring the climate, but that narrative comes primarily from oil and gas companies trying to shift the blame for emissions off of themselves,” says Dodds. “The reality is that high-level, systemic change will have the largest impact, so your voice as a citizen calling for that change will ultimately have a greater impact than your vegan diet or electric car.”

Ferreira believes that the responsibility lies on governments to take the first steps towards reducing their carbon footprint, demonstrating a model that citizens will follow. However, he stresses the importance of sustainability measures being accessible to everyone, not solely one part of the population.

Governmental change is coming in some countries. Most recently, in the United States, the new infrastructure bill is making its way through Congress with funds for renewable energy options, such as electric cars and clean energy.

This bill is one step of many needed, and the pressure must remain on legislators to hold corporations responsible and pass environmentally-friendly policies. As we continue to fight for this, we must remember that each little thing we do matters, but so does our mental health.

As Knowlton says, “Give yourself credit for caring.” Though she may have been naive about the fight ahead, I’m proud an Earth Day-loving middle school girl did.

What This Means For You

It’s completely normal and expected to feel climate anxiety. But, you don’t need to be the savior of the universe. Every little thing you do to help makes a difference.