What to Do If You Feel Guilt About Climate Change

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Guilt and anxiety can be familiar feelings when it comes to climate change. While our earth has always experienced climate change, it has reached a point of rapid acceleration.

As a result, temperatures are rising, droughts are becoming more common, and natural disasters are increasing in intensity. Climate change is a collective issue, one that threatens every one of us and future generations to come.

It isn’t any wonder that we may be experiencing emotional turmoil when considering the state of the world. This is all to say, your complex feelings are valid. 

This article will explore climate guilt, how it is similar to and different from climate anxiety, and steps you can take to protect the environment. 

What Is Climate Guilt? 

Adverse changes to our earth bring up a myriad of emotions, including anxiety, guilt, paralysis, and anger. Additionally, climate change affects different people in different ways.

For example, Indigenous folks who rely upon their earth-based practices may experience emotions that are quite different than a city dweller who seldom interacts with the natural world. Climate guilt is just one of the many emotions that can be experienced in response to earth changes. 

Climate guilt (also referred to as eco-guilt or green guilt) is marked by the shame that results when one realizes how their specific behavior has not met their personal or societal expectations to help protect and preserve the environment.

It isn’t uncommon to feel climate guilt and to witness others experiencing it. You may notice it on your social media feeds or see it come up in conversations with friends. Regardless of how you experience climate guilt, it is immensely challenging.

One person didn’t create climate change. One person shouldn’t shoulder all the responsibility of helping the earth heal. 

How Do I Know If I Have Climate Guilt? 

Now that we’re clear on what climate guilt is, it can be helpful to determine if it is an issue that applies to you. Take a moment to consider how guilt feels in your body.

Do you feel your stomach drop? Does your face begin to feel hot? Do your shoulders tense up? Now, consider some of the things that bring you guilt.

Perhaps it is when you unintentionally harmed another person. Maybe it is when you realize you took action before thinking through the ramifications. 

Holding in mind what guilt feels like for you, explore the below examples to consider if you’re currently experiencing climate guilt:

  • You buy large plastic water bottles out of convenience, but find yourself engaging in negative self-talk when considering the impact plastic has on the environment.
  • You keep up on news about climate change and often find yourself feeling like you’re a big part of the problem, resulting in feelings of guilt and shame.
  • You have heard electric cars are better for the environment, but are embarrassed that driving one isn’t a current option for you.
  • You feel like a fraud because you’re aware of climate change but also buy fast fashion.
  • You’re ashamed that you haven’t shifted to a more sustainable lifestyle despite having awareness of the perils of climate change.

Is Climate Guilt the Same Thing as Climate Anxiety?

Climate guilt and climate anxiety do have some similarities, but they are two different terms.

The American Psychological Association (APA) describes eco-anxiety 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."

Climate Guilt vs. Climate Anxiety

The similarities these two terms have is that they are both uncomfortable feelings related to a large phenomenon. The difference is that climate guilt is marked by the feelings that arise when we feel we have failed the environment and climate anxiety (also referred to as eco-anxiety) is a stress and worry that occurs when considering the crisis of climate change.

While guilt is not a pleasant emotion, it actually can be a powerful motivator. A recent study states that guilt can lead to significant changes in behavior, resulting in environmentally-friendly behavior. If how you are acting and what you are doing is not congruent with how you want to be and show up in the world, guilt informs you of this dissonance and gives you an opportunity to live in greater alignment with yourself.

In fact, collective guilt has been proven to be linked to actions that support the slowing of climate change. This is in stark contrast to climate anxiety, which doesn’t necessarily translate into positive action.

What to Do If You Feel Guilty About Climate Change

Guilt is a challenging feeling to hold for a sustained period of time, so it is quite important to seek help. Though a psychotherapist cannot fix the issue of climate change, they can help you develop tools to manage the guilt you’re feeling.

It is possible that guilt is a familiar feeling for you or that your climate guilt is exasperated by other large life issues that feel out of your control. Regardless of what comes up, therapy is a safe place where you can let your big feelings be held and contained.

Actions You Can Take

Protecting the climate is a collective effort, not an issue that just one person can take on. If we all commit to more sustainable practices, we can begin to shift the course of climate change together.

The most important thing to have in mind is to keep learning and unlearning, to do your best with the awareness and abilities that you have, and to practice both self-accountability and self-compassion. If something feels unmanageable for your lifestyle, that is OK. Do your best when you can.

Below are some things you can do to help protect our earth:

  • Single-use plastics are polluting our coastlines, thus leading to plastic pollution in our oceans. A way you can help is to reduce your plastic use. Maybe you switch to glass bottles instead of single-use plastic bottles. Perhaps you bring your own bags to the grocery store. Reducing or eliminating your use of single-use plastics is a way to protect one of our earth’s most precious resources.
  • Water conservation isn’t just about conserving an important resource—it also helps conserve energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Take shorter showers, don’t leave the water running longer than you need, and wait to wash your laundry until you have a full load of soiled clothes.
  • Avoid fast fashion and buy secondhand clothing as often as possible. The fashion industry produces 92 million tons of waste and consumes 79 trillion liters of water every year.Rewearing your clothes, only buying something when you absolutely need to, and opting for sustainably-made textiles are all ways to help protect the environment.
  • Check out resources like Action for the Climate Emergency (ACE), Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange (CAKE), and Georgetown Climate Center (GMC) to learn more about eco-friendly living and sustainable lifestyle practices to help protect and preserve the environment. To find more organizations that educate on climate change, you can also check out the websites of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the United Nations Environment Programme.

A Word From Verywell

You’re not alone if you’re feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, and angry about climate change. However, remember collective effort is powerful. When in doubt, look for those who are focusing on solutions and join them. Finding like-minded communities that are equally committed to creating change is incredibly important.

Seeking out professional help can be especially crucial if it feels like you can no longer carry these intense feelings alone. Limit your news consumption if needed and keep your eye on actionable solutions you can be a part of.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Julia Childs Heyl
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.