Coping with climate change distress


In my lifetime the public narrative around climate change has changed.

The first I remember of it was concern about the ozone layer because of the use of chlorofluorocarbon gases in aerosols and refrigerators.

Phasing out of those gases over time has seen recovery of the ozone layer.

In my 20’s and 30’s climate change concerns shifted to rising CO2 levels contributing to global warming, but the public’s anxiety levels about it were relatively low. There was still the sense that as an individual you could contribute meaningfully to healing the planet through individuals choices and decisions: power usage, recycling, water management etc.

Over the last few years I’ve noticed a greater degree of hopelessness and helplessness in the public narrative around climate change.

Consistent with that, I am seeing more and more people writing about how to manage ‘climate change distress’. This example from the Australian Psychological Society captures this narrative well.

Climate change distress is like good ol’ everyday distress, except that the underlying cause is climate change related.

Health professionals, including those here at HCD are seeing more students for whom climate change distress is a significant part of their overall stress load, alongside study concerns, relationship problems and/or health problems.

Climate change distress can be the result of a number of things:

  • the direct experience of traumatic events linked to climate change (e.g. bushfires)
  • a sense of pessimism that we (as a species) cannot solve the problem of climate change and are destined to experience the full force of the negative predicted consequences
  • a sense of frustration that significant action to change CO2 levels requires the action of governments but they arent necessarily moving fast enough or in the right direction
  • anger arising from observing ongoing debates about the legitimacy of the climate science
  • living in areas that are vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change
  • feeling personally helpless to do anything to progress efforts to fight climate change
  • concerns about the future and the wellbeing of ourselves and the people we love
  • internal conflicts between our personal desires and dreams and the potential climate impact of those desires (e.g. plane travel)

If you’re experiencing climate change distress, there are a few things to keep in mind:


Distress can lead to poor choices so it is relevant to address the distress if it is there

When we are distressed we don’t always make the best decisions. But in the case of climate change, the personal decisions we make are important, so it is in our best interests (and that of the world as a whole) that we try to get some degree of control over the distress, or at least work out how to actively harness it.

High levels of distress tend to push us in one of two extreme directions:

Avoidance – we try our best not to think about about, live in denial and abdicate any kind of responsibility. We don’t take any action.

Attack – we go overboard in our attempts to address the issue, burning ourselves out and maybe alienating others in the process.

Addressing climate change will require collaboration, a sense of a common goal and rational consideration and implementation of solutions. None of us can abdicate our responsibility but we can’t turn on each other either. We’ll have to find ways to turn our anxiety into collaborative specific action.


Looking after yourself is critical if you want to be an ongoing force for good in the fight against climate change

When I talk with students about managing the challenges of doing a university degree, I commonly come back to the idea of ‘looking after oneself’ and what that actually involves.

The phrase ‘look after yourself’ is so heavily used now that it has almost lost it’s meaning and we quickly dismiss it when someone suggests we need to consider it.

However this well-worn recommendation does have a fundamentally important insight at it’s core, namely that to sustainably help others, you need to sustainably help yourself.

Very few people can sustain a long-term commitment to helping others, whilst neglecting their own needs. Most of us burnout. Energy wanes, fatigue sets in, resentments and frustrations overtake us. Our capacity to love and care for others is a function of our capacity to love and care for ourselves.

Action against climate change is a long-game – decades. If you want to make a sustained impact in the space, you’ll need to be mindful of keeping your own emotional and physical energy levels topped up.

How is this done?

  • take regular breaks
  • don’t deny yourself fun activities
  • have healthy routines (eat, sleep, activity, socialise)
  • focus on a small core set of climate change activities (don’t spread yourself too thin)
  • take action with friends or colleagues or community members, so you feel part of a group
  • resist temptations to become highly self-critical at your efforts
  • acknowledge and accept that difficult emotions will be part of the journey of trying to make change on such a big issue

Engage in self-care


There are good news stories as well

The modern news cycle is weighted towards the negative. It attracts more attention and news outlets monetize attention so therefore they bias their coverage towards the negative.

This bias applies to climate change news as much as any other topic.

I’m not suggesting the situation is less dire than we think, but rather that positive progress towards addressing the problem might not be getting the same level of coverage. Consider adding news sources to your information diet that focus instead on progress we’re making towards addressing climate change – such as

The goal is to be educated on both the nature of the problem, but also the potential solutions that are being developed.


There are organisations who are doing great work who could use your help

When I felt totally out of my league in trying to determine what a useful contribution to the climate change situation might be, I reminded myself that there were plenty of organisations doing great work in the space, and perhaps all I needed to do as a first step was find a way to support one or more of those organisations.

Maybe start here:

Very quickly you’ll realise that there are many people who have already mobilised resources to make a change and that you can get involved with those organisations and find some guidance.


Individual level actions are still significant

Yes it is true that if you reduced your electricity consumption by 20% it would not make much (if any) difference to global CO2 emissions.

But if you made a series of climate-change inspired improvements in your own life, and then other people found out about the changes you were making (which is perfectly feasible in the age of hyperconnectivity), you may ultimately influence their behaviour as well.

You can be an individual role model, in the way I think Australia (despite its relatively small contribution to global emissions – 1.07%) should try to be a global role model on action for climate change.


Speak directly to relevant people

I’ve spent many years yelling pointlessly at politicians on TV, frustrated with their decisions and actions.

Have I ever actually written to one of them and expressed my views and asked them to consider changing theirs? No.

Don’t be me. Write a letter to your local member for state or federal parliament or local council. Tell them about yourself, your concerns about climate change, your desire for Australia to do more.

I can’t guarantee they’ll respond or if they do, that they’ll respond favourably, but at least you will have translated your energy and desire to do something into tangible action, not just pointless rage (my approach).


Further reading

Want to read more on the topic of climate change distress?

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