Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Climate change anxiety

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Climate change anxiety:
What is climate change anxiety and what can be done about it?

Overview[edit | edit source]

There is a growing general consciousness around the impact of climate change,[grammar?] this has been punctuated by the global climate strikes that occurred in 2019 lead by Greta Thunberg ("'It's our future': Climate strike draws 'hundreds of thousands' to rallies across Australia demanding action", 2019). The protests highlight the impact that climate change is having on individuals all over the world.

Climate change is a major topic in everyday life, from the melting icecaps to rising sea levels its effects are widespread and long lasting (Summary for Policymakers — Global Warming of 1.5 ºC., 2019). These rapidly changing climate conditions make it hard to be certain about the future. Uncertainty in the future can have serious effects on the mental and physical well-being of an individual such as anxiety. Anxiety is a negative feeling characterised by raised blood pressure, muscular tension, restlessness and poor concentration. Anxiety results from the expectation of danger or adversity such as an impending assignment dude[spelling?] date or walking home in the middle of the night ("Anxiety", 2019; Reeve, 2018). Anxiety can also be associated with existential danger such as death, meaninglessness and Guilt (Weems, C., Costa, N., Dehon, C., & Berman, S., 2004). Climate change anxiety is an anxiety that is rooted in the fears and impacts of climate change.

Climate change can impact individuals[grammar?] lives through its physical and direct impacts or through invisible indirect impacts. The direct impacts of climate change include the rising sea levels, increased global temperature and more devastating storms and weather. This can impact individuals[grammar?] livelihoods through the destruction of farm land and infrastructure. This in turn can influence the individuals[grammar?] mental state by increasing stress and uncertainty.

Indirect impacts of climate change include the subconscious impacts of the social media and news. In what is usually referred to as "doom and gloom" reporting, media that is frightening or threatening will be viewed more and make more money. Unfortunately constantly broadcasting how impossible and scary the future will be has terrible impacts on mental well-being.

The purpose of this chapter is to outline what climate change anxiety is using psychological theory and discuss ways individuals can reduce feelings of anxiety.

Focus questions:

  • What is Climate Change?
  • What causes anxiety?
  • What is existential anxiety?
  • What is climate change anxiety?
  • How can feelings of anxiety about climate change be reduced?

What is climate change?[edit | edit source]

According to the Australian Academy of Science Climate change is a change in the pattern of weather and related changes in oceans, land surfaces and ice sheets, occurring over timescales of decades or longer. Specifically climate change refers to the drastic increase in global temperatures and its flow on effects (1. What is climate change? | Australian Academy of Science., 2019). Climate change can be a natural phenomenon however the rapid change in the global climate since the mid 20th century has been attributed to human actions otherwise known as anthropogenic climate change. Although the topic may have an air of uncertainty within the media and general populace there is  a 97% consensus within the scientific community, with the agreement being that climate change is manmade (Cook, J., Oreskes, N., Doran, P., Anderegg, W., Verheggen, B., & Maibach, E. et al., 2016). A major part of this change is global warming which is characterised by increased average temperatures worldwide this results in the melting of the ice caps, rising sea levels and the increased occurrence and severity of storms and natural disasters (Summary for Policymakers — Global Warming of 1.5 ºC., 2019). The warming of the globe has a wide range of impacts and consequences, many that are yet to be investigated.

Causes of climate change[edit | edit source]

Climate change is caused by an increase in quantity of water vapor, Nitrous oxide, methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These gases, known as greenhouse gases, stop the reflected heat from the sun from escaping into the vacuum of space. Without some quantity of these gases in the atmosphere the earth would be too cold to sustain life. however ever since the industrial revolution carbon dioxide levels have increased by more than a third due to the production of human needs such as food, shelter and warmth. Humans produce these gases through the; burning of fossil fuels, industrialised farming of animals such as cows and through the use and manufacture of fertilisers (The Carbon Majors Database CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017., 2017; Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policy makers., 2014).

