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What is climate anxiety?

Climate anxiety is what you feel noticing the drip of anomalous ecosystem data and extreme weather events emerging on the timeline in front of you like slowly uncovered clues in a criminal investigation for a crime that’s ongoing and the totality of which is yet uncertain. That uncertainty fuels the anxiety. Not knowing to what extent you’ll be a victim or a perpetrator of the crime. Not knowing who to save or how. Not knowing where to hide or what you can control.

Is climate anxiety irrational?

No. And you ain’t gonna old-school-CBT your way out of this one. All of the data will land firmly on the side of: Climate change is very real and very much a problem.

This weekend, after days of all-time record-breaking July heat, towns near Milan, Italy, were pummeled by hail storms. There was so much ice falling from the sky that people in the town of Seregno were sharing videos online of ice rivers flowing through the town’s streets

We’re at a point where you have sweltering 30C/90F+ temperatures during the day and ice rivers flowing through the streets at night.

When the unreasonable and unexpected become the norm, we can have compassion for why ourselves or others might struggle with uncertainty about the future. With that in mind, here’s…

Climate Change Emotions Tip #1:

Don’t get caught up in compulsions chasing reassurance about the future.

Of course you want to get that reassurance, but it’s not possible to find. You’ll burn out. While you’re so focused on the future, you’ll miss out on opportunities to live right now. We have an amazing planet we can enjoy and care for, in the present. Caring for the planet here and now might be one of the most effective ways to save it for the future. 

Average June temperatures since 1850, with June 2023 being the hottest June on record. We now know this July will be the hottest ever on record. It’s not irrational to assume that graph will continue its current trajectory. If you’re planning to retire 20 years from now, it’ll likely be a very different climate from the one you grew up in.

What's the difference between climate anxiety and eco-grief?

Generally, anxiety will refer to future uncertainty, whereas grief is about something that’s lost. Here’s a deeper dive into eco-grief.

However, it’s not as clear-cut as one being about the future and the other about things already lost because you may experience a sense of mourning not only for what’s gone, but also what we’re losing and will lose. So…

Climate Change Emotions Tip #2:

Make space for emotions you don’t know how to categorize or experience.

If you’ve struggled with emotions in the past, you may feel some pressure to revert back to old controlling and avoidance habits around your feelings. It’s ok to not have a label for what you’re feeling. It’s ok to not know what to do with the mix of grief and anxiety and motivation to take action and urge to run away.

This graph from Berkeley Earth and the National Snow and Ice Data Center shows the Antarctic sea ice coverage since 1979, up through June, 2023. Remember: this is Antarctica–at the South Pole. It’s winter in July. 2023’s coverage is so strangely low, there’s a noticeable gap between 2023 and 2022, which was the previous record lowest year. This year’s anomaly is five standard deviations beyond the mean.

That gap signals a loss of animal life and biodiversity, at both poles. The loss of sea ice has complex impacts on polar ecosystems. We can grieve what we’re losing and also be uncertain about where that trend will take us. 

Read more: “Knock on effects for wildlife as the arctic loses ice

Is climate anxiety a reason to be a hopeless doomer?

I won’t aspartame-coat this for you: CO2 in the atmosphere hit 417.06 parts per million in 2022. The last time there was that much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was around 3 million years ago. There were trees and camels in the Arctic. The oceans were 16 meters higher.

We’ve rapidly purged carbon it into the atmosphere like a global volcanic event. Each road, highway and industrial park as a lava fissure releasing toxic gas from inside the planet.

We’ve lived so large, so fast, on eons of trapped sunlight, that Mother Nature hasn’t barely had a chance to get angry about the mess we created with our party. But she’s starting to notice. So…

Climate Change Emotions Tip #3:

Don’t whine like you’re a kid that just read some Camus and realized you’re mortal. Live well.

Doomerism is childish. Every human, at some point, wrestles with mortality and how they want to spend their time and energy on Earth. In the decades ahead, many people, eco-systems, and animals will experience difficult changes. We’ll lose a lot. We may also grow and arrive at a more sustainable way of living in collaboration with our planet. That’s not something we need to wait for. Each of us can explore now how we want to live in flow with our environment instead of in opposition to it. We can all make that switch from getting to giving, in whatever way that makes sense for us, now. 

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