Impacts of climate change[edit | edit source]

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) outline several impacts of anthropogenic climate change, some of which already impact people's lives, such as rising (Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policy makers., 2014): rising sea levels and temperatures, destruction of ecosystems, increased occurrence and severity of weather and natural disasters, disease and food security. These impacts of climate change will persist for many centuries even if greenhouse emissions cease (The Carbon Majors Database CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017., 2017). Evidence suggests that tipping points exist where if passed will cause irreversible changes to major ecological and climate systems, many of these points have already been passed (Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policy makers., 2014; Cook, J., et al., 2016).

Figure 1. Coal power plants are a major source of green house gases, the main cause of climate change.

Theory of anxiety[edit | edit source]

A state of Anxiety can be characterised through feelings of tension, increased blood pressure and worried thoughts("Anxiety", 2019). Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, with one in four people, on average, experiencing anxiety at some stage in their life (ABS National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007, 2008). Individuals that have frequent, intense or constant anxiety may have an anxiety disorder (Burton, L., Westen, D., & Kowalski, R., 2015).

Anxiety and fear are two sides of the same coin. Fear and anxiety are both averse emotions that originate from a threat to our well-being, the only difference is that fear is a typically short term arousal that has a definite threat, where as anxiety has no identifiable threat. Anxiety more of a state of arousal against potential threats rather than immediate threats (Reeve, 2018).

Existential anxiety[edit | edit source]

Terror management theory suggests that ‘‘all anxiety is ultimately derived from the fear of absolute annihilation that might result from death’’ (Solomon et al., 1991, p. 101). Existential anxiety is defined as the existential awareness of non-being, the fear and knowledge of death. Humans have an innate drive for self-preservation and the awareness that we posses of our own mortality we have created a number of psychological mechanisms to protect ourselves, such as finding value in our lives and in the world. When these mechanisms fail or value is lost, it is far easier and more likely for feelings of anxiety to arise (Jessop, D. C.; Albery, I. P.; Rutter, J.; Garrod, H., 2008).

Tillich's model of existential anxiety has a series of three domains. the domains include, fate and death, emptiness and meaningfulness and guild and condemnation (Tillich, P. 1952 ; Weems, Costa, Dehon & Berman, 2004). Each of these domains has both an absolute and relative aspect either of which can characterise the individuals source of apprehension/anxiety(Weems, et al, 2004). Though the relative and absolute are distinct both are inherently connected. for example anxiety about fate is inherently related to ones[grammar?] death though the individial[spelling?] might not think of it in those terms.The domains have a central theme of the nihilistic nature of our time on earth, revolving around the meaninglessness of action and the hopelessness of inevitable death(Weems, et al, 2004).

Fate and death[edit | edit source]

Death anxiety is the absolute concern for the death of the individual and stems from the knowledge that human life must end (Castano et al., 2011).

Anxiety about fate is based on the awareness that ones[grammar?] life is based on chance in every respect and that it is ultimately not necessary (Tillich, P. 1952). There is a wide body of research on death anxiety with a number of measures and instruments being developed to measure its levels. This research provides a strong empirical backing for the basis of death anxiety as a real phenomenon. less research however, has been done on the effects of fate anxiety and as such its empirical backing is less strong (Castano et al., 2011).

Emptiness and meaningfulness[edit | edit source]

The anxiety of emptiness is related to the the fear that specific beliefs no longer hold meaning or that they have lost the meaning given to them by the individual (Weems, et al, 2004).

The anxiety of meaningfulness is the concern about the loss of the significance of life, the future, the world and everything (Weems,et al, 2004).

Emptiness and meaningfulness have been the focus for a wide variety of research into existential anxiety as well as other mental health issues such as depression. An increase in a perceived meaning in life has been shown to predict improvement in psychotherapy patients and mediates issues around substance abuse in adults.

Guilt and condemnation[edit | edit source]

Anxiety about guilt is related to your behaviours not living up to the standard that you have set.

condemnation is the concern that your life has not met certain universal standards.

The anxiety about guilt and condemnation results from threats to our moral and ethical self-affirmations (Tillich, P. 1952).

There has been less empirical research on this aspect of Existential anxiety when compared to the others however the association between guilt and psychological symptoms has been investigated.

Climate change anxiety[edit | edit source]

Climate change anxiety is the anxiety that is caused by experiencing, witnessing, or thinking about the impacts of anthropogenic climate change (Pihkala, P. 2018). Climate change anxiety is a type of existential anxiety due to its roots in the three domains of existential anxiety. Although there is no official clinical definition of climate change anxiety there is a growing body of research around the feelings of anxiety caused by the changing climate. climate change anxiety has also been called, Eco- anxiety, climate change grief (Hayes, K., Blashki, G., Wiseman, J., Burke, S., & Reifels, L., 2018; Pihkala, P. 2018; Luber, G., & Lemery, J. 2015; Obradovich, N., Migliorini, R., Paulus, M., & Rahwan, I., 2018).

Climate change anxiety is[grammar?] inherently includes the ultimate concern over the death of the individual but also the meaninglessness of pursuing goals in light of the looming threat of an irrevocably changed world (Pihkala, P., 2018). Guilt also plays a major role in the anxiety one feels regarding climate change, have they contributed to climate change, what have they done to stop it, etc. An individual might set themselves goals such as 'eating less meat' or 'recycling more' and the perceived failure to meet those self imposed standard would lead to anxiety about condemnation and increase feelings of anxiety( Clayton, al. 2017).

What can be done about climate change anxiety?[edit | edit source]

There are a variety of coping strategies that have been proposed by the American Psychological Society. These strategies can be broken down into behavioral, cognitive, emotional and relational Strategies.

Behavioural strategies[edit | edit source]

behavioral strategies suggested for climate change anxiety include taking action, taking a break, focusing on few issues at once and maintaining healthy routines (Clayton, al. 2017).

Taking action[edit | edit source]

An individual can reduce feelings of anxiety by taking action against climate change. This would reduce the impact of the condemnation and guilt anxiety domain and provide a feeling of control and foster a feeling of agency over their own life and destiny. By actively contributing to reducing climate change they are also reducing the effect of the anxiety of emptiness and meaningfulness as they are providing meaning in the individuals life through the reinforcement of personal morals.

Taking a break[edit | edit source]

taking time for ones[grammar?] self is an important aspect of mental and physical well-being. Especial when dealing with with such a large issue it is important to understand that no one can do it alone.

Reduced focus[edit | edit source]

focusing on the small things allows us to avoid becoming overwhelmed. with an all encompassing topic such as climate change it is easy to read about many different aspects that are all failing and to want to help solve all the problems however, this can quickly become overwhelming.

Healthy routines[edit | edit source]

Including healthy exercises in your routines can help to relive stress and promote the release of neurotransmitters such as endorphin. healthy routines can include, riding a bike, running, yoga and even something as simple as getting outside in nature and spending time with your children. these routines can even be implemented in an climate action oriented way such as riding a bike to work. Physical commuting has also been shown to directly impact anxiety as well as other mental illness (Clayton, s. et al. 2017).

Cognitive strategies[edit | edit source]

Cognitive strategies aim to replace the negative thought patterns that come with climate change anxiety with positive, helpful and productive thoughts. This can involve replacing helpless/hopeless thinking patterns with thoughts such as("Coping with climate change distress | APS", 2019):

  • History shows that people can change
  • Climate change is happening faster than expected and most of the scientists believe that there’s still a window of opportunity to limit greenhouse gas emissions

Cognitive strategies also include removing the guilt and condemnation associated with climate change anxiety. Removing the judgments that an individual holds for themselves opens them up to more productive thought patterns("Coping with climate change distress | APS", 2019).

Emotional strategies[edit | edit source]

Emotional strategies aim to regulate an individuals emotions in order to reduce feelings of anxiety and boost their mood when they are feeling depressed. Strategies suggested by the American Psychological Society Include:

  • Allowing yourself to cry from time to time if it helps.
  • Recognizing the cyclic ups and downs inherent to life.
  • acknowledge how you are feeling be labeling the emotion.
  • Validate your feelings, coping with issues of the magnitude of climate change is not possible at an individual level (Weintrobe, S. (2013).
Relational strategies[edit | edit source]

Social relationships can have a powerful positive effect on an individuals well-being and can assist with removing stress (Reeve, j. 2018). Social support also assists with coping through reducing the effects of psychological distress no matter what the cause, enhancing psychological well-being(Taylor, 2011). Examples of ways to utilise relation strategies to remove feelings of climate anxiety include ("Coping with climate change distress | APS", 2019):

  • sharing concerns and feelings about climate change with trusted friends/ colleagues.
  • spending time with your community, friends and family.
  • Belonging to a group of people who share the same values as you and can work on projects with you or support your efforts.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Climate change isn't going away and the existential anxiety that individuals hold about the future will only increase as global temperatures rise. There is however, a number of ways that individuals can mitigate the impact of climate change on their mental health, this includes finding ways to reduce personal impact on climate change through recycling or riding a bike to work. Removing personal guilt away from not doing more than what you are already doing as this is a source of anxiety and taking time for yourself and disconnecting from climate change news.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 What causes climate change?

Increase in greenhouse gases.
Rubbish in the oceans.
Riding a bike to work.
Bleaching of the coral reef.

2 What is not one of the domains of existential anxiety?

Death and fate
Guilt and condemnation.
Emptiness and meaningfulness.
Pain and resentment.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

ABS National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007 (2008), p 27

Anxiety. (2019). Retrieved 2 October 2019, from

Burton, L., Westen, D., & Kowalski, R. (2015). Psychology (4th ed., pp. 628-632). Milton, Australia: John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.

Castano, E., Leidner, B., Bonacossa, A., Nikkah, J., Perrulli, R., Spencer, B., & Humphrey, N. (2011). Ideology, Fear of Death, and Death Anxiety. Political Psychology, 32, 601-621. https://doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2011.00822.x

Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica

Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policy makers. (2014). Retrieved 30 September 2019, from

Cook, J., Oreskes, N., Doran, P., Anderegg, W., Verheggen, B., & Maibach, E. et al. (2016). Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters, 11(4), 048002. doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/048002

Hayes, K., Blashki, G., Wiseman, J., Burke, S., & Reifels, L. (2018). Climate change and mental health: risks, impacts and priority actions. International Journal Of Mental Health Systems, 12. https://doi:10.1186/s13033-018-0210-6

'It's our future': Climate strike draws 'hundreds of thousands' to rallies across Australia demanding action. (2019). Retrieved 19 October 2019, from

Jessop, D. C.; Albery, I. P.; Rutter, J.; Garrod, H. (2008). "Understanding the impact of mortality-related health-risk information: A terror management theory perspective". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 34 (7): 951–964. doi:10.1177/0146167208316790.

Luber, G., & Lemery, J. (2015) Global Climate Change and Human Health.

Obradovich, N., Migliorini, R., Paulus, M., & Rahwan, I. (2018). Empirical evidence of mental health risks posed by climate change. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 115, 10953-10958. https://doi:10.1073/pnas.1801528115

Pihkala, P. (2018). ECO-ANXIETY, TRAGEDY, AND HOPE: PSYCHOLOGICAL AND SPIRITUAL DIMENSIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE. Zygon®, 53(2), 545-569. doi: 10.1111/zygo.12407

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding motivation and emotion (7th ed., p. 341). Hoboken: John wiley & sons.

Solomon, S., Greenberg, J. and Pyszczynski, T. (1991). A terror management theory of social-behavior / The psychological functions of self-esteem and cultural worldviews. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 93/159.

Summary for Policymakers — Global Warming of 1.5 ºC. (2019). Retrieved 30 September 2019, from

The Carbon Majors Database CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017. (2017). Retrieved 1 October 2019, from

Tillich, P. (1952). The courage to be . Yale University Press, New Haven

Types of anxiety. (2019). Retrieved 2 October 2019, from

Weems, C., Costa, N., Dehon, C., & Berman, S. (2004). Paul Tillich's theory of existential anxiety: A preliminary conceptual and empirical examination. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 17, 383-399. https://doi:10.1080/10615800412331318616

Weintrobe, S. (2013). Engaging with Climate Change : Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives (pp. 33-132). London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

External links[edit | edit source]